Lessons I Learned As A School Counselor

Lessons I Learned As A School Counselor

There is not a day that passes that I don’t think of one of my old students. Sometimes I see a teen that bears a resemblance and that triggers a memory. Or, I look at social media and one of them has posted a picture that elicits a smile or a cringe.  On rare occasions, I receive a sweet note of gratitude. More often, however, it’s in the quiet moments that I find myself remembering. Remembering the connection. And missing it. 

I remember the time my 11th grade academic support class awaited my arrival in a circle on the classroom floor with all the desks pushed to the edges. This was my male dominated class with 14 males and 4 females and they were sitting in a circle waiting for me.

I remember the 10th grade circle that made me weep as I witnessed the most authentic displays of compassion between students as they shared their struggles with their families and mental health.

I remember the tangents the students would take during discussions just to see how far off topic I would go. Miles and miles it turned out.

I had teachers and fellow counselors tell me that my “circles” would never work.  

Teens, especially males, won’t want to share in front of their peers.

School is for learning and academics, not warm and fuzzies.

“Those” kids are difficult and don’t care about school.

I ignored the warnings. I dismissed the criticisms. Instead, I held each student to the highest standard and expectation. Regardless of the failed classes, drug and alcohol use, poor behavior, lacking social skills, risky decisions, or poor self-control, I expected their best version, as best as they could muster on that day. Days varied. Mistakes happened. Successes achieved. All were celebrated.

There’s a lot of research and focus around resiliency and the strongest predictors of success: grit, growth mindset, adverse childhood experiences, past success, self control, ability to delay gratification, self esteem, and conscientiousness to name a few. I believe there’s value and truth in every one of these traits and/or factors. 

In my twenty years of working with youth, I have come to believe that there is not just ONE answer or ONE method. There isn’t a neat box that each youth fits into or one specific protocol to follow. The buzz word in the educational realm is best practices. Research based best practices. In the world of psychology, “best practices” is more nebulous and highly subjective, in my humble opinion.

 My “best practices” was different for every student. I met each student where he or she was. I didn’t expect an Algebra 1 student to miraculously take Calculus the following year. Nor did I believe that the chronically absent student would attend every day. But I expected growth. Because I believe that we are all capable of growth when given the space, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and resources needed. Growth happens at frustratingly varied rates, but it happens.

Just a few years ago, I received the most lovely and thoughtful gift in the mail from a former student. It was a Yoda patch with the saying, “There is no try. There is only do or do not.” I said that line to my students a thousand times a year, if not more. (Often I attempted Yoda’s voice, which sadly sounded more like Kermit the frog.)

I couldn’t “try” to believe in my students. I had to DO it. Most of my students had lost hope in themselves. They failed to see their light, their brilliance. With so many setbacks and disappointments, it was easier and safer for them to expect failure.  

I understood and I listened to the litany of reasons as to why failure was imminent and fated. I kindly agreed to disagree. Embedded within the job description of school counselor (and therapist), comes the unique and difficult task of maintaining hope and finding alternatives in dire situations. School counseling is not for the faint at heart. Working with youth never is. It was brutal some days – and I’m not just talking about the mistakes made by the students; I topped the charts with some cringe-worthy whoppers. Counselors are human too, after all. I don’t have a road map with the location of a unicorn carrying the happy, perfectly adjusted teen.

I do have one piece of advice, however. It has to do with Carl Roger’s concept of unconditional positive regard. According to Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard creates an environment that allows for healthy development. Unconditional positive regard, “…means caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist’s own needs,” explained in Rogers in a 1957 article published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology. “It means caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have his own feelings, his own experiences.”

Simply stated, practicing unconditional positive regard means accepting and respecting others as they are without judgment or evaluation. You accept them, no matter what they say or do. You see them as a person, not a set of behaviors and operate under the assumption that they are doing the best that they can.

 I’ve compiled a few tips to help integrate more unconditional positive regard in your interactions with others:

 Expect people to have internal resources. 

How often do you assume that others don’t have the skills or knowledge to figure things out by themselves? How often do you give advice under the guise of being ‘helpful’? Did the person ask for advice? When we immediately move into “fix it ” mode, we risk sending the unintended message of “you aren’t qualified to handle this on you’re your own.” Teens especially get irritated and hurt by their parents’ good intentions.

Suspend judgment or bias. Begin to notice the lens through which you view others.  Notice if you’re picking out only the negative behaviors or choices of others and try the opposite. See others in a positive light regardless of whether or not you approve of their actions.

Listen without a soundtrack. Many times we think about our own similar experiences while someone else is talking. If we’re rehearsing what we’re going to say, is that listening? It might be interesting to clear your thoughts and focus on hearing what the other person is saying. This can deepen connections between people. To be truly heard feels great.

Allow others (and yourself) to be different. Notice how often you use the phrases ‘that’s wrong’ or ‘you’re wrong’ or ‘I’m wrong’. What if it’s just different? What would happen if you stopped seeing yourself and others in terms of right and wrong? This is about practicing self-compassion. Accepting and not judging your own mistakes helps remove judgment about others’ mistakes. 

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear from you. Questions? Comments? Concerns?

Nothing Compares? Meh.

Nothing Compares? Meh.

Parenting is relentless. An undo button – so helpful when playing a game of solitaire on a phone- is not available. Therefore, parenting blogs and instagram accounts are often a welcome respite from the day-to-day drudgery of motherhood. Some offer practical tips for natural wellness , healthy food choices and recipes. Others connect with moms on an emotional level providing much needed compassion, humor and empathy. If you find the right community, it can feel like a sisterhood or a tribe.

17 years ago, I needed that sisterhood but it was a couple of years too early.  So, I joined a mommy’s group. I filled the last spot of a group of eight. I can’t remember how I found the group. Maybe a friend of a friend told me? My ObGyn? I don’t remember much from those early days, in all honesty. Brain fog. I do remember being hopeful, however. Sure, I had friends to talk to, but none of them had children back then. I assumed that being with other moms would feel different and maybe lighten they burden from all my conflicting feelings.

How do I juggle work and home?

What about the changing relationship with my partner?

Is okay if I don’t love all aspects of being a mom?

Does anyone else feel bored being with her baby and then guilty?

Anyone else want her boobs back?

And what about the drudgery of the repetitive day?

I figured we’d connect as women and complain about motherhood together while our babies played. It would be the perfect combination.  These women would feel the same way I did.

Alas, I was WRONG. All of the women in the mommy group were lovely. They were intelligent, caring, and friendly. There was nothing wrong with any of them, and that was the problem. I felt like I was holding on by a thin thread, and they appeared perfectly blissful.

Motherhood is such a blessing.

Isn’t this the most incredible experience?

Breastfeeding is a miracle.

Don’t you just get lost watching them sleep?

Nothing they said resonated with me. In fact, it made me feel more alone.

They’d talk about the color, size, smell, and consistency of their babies’ poop. It wasn’t a three-minute conversation either. It was an in depth exploration of shit. 45 minutes of SHIT. I wasn’t interested. I could care less that my son’s shit was a little runnier than normal so I really didn’t want to listen about someone else’s shit. Once, two moms opened the diapers to compare colors. 

And the breastfeeding. Oh boy. Now, I’m not prude. I don’t mind seeing naked bodies or talking about the body. But, sitting in a circle with 6 out of 8 women breastfeeding and dripping milk wasn’t on my list of favorite things. So after about 5 or 6 meetings with this group, I politely excused myself. I made up a bullshit excuse so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings; something along the lines of – it’s not you, it’s me.

But, I should have said the truth. I should have told these women, “I don’t love the baby stage, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love my baby son something fierce. I’m leaving this group because I need more than SHIT talk. I’m looking for friendship and to get to know you all as women in addition to being mothers.”

In hindsight, had I been honest, the group probably would’ve rallied around me and we could have gotten to a different level. Maybe they could’ve helped me through that not so delightful stage and then I could’ve returned the favor. But, I was afraid to share my true feelings. I was afraid to be me. I was afraid of judgment.

Not anymore.

I don’t like the baby stage. Or the toddler stage.

Bring me your adolescents (ages 10-19). The more the attitude, the more I like. Obnoxiousness is not a problem. Bring on the sassy talk. I love watching a little being twist and turn and morph into a larger being. Many people look at me incredulously when I reveal my preference for the teen and tween. That’s okay! I feel that way when they gush over a baby. We’re all different and that’s the beauty of human nature and motherhood. The only “right way” is your way. Be you.

I’d love to hear your experiences with mommy groups or being a mom! Please comment below!

Parenting: The Course No One Teaches

Parenting: The Course No One Teaches

Whenever I’m unsure professionally, I call my psychiatrist father. It’s instinctual and immediate. My father’s psychiatric expertise is based upon years of medical school and residency. He taught psychiatry to residents so of course he knows the right course of action in a psychologically charged situation. Student in crisis, ask Dad. Parent off the handle, ask Dad. Tricky diagnosis, ask Dad.  He provides great, solid advice.

Why then didn’t I run to my father for parenting advice as soon as my children where born?

‘Hang on. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Apparently that’s not a good idea.’

My mother and father did a good job with me. They weren’t perfect; notebooks of EMO poetry from my teen years clearly highlight my discontent. Despite their errors, I turned out relatively self aware and stable (in my humble opinion). My parents were present, loving, and involved. I felt loved and loved them in return.

So, I’ve spent quite a bit of time contemplating why I never solicited my parents for advice or suggestions about parenting. In fact, the moment my mother or father offered a suggestion or idea about how to do something differently, an eruption the magnitude of Niagara Falls went off inside my body (and possibly out of my mouth).

What do they know?

How dare they!

They don’t know my children better than I do.

They’re old school.

Life is different now; they don’t get it.

What I’ve finally come to understand is that my insecurities hijacked my rational thoughts. I heard every suggestion as a criticism. Their advice somehow meant that I wasn’t a good parent.  I expected myself to “know better”. 

But there’s no way to “know better” when you’ve never done it before! Just as I wouldn’t expect myself to land a triple axle in ice skating on the first attempt, so should I not assume to get parenting right on the first go (or second or third). Plus, there’s not only one correct way to approach parenting.

There isn’t a course or a degree you can earn to become an educated and verified parent. There’s no outside agency to provide a credential or stamp of approval. It’s trial and error. It’s being OPEN to making mistakes. It’s about listening to other opinions and scanning through the advice to make sure that it resonates with our own values and ethics.

Now, I welcome my parents’ insights. They provide a different perspective, which I appreciate rather than feel embarrassed or ashamed by. Sometimes I agree. Sometimes I don’t. Most importantly, I forgive myself for parenting gaffes. I expect to make mistakes as I expect my children to make mistakes. Together, we learn and figure it out. For better and for worse.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve is a badge of honor.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve is a badge of honor.

Over the years, I’ve heard people tell me that they’re “too emotional”. Usually, they say the word emotional as if it’s dirty, something to be avoided. Males especially, cringe at being labeled emotional or sensitive.

Why is being emotional synonymous with weakness?   

Feeling deeply is a good thing. The problem is that it doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes, it’s excruciatingly uncomfortable.  If experiencing emotions is painful, then how can someone who subjects himself/herself to this pain be weak?

I believe that feeling and expressing the emotions is incredibly brave. Brave and messy. (Brene Brown does an incredible job of unpacking emotional vulnerability and strength. She is a must read/watch.)

Why then, should you open yourself up to feel uncomfortable, anger, disgusted, hurt, sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, shame, etc…?

Because avoidance is a temporary solution. Feelings always come back. They settle inside of us and fester and create havoc.  Have you seen Disney’s Inside Out? It’s a wonderful example for people ALL ages on how emotions – fear, anger, joy, disgust, and sadness – work in concert to affect us. Researchers have discovered that people who experience “emodiversity,” or a multitude of both positive and negative emotions, have better mental health.

Plus, pretending that our feelings don’t exist only reinforces that voice in our head that tells us feelings are bad. Research in neuroplasticity has shown us that our brains can grow and change and learn with practice, support, and proper brain fuel.

Imagine a field of grass with blades 4-5 inches high. As you walk across the grass, it flattens. The more you walk on those same blades of grass, the more it flattens and exposes the earth and a very well worn path. This is synonymous to what happens in the brain. If the path most travelled in the brain avoids discomfort at all costs, then we reduce our ability to face or tolerate future distress because continually avoiding feelings strengthens the neural pathways that tell us, “emotions are bad.”

AND Emotional avoidance is exhausting. Think about the amount of energy we spend avoiding. I like to compare avoiding emotions with sitting on a beach ball in the deep end of the pool. For me, trying to stay afloat while sitting on a beach ball in the pool is not an easy task. I wobble. I shake. I tip over. The ball shoots up from the water explosively. Can I do it? Yes, but not without a lot of force and constant expense of energy. Unprocessed or expressed emotions can actually become stuck in a person’s body affecting a their health and well-being. The mind body connection is no longer just theory; there is research to support the claim. Avoiding emotions can cause:

  • Bodily stress
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Poor Memory
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Immune system loss

To quote from the movie Thanks For Sharing, “Feelings are like children, you don’t want them driving the car, but you don’t want to stuff them in the trunk either.” It’s time to explore, express, and examine our emotions.

What is Sandplay?

What is Sandplay?

Do you just make castles or something? That’s the usual question I get when I mention that I’m a Sandplay Therapist. It’s not a silly question. Sand. Play. Castles. They all go together. My standard response is that Sandplay is a non-verbal expressive therapeutic technique. That usually gets me a blank stare, which is wholeheartedly understandable because unless you’re in the field of therapy, non-verbal expressive therapies shouldn’t resonate. Truthfully, many therapists don’t really know what Sandplay is either.

So, I’ve been thinking about how to explain Sandplay in a more relatable way. It’s a challenge because often, I don’t have words for what I witness or experience. Instead, I feel it and most importantly, the client feels it. Therefore, rather than explain Sandplay in an intellectual manner, I’d like to share my story: how Sandplay came into my life and reappeared when I needed it.

I was 21 years old and in Philadelphia, for my paternal grandmother’s funeral. We had arrived some days before the funeral, while she was in hospice. It was difficult watching my father manage the decisions about his mother. I was old enough to understand mortality and didn’t like thinking about my own parents’ mortality or my own. My great Uncle Bill, my father’s uncle, spied me sitting in one of the hospital waiting chairs and asked me if I wanted to take a break from the hospital and come with him. I jumped at the chance to escape the heaviness I felt, even though I didn’t know my great Uncle Bill all that well since we lived on opposite sides of the country.

That hospital day, Uncle Bill brought me to his house and asked if I’d like to come into his office. With a psychiatrist as a father, I was well versed in psychobabble. If he wanted to “have a session” with his grandniece, I’d oblige because I knew how to avoid, dodge, and circumvent the real intimate questions. Never in my strangest dreams could I have imagined his office. Ceiling to floor shelves lined the walls. Figurines covered every inch of space. Name something; he had it. Animals. Mystical creatures. Nature objects. Famous buildings. People.  I stood at the entrance of his office motionless, in amazement. Uncle Bill didn’t push or pull. He just let me be and experience whatever it was that I was feeling.

Great Uncle Bill had returned to school in his late 40s to earn a PhD in psychology. He was a character, a total free spirit. As the youngest of seven brothers, Uncle Bill would pull me aside and tell me that we, the youngest, have to stick together. It didn’t seem to matter to him that I was just the youngest of two whereas he the youngest of seven brothers! He saw us as equals and it endeared him to me.

After a good amount of time, he asked me if I’d like to create something. I asked him what he meant. Gently, he explained that the figurines were to use in the sand tray that sat glaringly in the middle of the room. I looked at him. I looked at the thousands of figures. I looked back at him. What the hell, I remember thinking. At least I won’t have to talk.

And so, I created. I spent almost an hour engrossed in little figures. I created a mini world in the sand tray while my great Uncle Bill observed. He didn’t question me. He didn’t make comments. He just let me be and do whatever it was that I needed to be and do. He made me a big cup of tea afterwards and we sat together until my parents and brother came to pick me up.  They asked me what I did. They asked me what I said. I just shrugged. It was inexplicable (and none of their business.) That day with my great Uncle Bill never left me. I recall that day as vividly as if it were yesterday.

Fast-forward 22 years. I was a school counselor, educational therapist, and adjunct professor. I had two boys of my own. I decided to open a private psychotherapy practice and wanted to do something special. I wanted Sandplay. I wanted others to be able to experience what I did with my uncle. I found the only training happening in New England and dove straight in. Although I enjoyed the training because I was able to re-immerse myself in Jungian concepts and learn about Dora Kalff and the roots of Sandplay, the most meaningful and worthwhile part of becoming a Sandplay Practitioner was the journey of my own Sandplay process.

To me, Sandplay is about allowing the psyche – our soul or spirit – to express what it needs to. Words can be manipulated and carefully chosen whereas images/figurines can’t hide their true meaning. The images/figurines our psyche chooses when we create a tray may reveal both our conscious and unconscious thoughts/feelings. Sandplay is a vehicle for our psyche’s expression. The psyche, both conscious and unconscious parts, deserves to be heard and explored.

Uncle Bill made me feel seen and Sandplay offered a window to really see myself. It wasn’t always pretty. In fact, it was a very uncomfortable and painful process. But, in my experience, change and self-understanding is never simple or easy.

Lessons from Parenting

Lessons from Parenting

Years ago, when my sons were toddlers, my psychiatrist father and marriage and family therapist mother provided sound parenting advice but as a new mom, I dismissed them because I thought I knew better. They were outdated; they didn’t know how to raise kids in the 21st century. There were newer, better “rules” of parenting. Besides, I had my masters in counseling and had been working as a school counselor for 6 years.  So what if I was exhausted, cranky, and stressed? So what if I imagined running away more than seven times a day? I perceived their suggestions as attacks on my ability to parent, indications that I was failing. If they commented on my child’s obnoxious behavior, I became even more sensitive and defensive. 

And there was no shortage of obnoxious behavior in my house. My youngest son had perfected the art of throwing a horrific tantrum by the age of two. A fair skinned child, Charlie’s face would turn a fabulous shade of heirloom red tomato as he kicked and screamed with tears and snot flowing everywhere.  He screamed as if his insides were being torn apart. Ask him to do something he didn’t want to do and BAM the world was coming to an end. Say no to him, and WHAM screams hurled through the house.

One day, my parents were visiting and we were headed to the park. Before we left, I asked Charlie – in my calmest and most encouraging voice – to pick up the Magna-tiles he’d artistically strewn across the living room. That wasn’t on his agenda, however. I calmly explained to him that we weren’t going to the park until the tiles were picked up. He didn’t budge. A back and forth of me telling him to pick up the toys or we weren’t going to the park ensued. I cajoled, bargained, and bribed. Nothing worked.

My parents watched until I was so fed up I wanted to fling the tiles at all three of them: Charlie for not listening and my parents for witnessing my complete lack of control.

“How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your toys?” I yelled at my 4 year- old son.

“As many times as you’ll do it,” my mother said under her breath.

“He’s four!” I snapped, feeling immediately defensive and embarrassed. “He’s only four!” I was totally out of control and they were witnessing it. My 4 year old was in charge and I was a failure.

“You know, Cindy,” my dad said in his slow smooth voice that only a psychiatrist of 30 years can master, “seems to me like he’s making your life pretty miserable and you’re always trying to make his life wonderful. Maybe there’s a problem?” 

Maybe? Um, definitely.

I repeatedly bargained with a toddler. I issued threats without follow through because holding the line and sticking to boundaries was exhausting. I bent over backwards making sure that he had play dates (social interactions) and park visits (time in nature) and story time at the library (early exposure to reading) and the list continued. I kept doing and doing and doing. Making his life wonderful while I felt miserable. So I decided that I needed to make his life as miserable as he was making mine.

I wasn’t going to intentionally make his life difficult, I just wasn’t going to turn myself into a pretzel to make sure that he felt no discomfort. I decided not to care about the looks from strangers if he pitched a fit in the middle of the grocery store. His tantrums weren’t about me. They weren’t a reflection of my poor parenting. His tantrums were because he wasn’t getting what he wanted. But, he needed to learn that behaviors have consequences. If he refused to clean up before going to the park, he wouldn’t get to go to the park and play with his friends. The other mothers could think I was a “mean” mom. They could think whatever they wanted, but I decided that it was more important for him to learn that life is unpleasant, sometimes. And it’s okay. He’ll be okay.

Now that my boys are teenagers, I’m grateful for my parents and their unsolicited advice. They helped me understand the importance of not fixing every situation, not giving in to every whim. To allow failure. To allow disappointment. Disappointment and struggle are necessary for the developing mind. Young people need to experience sadness, frustration, worry, and embarrassment because they need to know that they have the capabilities to handle themselves and come out on the other side.

Problems lead to problem solving.

Rescuing leads to dependency and the belief the child isn’t capable of handling the situation on his/her own.

We need to be there to listen, love, and support. But parenting isn’t about making life perfect . (Instagram and Facebook have the market on feigning perfection.) Instead, we can parent for independence and true belief in one’s self. Parenting is the hardest job and it doesn’t end when our children become “adults”. If we start out parenting by running ourselves ragged and making sure that everything is “just right” for our children, we rob them of the opportunity to take care of themselves and we exhaust ourselves in the process.

Whisper Words of Wisdom, Let It Be

Whisper Words of Wisdom, Let It Be

When our minds fester and stew in negativity, usually the first suggestion is to let go.

Just let it go. What’s done is done.  Worrying won’t change the outcome.     It’s more painful to hold on than to let go. 

Letting go is sound advice because worry and self-blame do us no good. However, as true as it may be, letting go is not that simple. For most of us, when we try to let go of something, it either keeps nagging at us or only comes back with more energy.

​Jack Kornfield said, “To let go does not mean to get rid of. To let go means to let be. When we let be with compassion, things come and go on their own.”

It might sound ridiculous and impossible to let these dreadful thoughts and feelings be when there’s an urgency to get rid of them as quickly as possible. However, the energy we spend trying to pretend that these uncomfortable, negative feelings or thoughts don’t exist is precisely what feeds them.

Rather than rejecting or fighting the persistent, negative thoughts and feelings in our minds, look at them. It’s important to observe without judgement. Be compassionate and kind to yourself. Acknowledge the thoughts, recognize them, but do not chase after them.

Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” It’s not easy to relinquish control and let be. It’s uncomfortable to sit with the fear, anger, or embarrassment we feel, but it’s important to do so. We can hope for immediate transformation, but retraining our minds to be patient, present observers requires steady effort.