Thank You, Jay*.

Thank You, Jay*.

*NAME IS CHANGED, BUT YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

School was out for the summer and I was no longer getting paid. And yet, there I sat, waiting for the shifty eyed overweight middle school assistant principal to finish heating up her rancid smelling lunch.

“Jay is really difficult,” the assistant principal of the middle school warned me. “We had to give him the same teacher for fourth and fifth grade because it was a male teacher and the only one who could handle him.” She placed her hands flat on her desk and looked at me with exasperation even though Jay was nowhere in sight.

            “Can you tell me what specifically makes him so difficult and what works best with him?”  As the future 6th grade counselor, I met with the administration from the feeder elementary schools to find out which students needed some extra support in their transition to middle school. 

            She laughed. Not a pretty laugh. Not a nice laugh. It was a snotty, malicious, and condescending laugh. I didn’t let it phase me. I understood that she was tired. She was overworked; school administrators have a tough job. But still, her response wasn’t kind.

            “He’s out of control. He doesn’t listen. He doesn’t want to complete his work. We have millions of meeting with his grandparents, but nothing changes.”

            And there it was, the first clue: lives with his grandparents. I wondered why and how Jay felt about it. Where were his parents?

            That fall, I met Jay. He had a lot of energy. It was as if he was always plugged into an electric socket that produced a low level humming noise audible within about ten feet. I liked him immediately because he was authentic. He didn’t know how to be anyone but himself.

“You’re going to see a lot of me,” Jay told me the first time we met.

            “Great,” I replied.

            “No, it’s not a good thing. I do really stupid things sometimes.”

            I laughed. “Don’t we all?”

            “Uh, I don’t know? Probably not.”

            “Hmmm. Okay. Well I guess we’ll see, won’t we?”

“Yeah, guess so.” He shrugged and by the expression on his face I could tell that I hadn’t won him over. In fact, I might’ve repelled him. I wondered if I was too positive. Maybe he didn’t like that. He left my office and I felt a little disappointed by our lack of connection.

“See I told you,” Jay told me two days later. He was waiting for me in the wooden chair outside my office. His arms were folded while his legs bounced rapidly. This kid could power a windmill with all his excess energy.

     “Come on in.” I held the door open for him. “What’s going on?”

“I’m not taking math. It’s so fucking stupid.” He stopped the leg bounce for a moment and looked at me challengingly. It wasn’t a nasty or mean look. It was a what are you going to do about me look? I saw sadness in his face. Defeat too.

      “I take it you are not a math fan?” I knew from his records that Jay had an IEP and one of the qualifying conditions was a disability in math. He also had low processing speed and working memory issues tied to his ADHD diagnosis.

“I hate it.”

“Since when?”

 “Since always. I fucking hate it.”

 “Sounds like it hates you too.”

            He laughed a real laugh and smiled too, exposing his small front teeth. “Math sucks. Do you hate it too?”

            “Actually, no sorry to say. I always liked math because it was either right or wrong.”

       “Yeah, well you must’ve gotten it right. I don’t. I don’t ever seem to get math right.”

       “That must be really frustrating,” I said.

       “It is.”

      Together, we made a plan on what to do before his frustration surged out of control and he threw pencils or yelled obscenities. I roped in the math special education teacher, a good friend and one of the most patient and caring teachers. Our hope was to make sure that all of the teachers understood that the reason Jay acted out wasn’t because he enjoyed disrupting the class; it was because he was angry with himself and felt stupid.  

      It reminded me of my own struggles with writing. I never kicked desks or knocked them over, but the thought crossed my mind. I used to fantasize about lifting a desk and hurling it across the classroom at Mr. Borne, my tenth grade English teacher. He was a condescending asshole with a penchant for CB radios. Rather than teach how to write a thesis sentence, Mr. Borne educated our class on radio waves and communicating with truck drivers. He allowed us to watch movies rather than read books and I struggled to write a meaningful sentence until my freshman year at UCLA in the remedial writing course.

      Writing never made sense to me. I could formulate thoughts in my head and say them. However, whenever I tried to put them on paper, I was stuck. Feeling inadequate was a miserable feeling. However, unlike Jay, I didn’t act on my desires to scream and yell. I sat quietly and silently berated myself.  You can’t write. What’s wrong with you? It’s easy. You’re so stupid.

      Jay and I dealt with our frustrations completely differently. Rather than swallow his feelings or let them echo loudly in his head as I did, he spit them out all over the place. If he was frustrated, he showed it.  He didn’t hold it in and internalize all the negativity. He let his feelings out. Sure, he was over the top and hard to control. But he was REAL. He was angry that he didn’t understand math and had no problem letting everyone know.    

Jay was an externalizer, more typical for males, rather than an internalizer. Externalizers are difficult to manage in a classroom setting. They’re disruptive and loud. With all the standards and requirements teachers need to meet, having an externalizer can completely upend a lesson plan.

       Jay was easy for me to work with because I spent one on one time with him. His outbursts were like police sirens warning of an emergency.  I didn’t have to guess or ask a million questions to figure out how Jay felt. He shouted it from the rooftops. Unfortunately, teachers didn’t have the luxury or time to talk with Jay one on one. They had ten, twenty, sometimes thirty other students to manage.  His outbursts weren’t fair to other students either. Every time Jay lost it in class, he interrupted the learning for every student in class with him. 

            But more than that, teachers aren’t counselors. They aren’t trained to look for the underlying psychological reasons, nor should they be expected to.  They have to meet learning objectives, create interactive lessons, promote collaborative learning, implement 21st century technology, and so much more. It was my responsibility to figure out how to help Jay manage his feelings without involving or disrupting anyone else.

            The first step was gaining Jay’s trust. He needed to see that I was on his side and I needed to see what his life was really like. I set up regular meetings with Jay. It was important that we connected during non-eventful days as much as, if not more than, the tumultuous days. I spoke with his paternal grandparents, the ones he lived with, and gathered their version of his history.

            And so Jay and I began to get to know each other. He’d come in for regularly scheduled visits twice a week. We wouldn’t talk for long – fifteen minutes or so. We’d talk about video games and annoying people. Sometimes he’d share his struggles with falling asleep or his dislike for the medications he took. He was on ADHD medication and another type of medication to help him sleep at night.

            I hooked him up with two phenomenal social workers that came to our school once a week and facilitated a mixed-gender counseling group. I talked with his teachers often. I warned them in advance if he was having a particularly difficult day and they knew to send Jay to my office if they noticed he was off. Some weeks Jay visited the counseling office multiple times a day. Some weeks, I rarely saw him.

            By the end of 7th grade, Jay recognized when he needed a break and would excuse himself before the teacher had to send him out of the class. I saw it as a huge win. Monumental. Jay might not have been able to regulate his emotions, but he was beginning to make great decisions – decisions that disrupted others less. Growth. Jay was growing.

            My favorite Jay moment was when he marched himself into my office and asked, “How many days?”

“What?”

“Suspension. How many days do I get?

      “What are you talking about?”

       “You haven’t heard?”

       “Uh, no.”

        “I punched George Mason in the face. Hard.”

George Mason was notorious for his back-handed comments and manipulative nature. I wasn’t his counselor, so I only knew about him from teachers and the other counselors.  He wasn’t all too likeable from what I’d gathered.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not really sorry. I mean I know I shouldn’t get physical and you’re probably mad at me, but I would do it again, Mrs. Shortt. I really would. This kid is such an asshole, sorry. But, he deserved it. He is the most annoying kid. You should’ve seen how he was treating Yasmeen and Nas. I couldn’t let him go on. I couldn’t. I warned him though. I said if you don’t shut up I’m going to sock you. I told him. I warned him. He could’ve avoided being hit if he shut his mouth. So, how many days do you think I’ll get?”

I started laughing.  Not the appropriate reaction for a school counselor upon learning of a physical altercation, but I couldn’t help myself, just as Jay couldn’t help himself. Jay furrowed his brow, surprised no doubt. He came in to confess a suspendable offense and get counsel before seeing the principal and I was hysterically laughing.

To this day, I’m confused by my reaction. The situation wasn’t funny. There’s no humor in someone getting hurt. I am not a fan of violence. And yet, I couldn’t help myself.  My laughter was not the nervous kind of laughter. No, it was more joyful. I think that I was so relieved that someone like Jay existed. Someone messy and complicated. So good. So honest. Jay, with all his mistakes and lousy choices, laid himself out there. He never tried to pretend he was anything he wasn’t. What he thought came straight out of his mouth.

Truth, honesty, and integrity are hard to come by in a teenager, especially one who “fucks up all the time”. I guess Jay has always represented my hope in humanity. This young man with an Adverse Childhood Experience score of at least 9 took responsibility for his actions, protected his peers, spoke with honesty and integrity, and connected. He connected. Maybe his ability to connect is what put Jay in another league. Or maybe, it was his acknowledgement and ability to sit in despair and pain. Jay didn’t shy away from his pain.

Life was not easy for Jay and it would continue to be an enormous struggle. I worried that he’d drop out of high school because the pressure of math and all the information would be too much. The level of expectation for students in the affluent neighborhood he lived in, worried me. I was right to worry; he did drop out. BUT, he went back and finished high school and earned his GED through an alternative education program. He also became a recovering alcoholic by the time he was 17. He broke the law a number of times.

       I know all of this because Jay and I have stayed in contact after he left middle school. No need to sound the ethics and boundary breaker alarms. I took a couple years off from school counseling once I had my second child and since I wasn’t an employee of the school district, I gave Jay my number.

      He used it. He never abused it. He’d call and tell me about the bad choices he’d made and ask me why I thought he did such “stupid” things. He told me about the alcohol use and his disappointment in himself and also the awareness that it was a disease. He told me about AA and his sponsor. We talked through the reconnection with his mother and he shared his tragically painful and shameful memories of his childhood.  And the relationships… we spent countless hours discussing his poor choices in women. He knew he was making bad choices but couldn’t help himself back then.

      The calls I receive from Jay now are of a very different nature. He calls me to talk about his career and to get advice on which path he should take. Jay earned his CDAC certificate and works with addicts. His end goal is to become a licensed social worker and is trying to figure out his educational path. It’s a long daunting road – first a Bachelor’s Degree and then the Masters. Math looms overhead and taunts him. However, I have faith in Jay. He’ll do it in his own time, just as it should be. He has a beautiful, loving partner whom he loves dearly. And she loves him just as fiercely. I can’t wait to watch the two of them get married.

       Through the years, Jay has relentlessly been himself. And I’ve always been in awe of his ability to sift through his pain, an excruciating process. So often we shut our eyes to what hurts. We refuse to acknowledge or look at our shadow (C.G. Jung). Instead, we adopt slogans like, “Think positive.” “Look on the bright side.” “Keep calm and carry on.”

Jay would say, “Fuck that. Life sucks sometimes.”

Life isn’t supposed to be pretty and perfect. How do we truly experience joy if we haven’t experienced it’s opposite?

“No mud no lotus.”

Jay, is the most beautiful, breathtaking lotus flower.  I am thankful everyday that our paths crossed and so grateful for the life lessons he taught me about being one’s self.

No One Cares If You Know Their Name

No One Cares If You Know Their Name

The lessons I’ve learned from my students and clients have become a part of who I am, how I parent, and how I view the world.  My mistakes shaped me.

I was 25 years old when I first started working as a middle school counselor in southern CA.  Excitement bubbled throughout me because I was fulfilling my dream of “making a difference” in the world.

I remember gluing copies of prior year school photos for each student on index cards. My goal was to learn all 323 names prior to the start of school so that I could welcome my caseload on a first name basis. I imagined the delight on my students’ faces when they heard me call their names. They’d feel seen, heard, and important. I had no children at this stage, so devoting more than twenty-five unpaid hours to this mighty endeavor seemed logical. I began my first year of counseling with gusto and the confidence that all of the students would love me.

There I stood, outside my office on the first day of school, ready to whip out Sarah’s name and positively impact her educational progression and success. However, the student photos I used were taken a full year prior, which translates into innumerable changes for tweens and teens. More than half of the students were unrecognizable from their 2×3 inch photo.

But whether or not I recognized them didn’t matter. I was an adult in their eyes and tweens and teens don’t care about the adults on the first day of school, or for most of the days of school. They care about who they are going to sit with during lunch, what friends are in their classes, whether or not their outfits are cool, if the teachers are mean or nice, will the curriculum be exciting or boring, and a million other things. The overly eager new counselor calling out random names registers as strange and slightly creepy.

Twenty plus years later, I can confidently say that I wasted so much time memorizing faces and names. My attempt at “knowing” the students was totally off base. They had never met me. I had never met them. Connection is made through personal interactions, being there when needed, and remembering important details after getting acquainted.  

I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be important. I wanted students to need me. But what I wanted doesn’t matter. What matters is following through with commitments, reacting without judgment or opinion, developing trust, listening, being an advocate, creating a safe space for students to come on their own accord, and providing thought provoking and enriching social-emotional curriculum and programs. Proving that I know a student’s name means nothing in the absence of a relationship.

It reminds me of Maya Angelou’s quote:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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.

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?