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.

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.