It is time to sideline “Mental Illness” and put “Mental Health” in the game.Have you ever heard of someone who enjoys taking the blame? Me neither! But yet when a tragedy happens, rather than work together toward actual solutions, blame dominates the headlines before the yellow tape is even removed. If you are tired of watching the blame game, then perhaps you might join the crowd that refuses to blame inanimate concepts every time evil rears its ugly head.
Mental illness has been stigmatized, redefined, and scapegoated to the extent that solutions seem unlikely. If we blame mental illness after an unspeakable tragedy, we box ourselves into a debate about who is right, rather than creating paths toward solutions.
First of all, at times we all suffer from a form of mental illness. An ‘illness’ (physical or mental) is not a permanent state in most cases. Yet modern vernacular would suggest that those with a “mental illness” should get help, or that the people around them should make them get help (i.e. – legislation, mandated counseling). What about those whose “mental illness” is thrust upon them by circumstances? What hope does legislation offer those who suffer from:
• Depression or suicidal thoughts due to being bullied
• Anxiety due to an abusive relationship
• Paranoia due to a passive-aggressive work culture
• Incapacitating fears due to a recession
• Anger due to abandonment
Many people in our society fly under the radar with what could easily be considered a form of mental illness (road rage, bullying, burnout, violent tendencies, and sex addictions). Just because people figure out how to self-medicate (drugs, alcohol, over-working, over-spending, domestic abuse, infidelity) does not mean that they are healthy and therefore not subject to being labeled as mentally ill. It means that they have learned to fly below the radar unnoticed. It also means that they must suffer in silence or else be pressured to a regimen of care “everyone agrees” will work. That strategy smacks of eastern Europe in the 1940’s. Do you want to live in that world?
How unproductive that the subject of mental illness has been linked to mass murderers, as though they are the only ones in need of therapy. Furthermore, it is preposterous to think that the only way to achieve mental health is to pass legislation that compels certain segments of society to submit to what the masses have prescribed as “good medicine”.
It’s not about mental illness, but about mental health.Talking about mental health ruins the blame game, and introduces us all to the solution…finding our role in spreading mental health in small ways every day. In this “everyone’s a critic culture,” the freedom to chastise, persecute, and put people down is justified with just about every major document that governs us (constitution, sacred writings, existing laws). Yet none of these formal operating manuals are intended to harm, but rather to protect…to do no harm.
The result of this mental shift would be more well-received than pop-culture could imagine. Finding common ground starts with acknowledging that as humans, we are “all in this together”. The vitriol that ensues on the heels of a civil crisis (like a school shooting) is much different than that of an crisis perpetrated from those outside our borders (9-1-1), or even a natural disaster that most admit is beyond our control.
So it appears that the language we use here is significant if we are to come together after a self-inflicted wound. Talking about mental health would yield a better list of action steps than talking about mental illness because we would shift from blame we assign to burdens we share. Here are a few closing thoughts on the matter that could get us talking productively about something other than placing fault:
1. Mental health requires that each person takes personal measures to optimize resources around us, so that when a crisis happens, the ones trying to put the pieces back together again are mentally healthy. Imagine being operated on by a physician that has open wounds on her hands. Helping our existing mental health workers get and stay healthier would go a long way toward repairing the broken health care system in our nation.
2. Mental health systems in the US have resources that are not being allocated optimally. Eliminating waste is something that the government and individual organizations could actually do, but the answer seems to always fall on the side of more spending. As the mental health crisis continues to increase, so does the price tag.
3. Mental health is something everyone can administer. Being an attentive parent, a caring spouse, a hard-working employee, a good neighbor, a safe driver, a responsible citizen, an unconditional friend, an active voter, and a helpful hand would change our culture in a week. You do not have to be a trained counselor to offer mental health to the people around you. In the world I live as a professional counselor, most mental illness results when those around us refuse to be a champion of mental health in our immediate circles of influence. When you are mentally healthy, you offer a great gift to others.
The phrase, “honest conversation” keeps popping up, yet until the conversation moves away from the symptom (mental illness), we will not discuss actionable solutions about the real problem (mental health). While we continue to blame the former, the latter is ready to get in the game. Are you?
Tim Bolen, LPC
Copyright 2018 TriCord Hope, LLCTim Bolen, LPC is a licensed counselor in GA, specializing in mental health/crisis counseling response for families, couples, schools, and businesses in need of de-escalation, assessment, and practical ‘next steps’. You can contact Tim at 678.619.5156 or email at email@example.com.
A Google search of “teen bullying” will yield over 22 million results in less than a second.
If there is so much information, research, creative thinking and efforts against bullying, why is it still a huge problem with our youth?
Maybe we need to recognize that there are categories of bullying, rather than putting it all in the same category:
Category 1 – Those who are being bullied by others (non-aggressor)
Category 2 – Those who are bullying others (aggressor)
Category 3 – Those who are both bullying and being bullied (reciprocator)
My research on this topic (besides some recent CDC info) is from talking to kids (children and teens) who complain of bullying and who are not sure who to talk to or what to do about it.
Other research here comes from talking to adults who either over or under-react when their kids tell them they are being bullied. After talking with families about this issue, here are some common denominators that line up fairly well with contemporary research on the topic.
First of all a quick question: If we could drastically reduce bullying from our children’s lives, would we actually save lives? Although it is dangerous to link teen deaths solely to bullying, the research says the two are connected.
According to the CDC (Division of Violence Prevention), “Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Bullying can occur in-person or through technology.”
One of the most alarming truths of bullying is that it is related to a higher risk of teen suicide. The highest risk category for teen suicide is among those who both bully others and are also being bullied. Those who are being bullied ‘reciprocate’ this behavior toward others in an effort to cope with their own stress and confusion.
With this information in mind, let’s consider some anti-bullying strategies that will likely have a huge impact upon this high-risk population in our nation’s schools.
Let me be clear: This article is not about how to eliminate bullying in general, but how to reduce bullying among our youth by reducing the category of our youth who are being bullied as well as bullying others.
CDC Research tells us that kids who are more likely to be a bully have been or are being bullied, so the question is, “Where are bullies being bullied?”
The answer to the golden question is right under our nose.
When a child complains of being bullied, we often look at outside sources, but often the source is in plain sight, like home, school, church, sports activities, or neighborhood friends. It is wise to look in obvious places before assuming that the source is “miles away”.
Again, we are talking about students who are bullying BECAUSE they are being bullied (not always the case). So rather than considering only where they are bullying, let’s consider where they are being bullied.
At home – Bullying at home can be done through words, tone, body language, and of course, through physical aggression. It can be “justified” by calling it discipline, but the point of discipline is not to incite fear or intimidate. The point of discipline is to teach, and a gentler approach is always a better one.
Action plan - As challenging as it may be, have a family meeting and ask everyone if they think bullying exists in the home. Root it out and hold it accountable. Some of the bullying that takes place in our schools starts in the home. If families discover this reality, getting outside help may be a good start. Once the family is able to discuss what moving forward looks like, they are more likely to experience success in eliminating all forms of bullying.
At School – Before we get too far down this path, let me take a different approach. I am not diminishing valid forms of bullying, but keep in mind which bullying category (reciprocators) we are considering here. Too much “bullying” is made into a major ordeal because we are not teaching our kids simple conflict resolution. Just because a student reports bullying does not mean that there needs to be a parent/teacher conference or automatic sanctions against the offending student. Although there is so much more to say on this topic, let me suggest some courses of action that actually work.
1) Encourage kids to “just walk away” from other students who bully in various forms. Bullies needs an audience, so simply remove the audience and they will often move along.
2) Teach kids how to live in the real world by giving them conflict resolution skills like de-escalation, diversion, joining, or affirmation. We all could use reminders here on occasion, so get the whole family involved.
3) Educate kids on how to avoid being an easy target (talking too much, talking too loudly, “dishing it out”, trash talk, target-oriented body posture, unnecessary eye contact with bullies). Some kids actually do “ask” to be bullied without realizing what they are doing. So educate kids on strategies to make them less of a target.
4) Get kids involved in community at school (clubs, band, after school activities, sports). Kids who are involved in some kind of community are less likely to be bullied than those who are not because there is safety in groups.
Look for signs that your child is being bullied and take action immediately.
Not to ignore the aforementioned notion that there may be forms of bullying in our own home, there are signs that parents can observe with children that may indicate there is a power differential in their lives.
When another student is the bully
The most assumed and perhaps the easiest form of bullying requires that adults be adults instead of acting like a kid. I mean no disrespect toward parents who insist their child could never bully another child, but the reason that bullying in our culture is still an issue is because it becomes replaced with another issue. When adults make the bullying issue their issue, it is not likely that the behavior will go away.
· If a parent wants to discuss bullying and your child is potentially involved, hear them out. Denial will not help the situation.
· If you are confronted with information that assumes your child may have played a role in bullying, seek out an objective third party to help bring resolution rather than trying to work it out with another emotionally charged parent.
· Use a confrontational experience to teach conflict resolution to your children. Hard lessons are better learned in a real situation than in a simulator.
When a teacher is the bully
Having had to actually arbitrate between teachers and families, this can be a tough one. Parents who enjoy more success here are the ones that work to build relationships with their children’s teachers, rather than the ones that are content with “drive-by shooting” tactics. Teachers are reasonable people seeking the best for our children, so a reasonable, respectful approach is always better.
When your child is the bully
Talk to them and confront the behavior at home in a way that does not create a “reciprocator”. Find out the reason for the aggression, or get professional help to get to the bottom of the behavior. Kids are not bullies for no reason, so deal with the problem, not the symptoms.
Finally, form alliances in order to combat bullying at its point of origin.
Our children are not educated in a vacuum, so parents have the responsibility not to live in one. We need to build relationships with educators, administrators, other parents, and even our kids’ friends. These relationships take time and intentional effort to build, but they pay dividends if we are ever in a situation where we need to confront bullying. If our children see us operating like a sniper, they will follow suit. But if they see us forming alliances, eliminating the dark places for them to hide, we will reduce bullying in our society, starting in our homes.
If your family is dealing with bullying in any form, seek help if the task seems daunting. I have discovered that exposing the problem and finding each person’s role in the solution is the best form of intervention when it comes to rooting out bullying in our families.
These can be tough conversations, but the real tough stuff comes when we avoid talking about things that are isolating our kids from us, from one another, and from society. Bullying is not a personal issue alone; it is a societal issue that we need to address and deal with as close to home as possible. So let’s talk and find what is really hurting our kids. Just because you cannot see it does not mean it is not there.
You notice that your adolescent has something on their mind, and yet they have been putting you off when you ask, “What’s wrong,” until today. This time, they mustered the courage to tell you what all their friends told them they should keep to themselves. But finally, without actually looking you in the eye, you hear them faintly say the words, “I think I’m gay.”
Not knowing what to say, you offer nothing, which only makes the situation tenser. Finally, you offer up the most common response, buying yourself as much time as possible...”What?!” Your teen looks at you with tears in their eyes, and you realize that this is going to be a conversation no one could possibly prepare you for, much less offer insights. What do you say when your kid thinks they are gay?
This article is number two in a three-part series regarding some of the toughest conversations parents have to have with their kids. As a counselor of adolescents, couples, and families, I am finding that many parents are being dragged into these difficult conversations, kicking and screaming.
Part one of this series deals with when one of our children is having thoughts of self-harm, which for any parent, is a scary moment.
Part three is a different approach to the whole idea of bullying, which is a common cry for help among our youth today.
This article is also a deviation from what may be expected in the area of sexuality, but nonetheless an honest approach to how parents may respond when their child tells them they think they are confused regarding their sexual identity.
As for my “expertise” in this area? Having served as a mental health counselor for teens and adults for decades, including working in a group home setting, a private practice, university and church settings, as well as a mental health school counselor, I have learned from families that when this topic is raised, the family is usually not prepared to offer what is initially needed to a struggling teen that is looking for help and hope.
If you are reading this far, you probably are also looking for help and hope, so the purpose of this article is to offer both…not expert advice or even professional answers. Families that struggle here come from a variety of backgrounds, but usually suffer from the same ailments that turn an intimate moment of care into a struggle for power. This scenario should be avoided, and so requires advanced preparation.
You may have already had the “birds and the bees” discussion with your child, but we live in a different world now. This discussion must also be prepared to deal with same-sex issues since our children are having these conversations without us in the room.
With this challenge in mind, here are some possibilities your family can ponder in advance that many families have learned the hard way.
1. A discussion on gay issues may have less to do with sexuality and more to do with family trust.
The easy place to go when a teen reveals their interest in same-sex relationships is the teen’s sexuality. The reason that teens often put off or avoid this conversation altogether is often because they assume that is where the conversation is going to go. And the ‘elephant in the room’ is not their identity confusion or sexuality issues, but rather the obvious fact that they did NOT want to talk about this with their parents until they had no choice. Parents are usually not the first to find out about these struggles.
Families that seek therapy usually miss this all-important detail, that whatever needs to now be discussed at length has been avoided like the plague. It does not matter what the issue is if someone has made it a priority to put off the issue, even to the extent that its delay has caused additional pain. There is only one reason that someone would avoid talking with another person about an area of pain…they do not trust them. Believing they already know what to expect, kids follow their instincts and remain quiet.
Parents are often caught “off-guard” about sexuality issues in the home because they are under the impression that their kids can talk to them about anything. Often the reason that so much emotion is tied up in the realization that a child is struggling with sexuality issues is because the parent(s) cannot imagine why their child has kept this issue a secret for so long. Parents live in a dream world if they believe that there is an “open-door policy” in the home, while their teen has a ledger of issues that they hope to never have to talk about with their parents. Wanting an “open-door policy” and maintaining one are two different things, requiring two different approaches.
Not to equate oranges with apples, let me mention several issues that teens hide from parents, sexuality issues being only one of them:
· The college thing (not wanting to go or wanting to go to a different college)
· Addictions (shame, guilt, and fear of consequences)
· Resentment due to academic pressure that has gone on for a long time
· Resentment that parents have not transitioned from parenting a five-year old to a parenting a teen-ager
· Awareness that parents have one standard for their teens, while they do not live under the same set of rules (hypocrisy regarding addictions and relationships)
· Anger from being forced to go to church or participate in sports
· Fear of sharing personal dreams because it conflicts with the unfulfilled dreams parents attempt to live out through their children
· Unresolved conflict and hurts from divorce that played out in the form of leverage
Making the “gay thing” the main thing is usually a mistake. When parents focus on the area that makes a teen feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, it is usually an equation for missing the point. Families that do have the courage to confront these personal feelings of sexual confusion will likely discover that underneath the identity crisis, there is a crisis that has nothing to do with a teen’s sexuality. Families that are willing to allow the real issues (see bulleted items above) to rise to the surface will discover the trust that is an essential ingredient in having tough conversations at home.
2. First impressions are a major factor once a door of intimacy is opened.
So if parents walk into a discussion on teen sexuality and are open to the idea that there may be other issues that need to be resolved first, they will allow a door of intimacy to open. Keeping the door open, however, may be another challenge.
If a teen has harbored feelings of fear that their secret is potentially incriminating, they are expecting a conversation regarding sexuality to go badly. And though their secret may be received well with one parent, too often both parents are not on the same page. In fact, in almost every case I have worked with, one parent is more calm and willing to listen while the other jumps to conclusions, makes inflammatory statements they cannot take back, and distances themselves from their teen at the most critical time when listening is more valued than lecturing.
When our children are ready to discuss their sexuality, it is wise to not confuse listening with our approval.
When I was a kid, my mom was more open to the idea of discussing sexual issues, and my dad avoided it at all costs; it just was not his thing. The only time I remember discussing sex with my dad was when I was a senior in high school (long after my ‘locker room education’), and I asked him about how to handle a situation with a girl I was dating. In his response, it was obvious he was going to leave the sensitive stuff to mom. But I never felt shamed, embarrassed or rejected by him because of his insecurity with sexual discussions. My memory was that dad didn’t know how to talk about such things, but he was willing to try.
Now, parents have to be ready to talk, not only about sexual issues, but also same-sex issues. And because these issues have been politicized, they are highly charged. So when a teen wants to talk about sexuality, and same-sex issues are on the table, parents are more likely to feel unqualified to be objective, so they sometimes do not even try. What parents may need to remember is that discussions with their teens regarding sexuality require the same beliefs that parents had fifty years ago:
Belief # 1 – People have little understanding of relationships until their mid-20’s, or even later.
Fifty years ago, teen agers had little credibility with parents when they made relational declarations that were over their pay scale:
“I think I am ready to date.”
“I am going to move in with my fifteen year old girlfriend.”
“We need you to sign this paper so we can get married.”
“I never want to get married or have kids.”
Just because culture has sanctioned a teen’s decision-making power on a relational basis does not mean that parents have to agree. In fact, there are other areas where parents are able to maintain emotional composure during a conversation with their teen because they realize that the teen needs to mature before making such a call.
· Driving a car - Just because a teen has a driver’s permit does not mean their ability matches state guidelines for securing a license.
· Drinking - Just because there is alcohol in the house does not entitle the teen to partaking at will.
· Free time - Just because their homework is complete does not mean they are free to do whatever they want in the evenings.
· Operating equipment - Just because they know how to operate yard equipment does not mean you will allow them to do so without a parent at home.
In other words, parents know about necessary restrictions that will provide for our children’s safety, regardless of how a teen thinks or feels about it. Why is it then, that parents give decision-making power to children in areas like sexuality that could also affect the rest of their lives? Why have so many parents joined with culture in assuming that the feelings of a thirteen year old are valid enough to hand over complete power or worse yet, form battle lines? To be caught up in this tension is to miss the point, and therefore the opportunity to have a productive conversation with a teen that does not submit to a culturally politicized point of contention .
Times have not changed that much here, except fifty years ago it was not culturally acceptable to concede a child’s beliefs about their own sexuality. Fifty years later, we are still talking about a child who is not mature enough to make these kinds of decisions. So forming a battle line through a lecture, a panic-induced response, or unfair punishment is to miss a teachable moment that does not come along too often.
Until our children are in their mid-20’s they have little understanding of relationships, so our role as parents is to keep the lines of communication open, so we can continue having these valuable and helpful discussions with them into adulthood.
Belief # 2 – Parents have struggled talking with their kids about sex for a long time.
This image of a parent fumbling over their words when asked about sex may even be a generational cliché. I am not sure we are much better fielding these questions now than we were fifty years ago. I remember old television shows like “Leave It to Beaver”, and even “The Andy Griffith Show” demonstrating that this conversation may be one of every parent’s greatest fears.
I do believe, however, that our initial reaction is significant when our kids want to discuss their own sexuality.
And statements like the following do more to isolate than open a door of intimacy:
“My son could never be gay.”
“I think you’re just confused.”
“This is a perversion and a sin.”
“We’re not having this discussion.”
These are actual statements I have heard from parents when they first discovered their child was having sexual identity struggles. Certainly each family has their own set of values, and whether they are conservative or liberal, parents could choose a much better opening line when their child finally decides to have the talk. Every parent would be wise to even rehearse an immediate response if or when their child approaches them about their sexuality. The goal is not to have the talk in one talk, but to open the door for future discussions that lead to family trust.
3. If religion is a part of the discussion, it should not be the first thing mentioned.
Please take this from a church leader of over twenty-eight years; religion is one of the biggest reasons for a child’s silence when it comes to tough conversations.
Far too many kids who were raised in the church resent the notion that ‘what God thinks’ only comes up when they are in trouble. As if God has nothing to say when they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
In my experience, kids from religious homes with sexual identity issues believe that when it comes to their sexuality, they are on their own. So they talk to their peers, a teacher, a coach, and maybe a youth minister (not so much anymore), but the idea of talking with their parents about sex is like signing up for a lecture you’d just rather avoid.
As strange as it sounds, I encourage families with a religious background to initially steer away from the very aspects of the discussion that kids see coming a mile away:
· The family’s reputation
· What the Bible says (unless they bring it up)
· Who will disapprove
· How “disgusting” they might be
Basically, if our children bring up any subject, and our first reaction drives a wedge between us, our chances of “being there for them” decrease. Certainly, once trust is established and everyone feels more comfortable speaking freely, these kinds of responses will be a part of the discussion. But having served as a youth minister for years, I have heard many teens confess that their hesitation is grounded in experience. The last thing they want to do is be criticized. The first thing kids want is to be loved and to feel safe.
There is a fun family game called ‘Taboo’ in which each team’s participant is trying to describe (much like ‘Pictionary’) a word on a card. But underneath the main word is a list of words or phrases that you cannot say, or you get buzzed and therefore no points. In order to score a lot of points on your turn (5-6 is great), you have to get out of the box. In other words, if your word is “princess”, the list below may consist of the following which you are NOT allowed to say (prince, tiara, Disney, daughter). How do you get someone to say ‘princess’ without using those words?
This task is how parents must approach a discussion on sexuality when our kids are finally talking to us about something they may have put off for a while. Parents must avoid being predictable, cliché, condescending, rude, critical, or panicky. Instead, we must get out of the box, and find ways to open doors of communication, keep them open, and then entice kids to keep coming back. Teachable moments do not happen every day. When they do, it is helpful to remember that people learn best when they feel heard, comfortable, and safe. Tough conversations are great ways bridge the gap between parents and children. And as tough as this conversation can be, it is not the hardest one we will ever have. So let us not treat it like it is.
Next article: Tough Conversations (Part 3) – Anti-bullying Tactics
Tim Bolen, LPC
This three-part series for parents deals with some of the toughest conversations that are becoming some of the most frequent conversations in many homes in America. With school just around the corner, it would be wise to make time to discuss these issues at home before they become issues outside the home.
Part 1 - A Parent's Plan for Suicide Prevention
Part 2 - Having the Sexuality Talk
Part 3 - Anti-bullying Tactics that work
The phone rings on a Wednesday afternoon, and a mom says, “My son has been suspended from school, and before he can return, he has to have a counseling session. He said he was thinking about hurting himself. Can you see him today?”
Too many times I have received this phone call from either a parent or a school administrator, and in every case, they are scared, confused, in panic mode, and in desperate need for immediate help. Knowing how to respond in the first hour of this type of crisis will determine the tone that is set, as well as the help that is received. Every parent would do well to prepare for this kind of event.
This three-part series is being offered to help with some of the toughest conversations parents have to have with their kids. Many parents are dragged into difficult conversations, kicking and screaming. So many parents are overwhelmed with certain topics they are not prepared to deal with, much less work through.
If parents can avoid certain conversations, they do. But the fact is that children are dealing with certain realities in mass that parents only had to deal with in part when they were their children’s age. This first article in the series deals with the awkward and messy realities of talking to kids when we discover they are having thoughts of self-harm.
Often parents ask the question, “How do I even begin to talk about this?” In other words, there are so many questions, and not nearly enough answers, it is hard to know what a starting point looks like, much less forward motion.
Let me say at the outset here without being too transparent that my wife and I have personal experience here. We do not know what it is like to lose a child to suicide, and therefore I do not make claims here to that extent. I do know, however, what it is like to receive a phone call from a concerned party that one of my kids needs immediate help. So I have been that parent that had to assess in minutes what the next step will be in order to provide my child with the kind of help they needed.
My background as a mental health professional has also included working with children and adolescents for years in primary, secondary, and post-secondary educational settings. I have been the parent who needed help, the counselor who called the parents, as well as the administrator that had to set in motion a course of action within minutes in order to address a life and death situation. From these experiences, I would like to share some common denominators I have learned that proved to be helpful in the short period of time that exists between finding out about the crisis and then offering support in the crisis.
As a starting point, here are some preliminary questions that all parents should ask prior to ever being confronted with such a situation:
1. Is the culture in my home such that my kid is willing to share sensitive information with me, or do other people have to bring it to my attention?
This question is not about passing judgment because there are several reasons why our kids may not choose to tell us some things, and instead share this private information with someone else they trust.
· Perhaps they are no longer living in the home.
· Perhaps they live in multiple locations (shared custody).
· Perhaps there is division in the home.
· Perhaps life is out of balance and opportunities to talk are illusive.
· Perhaps they have tried to talk, but attempts have failed.
Again, not to cry over spilled milk, the point here is not to assign blame, but rather to call things what they are. If your kid is not comfortable talking with you about intense feelings in their life, there is a legitimate reason which needs to be addressed. The point of addressing this reality is not to dwell on it, but rather to use this information as a launching pad for growth and change in your home.
It may be time to:
· Re-balance work/family life (hardly ever home)
· Create spaces for honest conversation (meal times at the table)
· Deal with division in the home (rather than run from it or ignore it)
· Take some responsibility for current realities rather than scapegoating
A lot of time can be wasted assigning blame or reeling from the reality that our kids feel more comfortable talking to someone else rather than us. The positive side of this certainly could include that they talk to someone, rather than no one. So time here is better invested figuring out, before the next crisis, who are kids are talking to and why. Moving forward must begin with honesty about the culture of communication in the home. This is not time for a lecture, but a lesson in truth.
2. When my kids talk to me about sensitive issues, is the response supportive or punitive?
I cringe when parents make negative emotional connections to a positive event, and certainly our kids sharing intense emotions with us is a positive thing. So parents must be sure to ‘reward’ such courage with en-courage-ment. Bringing out these intense feelings should be the first order of business, not shutting them down because we forget to control our own emotions. So the first response (not reaction) is crucial when our kids muster up the courage to tell us something they considered keeping to themselves:
“We are so glad you are talking with us about this.”
“This must be very difficult to talk about, but still you are making the effort.”
“I cannot imagine how long you held this in or how you did this alone.”
“As hard as this may be for us to hear, we will always be here to listen to you.”
The first response in a crisis will set the tone for how the conversation will go, but more importantly, whether or not you will get another one.
The goal here is to not just keep them talking, but to entice them back for more support, more understanding, more love, more encouragement, more time with the very people that they are hoping will understand the most.
I emphasize that any form of punishment (tone, discipline, authoritarianism, body language, restrictions, mandated counseling) will have adverse effects and probably shut down the emotional outpouring. This tension is a hard balancing act because what may not seem to be a punishment can be perceived as such, so tread lightly and ask your child the obvious as you attempt to respond:
“Does this feel like punishment?”
If the answer is “yes,” then you have to fix that immediately so that the memory of this initial response is supportive, not something to be avoided in the future.
“Do you feel heard and understood?”
If the answer is “no”, then regroup, set aside preconceived notions, and seek to understand until the answer is “yes”. Often the difference between understanding a teen or not is the assumption that they have something to teach you. The lesson is not always one parents prefer, but preference is not the goal of communication. The goal of communication is hearing, not being heard.
The first two items will determine the answer to item #3. In other words, if our children know they can come to us and when they do, we will be supportive, it is less likely we will need the help of a professional. But when it comes to self-harm, it is not time to go home and have a family meeting to determine a course of action.
So let’s assume that a family is in need of professional help. Let’s now consider some pertinent information for those who need help at that level.
3. Do we need professional help?
Before we jump to conclusions, let us evaluate the risk factors based on what kids actually say.
Here are three considerations:
“My kid said they are thinking about hurting themselves.”
Although these are not necessarily on an ascending order of risk, this is usually the lowest risk scenario. Thinking about doing something is the first step and it is a fortunate thing to intervene at this level if the opportunity is offered. The goal here is to find out as much information as possible about what thoughts they are having, which requires continuous communication. The conversation must remain about what they are experiencing, not how the parent feels about what they are experiencing. As long as they feel heard, they will continue to talk and share what is really going on with them. This is exactly what a professional would do, but it is easier for a counselor than a parent to suspend their curiosities and emotions.
If you are the parent your child approaches in a crisis, this is a suggested first step. Opening the door and keeping communication open is the priority as well as the immediate need should you discover your child is in crisis.
“My kid has indicated they have a specific plan for hurting themselves.”
Put yourself in your kid’s shoes and try to imagine what they are feeling, and then consider the kinds of things you would want from a caregiver like time, understanding, attention, and practical help. Many parents realize at this level that they are not equipped to provide all these things. Practical help, for example, requires an objective viewpoint, and emotions can get in the way for parents. In many cases, parents carry around unresolved pain from their own childhood experiences, and these emotions are hard to sort out when your child is in crisis.
If you discover that your child has either parts of a plan, or even a full-scale plan to harm themselves, reaching out for professional help is not only a good idea, it may be the critical objective piece that is needed in order to maximize the early hours of your child’s crisis.
I have many personal stories to share here, but confidentiality prevents me from alluding to even parts of these stories since I am still actively acquainted with many of these families. But I will say that these stories share these things in common:
· Reaching out for help lowers parental anxiety levels .
Our kids feed off of our energy in a crisis, and sometimes parents make the crisis worse by a gut reaction rather than a thoughtful response. Sometimes parents think they know the right thing to do, but their uncertainty creates anxiety, and our kids pick up on that. In a crisis, every parent could use the help of someone who affirms their thoughts and feelings on the matter. Being confident of forward motion is better than just random motion.
· Building a team of helpers increases the child’s confidence levels.
As long as that team is working together, our children benefit from knowing that a “wall of defense” is being built to protect them and guide them in a healthy direction. The selection of that team must be immediate, but collaborative. In other words, time is of the essence, but parents must allow their child to have a voice in who is given permission to help them. Ultimately, they have to sign off on anyone and everyone on this team, giving them purpose and hope that help is on the way, as well as the self-empowerment that may be sorely lacking in their life.
· Having a “second opinion” on matters of self-harm is a good thing.
If a life-threatening illness or disease became a medical reality for one of our kids, we would likely seek a second opinion. So when a mental illness threatens our family, why would we not reach out for an outside perspective, just to make sure we know exactly what we are dealing with when it comes to the threat of suicide? Extremes of “no big deal” versus 'pushing the panic button' are to be avoided, and so bringing in help in the early hours is always a good call.
One last level to consider here…
“My kid indicated they have tried to hurt themselves and failed.”
Count your blessings you have this information, but without diminishing the seriousness of this dilemma, the reality is that most suicide attempts fail on the first try. With this information, however, parents have a 2nd chance to address the underlying reasons for their child’s hopelessness, alienation, or fears. Again, at this level, professional help should be sought immediately with the goal of opening up doors of communication at home. This is not the time for “I told you so” or “What were you thinking?” The most helpful attitude is “whatever it takes”, communicating that their cry for help has been duly heard.
So, to answer the question about professional help, it often depends upon parental anxiety levels and previously established doors of communication. It is likely that this article is being considered, not in a crisis situation, but perhaps in consideration of this untimely event occurring in the family. Perhaps you have already been down this road, and you are curious if you “did the right thing.” I work with a lot of adolescents, and sometimes with smaller children who are flirting with the edge of hopelessness. Getting help is a phone away and efforts here need not wait until a crisis occurs.
We all know that 911 is an option in every emergency, that the suicide crisis hotline (1-800-273-8255) should be on every parent's radar, and that there are resources in every community to help if our kids are in need of mental or emotional assistance. But what many parents do not know is what to do after the initial call for help is made. Having personal experience with the days, weeks, and months following such a need, let me close with some directional thoughts:
1. There is no such thing as an inconvenience when it comes to saving the lives of our children.
2. An investment in our children’s welfare and mental health is an investment in their future.
3. The follow through in a crisis is as important as responding to the initial crisis.
So before this need occurs, and before this next school year is in session, sit down as a family and have a tough conversation. Chances are, if they have been in a crisis of this nature before, they have already talked to someone else. My contention is that parents should be the first consideration, not the last. So open the doors of communication and let tough conversations be ones you are glad you had proactively. If you do, there will be many more.
(Next week: Having the Sexuality Talk)
You walk into a restaurant and the hostess asks you if you are ok sitting at a high top table. Because the wait appears to be long for booths, you accept the notion, take the buzzer, and wait your turn hoping that you just made a good trade. As you walk to the waiting area, you notice that the high top tables are accompanied by three-legged stools. Do you hesitate? As long as the stools give the chairs the option of turning, allowing you to prop your feet up on the supporting braces, the high tops will be fine. You don’t give it another thought.
About 20 minutes later, you find yourself sitting at a high top with your feet propped up staring at a menu, when you realize that your three legged stool is a little wobbly. At this juncture, you have a choice to make. Either make the best of it or ask for a stool where all three legs promise to keep you upright and from tumbling onto the floor. That’s not too much to ask is it?
The Marriage Triad
Marriage and three legged stools have this in common. There is a short list of essentials that keep things upright and you might even say that you could limit the list to three items: communicating (not “communication”), partnership (not busyness), and a sex life (not sex).
If you will allow a few minutes of your time, we can unpack this marriage triad that can be a game changer for any marriage.
Communication is a class you can take in college. In marriage, it is also a third entity that often takes the fall when a relationship is in trouble.
“The problem is communication!”
Marriage therapists could retire early if they had a dollar for every client that made communication the reason for relational failure. The reality is that communication is neither the problem nor the solution. The act of communicating makes the problem a shared issue rather than an inanimate object that needs to be taken out and put out of its misery.
If communicating is the problem, then both spouses have a vision for their role in creating solutions via actively talking and listening to one another. And contrary to popular belief, people do not need a communication class to get better here. There are a few things that every couple needs if they are going to get better at communicating.
1) A regular time and place
This is not rocket science. Select a time and place that works three or four times per week and make it a priority. It may take a month for this to become a regular routine, but you will find progress when you start looking forward to this time rather than avoiding or dreading it. The time may vary but make the place a constant so that you know this place is reserved for progress.
2) A real conversation
If people can hold it together at work (so they can receive a paycheck), or at a family reunion (so they can keep peace in the family), then they can hold it together at home and have a real conversation. Toxic fighting is a choice that can be avoided, not a disorder that cannot be helped. No matter what the issue is, most people can have a civil conversation in the midst of intense disagreement if they have a big enough reason to do so.
3) A realistic expectation
Forming new habits take time, depending upon what other habits need to be “unformed”. If old habits include running away from disagreement, yelling, belittling, drudging up the past, or playing the blame game, these habits must be “unformed”, and the best way to do this is by practicing conversation the right way. Sometimes it takes a mediator, but the best way to undo an old habit is to practice a better one. Being realistic about progress means that there is a lot of grace in the practice stage. It also means that while you are practicing the art of conversation, you are aware and grateful that the effort is being made and that the priority is being together.
Busyness has become the national pastime, except it is not a passive activity. Families run hard through the week, only to run harder on the weekends. Eating out combined with never being able to sleep in has become a toxic combination that puts the average family on the edge. And when the family finally gets home, everyone retreats to their happy place. So why is it that so many families appear so unhappy?
The advantage of an agrarian society is that the family had to work together; there was no other option. The fields had to be worked, meals had to be prepared, the animals had to be cared for, food had to be harvested, and so the family worked together, and grew up at home, not on the road.
A hundred years ago, the average person married someone who grew up less than twelve miles from where they were born. A quick poll in a room of a hundred people today would quickly determine that those days are gone. Now people often marry someone born hundreds or even thousands of miles from each other’s hometown. Do the math in your relationship.
So partnership is more difficult to achieve, but not less important. Just because the average family spends thirty-four minutes of uninterrupted time together each day (Highland Spring Group), does not mean that it is healthy. Our culture advocates for many things ranging from saving animals to trees, but if families are going to be healthy, they are going to have to advocate for time together in a growing partnership. The family is in need of saving too.
Partnership is such a vividly descriptive word. There is no ambiguity in the meaning of working together on the same task. A partnership is not limited to two people either, but the marriage unit sets the tone here. Parents who are frustrated that their children do not work together or even seem to work against solid parenting efforts need to first look at the marriage to determine if a partnership is being modeled. If not, that is the starting point.
The act of sex is a part of a sex life, but any couple that limits their thinking in this area will spin their wheels for a long time finding no solution. Referring to the problem in a marriage as “sex” is like telling the inquisitive waiter at the end of the meal that you do not like broccoli. It’s important information, but gives no answer to the actual question, “How was your meal?”
A nourishing sex life takes into account so many factors, including frequency, but certainly not excluding emotional preparation, soul connection, mutual satisfaction, healthy boundaries, and fidelity. Many times a spouse will be blown away by infidelity because the “chief indicator”, frequency, seemed to be duly checked off the list. Making frequency the “chief indicator” in a sex life is like expecting nourishment and satisfaction from three squares per day of crackers and water. No thanks!
Talking about a sex life includes a discussion of frequency and even satisfaction, but does not take into account the necessary ‘before and after’ considerations that actually do more to create great sex than ‘frequency’ ever could. In fact, addressing sex frequency without discussing the more important aspects of intimate love is the quickest way to build resentment in a relationship. Oh, the humanity! The case could also be made for marriage being ‘nothing more than legalized prostitution’ if a couple’s entire sex life is reduced to a math problem. This dilemma is a quality issue, not a quantity issue.
Although each leg of this ‘three-legged stool’ requires deeper insights and exploration, perhaps some good conversation starters could result if people would evaluate the health of their relationships based on these three essentials. The way we label problems in marriage is not just important, it could be the defining difference between frustration and progress. If your marriage is a little wobbly, then perhaps a look at which leg has been compromised is worth your investment. At this juncture, you have a choice to make. Either make the best of it, or ask your spouse to help you create a better place to sit. It is a joint effort, must be done together, and requires a lot of work, so make sure you have a solid foundation from which to build. If you would not accept any less in a restaurant, then certainly your home deserves your best effort.
© 2017 by Tim Bolen, LPC
Dismissing a guy because he is not “touchy feely” is a mistake. It is my belief that this skill can be learned, but may need an outside perspective.
I work with a lot of couples who are hoping to enjoy a better marriage, but are struggling to achieve one. It could be that there is a missing component that is sometimes overlooked. That component is a husband who is learning to manage the emotional aspects of an intimate relationship for the first time.
When faced with the challenge of resolving emotional conflict in a relationship, husbands often respond in the following way…
“You mean I have to take the lead? I don’t do touchy feely!”
When emotions are high, conflict is the culture, and the PH levels of the relationship are out-of-whack, someone needs to “man up” and take the lead. Before I explain what “taking the lead” means and how to begin, let me first express some observations that may help men who act shocked at the idea of taking emotional responsibility.
Men usually have no problem taking the lead in multiple areas of life where it benefits them. We are most often the ones literally driving the car, getting the whole family from one destination to another. Most women defer here, whether it be a cultural thing, or a convenience thing. Most of the time when a family rolls up to a parking lot, he is literally in the driver’s seat.
Men often take the lead when it comes to fixing stuff around the house, and so the “honey-do” list stays full. Even if this arrangement is not true of some relationships, many women wish that is was true of theirs. In other words, women generally do not mind men taking the lead if the man will actually do it.
In addition, men are the ones who often pay the bill at the restaurant, keep the cars repaired, and set the emotional tone in the house, even if it is not a good one. Men have often been the highest paid workers, and hold the majority of political offices in the country. Yes, women usually take the lead on handling the family finances, cleaning the house, preparing meals, and managing the children, but he usually still holds the top slot for “bringing home the bacon.” So, men are used to “taking the lead” in many areas of life.
All that being said, men are regularly shocked when they realize that all eyes are upon them when it is time to making emotional adjustments and physical changes in a relationship? More often than not, men say in my office during or after a therapy session,
“Why are you looking at me here to get this started?”
So if this is your question, here are some ways to think about this dilemma that may prove helpful to you. And since Father's Day is this Sunday, the time could not be more perfect.
Before we go there, let me ask if you have asked the question stated above, lately? If not, then men are by default leaving the question and the answer to our families to figure out. In my opinion, a man should not leave the most important questions as well as the answers to their families to figure out alone.
If the question, therefore, is “Why should behavioral change in the home begin with men?” then consider these three reasons:
1. Someone has to do it.
Things left to their own devises do not get better. With some exceptions like wine, leather boots, cast iron pans, and flannel sheets, most things do not get better with age.
Unmet emotional needs are definitely not on the list of things that accrue in value or usefulness as they are left alone. Quite the opposite is true, however, when we fail to address real emotions like resentment, apathy, resignation, or woundedness. When these powerful emotions are allowed to co-exist in a relationship, the shelf life on tolerance is easily outdone by day-old bread.
Someone needs to take ownership of these emotions, and I would advocate for men to do so, which brings us to the second reason.
2) Men have the brain for it.
Not to assume that women do not have the brain for conflict resolution.
In fact, I find that women are actually more skilled here without conflict resolution training than men are without training. But men do have the ability to compartmentalize their emotions, which can be a frustrating reality in many relationships, but an advantage if used properly.
I am no scientist, but I can read. Numerous research studies , starting back in the 1990’s, point out the obvious differences between the male and female brain. One of those differences is that in general, men do not have as much access to both sides of their brains as women do. So men either reason or they emote, but they have trouble doing both of these functions together. Because men can compartmentalize their emotions, they certainly have no excuse for engaging in challenging emotional situations in a relationship. Granted, this reality can be complicated by previous trauma (PTSD), or by being over-stressed, or burned out, but aside from these potential barriers, men generally have the ability to:
· Listen without overreacting
· Understand without getting defensive
· Taking correction while in disagreement
· Following directions deemed in error
Men operate this way all the time in their work or they would not be able to keep a job. So if men can control their emotions in exchange for a paycheck or a night of passion, then they should be willing and able to do it in exchange for peace.
One last thought on why men should take the lead when it comes to emotional conflict.
3. Men are equipped to protect.
Imagine someone breaking into a house while the family is asleep. The parents hear a noise created by the intruder, and they wake up. Now imagine the husband grabbing the baseball bat, and then giving it to his wife while saying, “Go check it out.”
Can you imagine that scenario playing out like that? I personally cannot imagine a husband deferring to his wife when a threat presents itself against the family by sending her into battle alone. But I can imagine a husband expecting his wife to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to emotional conflict in the home. I see this reality all to often.
So what does it mean to “man up” emotionally? It definitely does not mean to pretend to be someone you are not. So here are a few ways to move forward if it is time to “take back the bat” from your wife when it comes to conflict in your relationship.
· Admit this is an area of unfamiliarity.
Pride creates impasse situations, and if men struggle here, their wives already know it. Men are often the last ones to know we need help regulating our emotions in an intimate relationship. It takes strength to admit an area of unfamiliarity, and I have yet to see a wife who did not admire this move on the part of her husband. Great intimacy is the natural result of great vulnerability.
· Get some help.
An outside perspective by someone trained or skilled in relationship enhancement can give a couple a ton of help in a short period of time. Chances are, you have several great things going for you in your current relationship, but you either cannot see them or do not know what to call them. A professional can give you a useful emotional vocabulary that will serve you for the rest of your life. You are probably not as far from peace as you think you are if there is humility to ask for help.
· Enjoy the fruit of your labors.
Once you invest in your relationship, it immediately begins to pay you back. We know how much conflicts cost (expensive), but no one has yet to put a price on peace (priceless). I would say that the time and resource investment pales in comparison to the rewards.
Husbands if you have read this far, it is possible that your wife encouraged you to read the article. Either way, kudos for wanting to grow here. There are lots of tools available to help couples bridge emotional distance, but the first tool is awareness, so use this tool as a conversation starter in your relationship and ask your wife the following questions:
1) Do we currently have unresolved conflict between us? (Probably a no-brainer.)
2) Do you think I do not care about our unresolved conflicts? (Put on your seatbelt and wives, please be kind.)
3) Do you think we can work this out alone, or is it time to seek help? (A great gift to the family this Father's Day.)
I recommend an ebook entitled "PrepWork" I wrote for the people I work with to help couples think about whether or not it is time to seek counseling.
Perhaps it is time to get "touchy feely" after all. It is definitely an investment that is worth the effort. If you are willing to get started, help is right around the corner.
© 2017 by Tim Bolen, LPC
Tim has over 29 years in pastoral ministry and is a Licensed Professional Counselor. He and his wife, Mary, have four girls and have been married for 28 years.