Thursday, March 15, 2018

Parenting Toward Resilience

This blog is finally arriving.  I have been promising several folks this blog since December. And in true blog form, life continued to remind me that I needed to write this.  So here it goes.  As a mother, a daughter, a therapist, a recovery specialist, and a clinical social worker; I am going to challenge what your role as a parent.  

If you ask a parent what their primary job is, many will give you some version of “protecting my children”.  As a social worker who has witnessed the effects of trauma, abuse, and neglect; I can’t disagree that on a basic level this has some truth to it.  The problem is that once we get past the provision of basic needs and protection from physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse “protection” might be the wrong goal. 

I’ve been a social worker for 21 years and practiced as a therapist for 10 of those years.  In that time, I’ve never met a client who didn’t face a life challenge.  But here is the thing, as a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor, I’ve also never met a human who didn’t face a challenge.  Divorce, addiction, death, violence, illness, unemployment, natural disaster……...Life is hard.  Life is beautiful, but few adults would tell you it is easy.

Despite this reality, the number one struggle I see parents face is an intense and guttural desire to protect their children from pain.  I have watched them protect family secrets, silence children’s questions, hide their tears, and flat out deny reality……. all in a desperate effort to “protect” their children.  I have listened to professions of intense shame over the fact that parents were unable to stop divorce, addiction, bullying, and their child being cut from the team.   I have watched parents endure financial hardship to give their children things they couldn’t afford. I have seen parents endure abusive marriages in order to maintain stability for their children. I have seen them interrupt the consequences of a child’s behavior with excuses and financial support. 

I suppose if you could actually protect someone from a life with pain, loss, or struggle then these rescue behaviors might make sense, but you can’t.  If we know that our children will face obstacles, isn’t teaching them the skills to walk through those obstacles more useful then protecting them from struggle? 

 I would challenge that the mission of parenting is not protection, but rather to building resilience.

Resilience is really a complex interaction of risk and protective factors and it isn’t my desire to oversimplify it.  A child cannot be exposed to an unlimited number of risk factors without negative outcomes. We know that when risk is high children are more likely to have negative outcomes. But from a parenting perspective, you often just don’t have the ability to influence the risk factors.  What you do have the ability to influence are the protective factors that play into resilience. Parents are a critical component to the environmental, interpersonal, and social factors that contribute to resilience.  A caring relationship and a secure attachment to a parent are huge protective factors.  Resilience is a critical life skill you can teach your children.  Below are 4 ways I believe you can teach your children resilience.

4 Important Way You Can Teach Your Children Resilience

1.  Modeling –  I listen to parents express great anxiety that they don’t “have it all together” for their children.  They are distressed that their children have to walk through hard stuff with them because they just can’t do it perfectly.  Your children watching you maneuver the storms of life provides them a model.  Remember, we’ve already established life is hard.  You can rest assured that your child will turn into an adult who faces hard things.  No, we don’t want children to carry adult responsibilities, but we want to take advantage of opportunities to teach them how to walk through storms.

2.  Hard Conversations- Have hard conversations.  My mantra with children is, “if it happened to you we can talk about it”.  What happens in families, happens to children.  You can’t protect someone from something that is happening to them.  When you refuse to talk about it, that only leaves them to handle it alone.  This is particularly troubling when we are talking about children.  On their own they may not have the skills to make sense of what is happening around them.  They need you to talk to them so that they have a framework for understanding what is happening.  In an age appropriate manner, talk to children about what is happening.  You don’t have to dry your tears.  As an example:  It is okay to say to your child, “Mom/Dad is crying.  Everything is okay, but sometimes it makes me sad that grandpa is sick”.  This teaches your child that even in the midst of struggle they are safe.  It teaches them that it is okay to feel their feelings.  It also teaches them it is okay to talk about feelings.  Children are highly attuned to their parents.  When something is wrong they know it.  Even when you don’t talk about it they know it.  They can feel it.  When you don’t talk to them you leave it to them to imagine what is wrong, which can be really scary.  You also teach them that they can’t trust their instincts.  They know something is wrong but their trusted parent is telling them that everything is okay.  That sets them up to not trust their instincts as an adult.

3.   Listening without Fixing- It is often very difficult for children to talk to their parents about their struggles.  They know that their pain troubles us and they don’t want to upset us.  They will take any cues that you don’t want to hear their pain and stop sharing.  So avoid trying to distract them by changing the subject, or telling them it will be okay.  Just listen and validate.  Messages like: “Yes, it is hard”, “Yes, you will get through it”, and “I’m right here with you”, are very helpful.  This assures them that they are heard and seen.  It also sends the messages that you believe they are resilient and that they don’t need to be rescued because you believe in their abilities.

4.  Asking for Help -  If you need help ask for it.  Don’t buy into the myth that you are supposed to be a super hero parent.  All people need help sometimes.  When you ask for help you show your child that it is okay to ask for help (modeling).  Asking for help shows them the importance of community.  It models healthy ways to give and accept from others.  If you ask for help when you need it, your child will likely ask for help when they need it too.   

We won’t be with our children through every storm.  It’s a natural parenting instinct to try to protect your child from pain, but it just isn’t possible.  The greatest gift we can give our children is the gift to handle whatever life brings their way.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Last January I wrote about boundaries.  I think the sister to boundaries is detachment.  Healthy emotional detachment allows a social worker to engage empathetically and authentically with a client while not being overwhelmed by their emotional state. It also allows the client to be distinctly in relationship with you while giving them the dignity and respect to be their own person. It is critical to good work and yet perhaps harder for a social worker than you might expect.  Let’s talk about why detachment is a challenge and what you should stay aware of.

1.  Social workers are good at hard conversations
Social workers may be particularly prone to struggling with detachment.  Social workers have hard conversations every day.  We examine emotions, we reflect, we are insight oriented.  We are also surrounded by peers who are good at having hard conversations.  When you ask us how we are doing, we don’t say fine.  We tell you.  We aren’t shocked.  We aren’t uncomfortable.  We don’t pretend everything is okay.  My colleagues can take one look at me, call me out, and an hour later we have processed.  I happen to think this makes us wonderful, insightful people.  It can also distort our expectations of others.  Most of the people we work with have not had the same experiences with difficult conversations as we have.  Both their skill level at dealing with emotional content and their comfort level will likely be less than ours. Detachment allows us to accept where our client is at, to accurately assess the pace of introspection, and to allow the time necessary for the client to gain the skills they need to build emotional intelligence.

2.  You care
This may seem simple, but you became a social worker because you care.  You genuinely want to see people achieve their goals and do well.  Your passion and love for others can make detachment difficult.  Progress takes time and it doesn’t go in a straight line.  You will watch clients sabotage their happiness.  You will watch them withdraw and isolate.  You will watch them return to hurtful situations and continue to do things that don’t work.  This is okay.  This is part of the process.  In order for you to allow them to be human and allow the process to work, you will have to detach.  It’s not your journey.  It is theirs.  Watching someone suffer hurts, but your job is often to sit with them during the suffering, not to fix it.

3.  You’ve overcome obstacles
This is a big one.  Social workers are advocates, we are social justice warriors, we are change makers.  We are risk takers.  If you are like the social workers I know, you have a story, and it is a good one.  You have overcome obstacles to get where you are.  That is what we do with clients and that is often what we have done for ourselves.  You have taken a struggle and turned it into a triumph. So you know it can be done.  You know how it feels to be empowered, to reach a goal, to not survive but to thrive.  And you want that for everyone else.  You are likely a doer.  You see a challenge and you conquer it.  It is part of your resilience and part of your gift.

4.  You’ve seen miracles
I have been asked many times about how I can work in a career where I see so much human suffering.  That is true, social workers see pain.  We also see miracles.  Every day we get to see the impossible become possible.  We know nothing is impossible, because we have seen it.  We want that miracle for our clients.  It can be hard for us when people limit themselves because we know there aren’t really limits.  We know you can do anything and we really want you to know that to.   

These are all beautiful traits, but you can’t walk someone’s journey for them.  And…you shouldn’t.  When you fail to have healthy detachment with a client (or anyone for that matter) here is what happens.  If they achieve their goal, it won’t be theirs.  They will credit you and they will lose gifts that come with doing hard stuff.  If they don’t achieve their goal, they are likely to feel both shame and judgement.  Why aren’t they good enough?  Why can’t they make a decision when the answer seems so obvious?  Why did they backslide?  What is wrong with them?  We all know that intellectual knowledge doesn’t directly relate to behavior change.  Client’s often know intellectually what is working and not working about their behavior, but they just can’t do it differently YET….that is so okay.  That has to be okay in order for them to have a healthy relationship with you.  And the trick is that can only be okay if you are able to have healthy emotional detachment.  Detachment is part of love.  It is about loving someone exactly where they are and allowing them the dignity to own their journey. You are merely a guide.  Detachment allows you to be patient and respectful while honoring someone’s journey. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Next Right Thing: Self-Care is an Inside Job

The Next Right Thing: Self-Care is an Inside Job: So three things happened in the last months.   First, a colleague made a comment about how much they loved my blog (mental reaction:   What...

Self-Care is an Inside Job

So three things happened in the last month.  First, a colleague made a comment about how much they loved my blog (mental reaction:  What?  Someone actually reads that?).  Second, a friend told me I was the most positive and optimistic person they know (mental reaction:  Me?  Wow, that’s cool!). Third, on a particularly stressful day a mentor checked in on my self-care.  On this third one I responded by quickly going through my check list (Physical, spiritual, emotionally, intellectual).  They all checked off.  Daily workouts and nutrition – Check!  Daily prayer, reading, and meditation – Check! Plenty of processing with supportive friends –check, check!  And intellectual, well my month has been full of hanging out with brilliant colleagues and students so again –check. 

Here is the thing about self-care.  We often teach it as a check list.  It boils down to take care of yourself, and make sure your needs get met.  This is true but the external acts we take are really a means to an end.  Sure there are benefits to staying healthy and they certainly are an important part of self-care, but the truth is the most important part of self-care is a mind-set.  It is the difference between happiness and joy.  Happiness is situational.  It is fleeting.  We are happy when life goes our way.  Joy on the other hand is constant.  Joy is related to peace and serenity.  It is a spiritual understanding that in both times of tribulation and times of triumph there is a constant in knowing that you can rest in the assurance that in the end all will be alright. 

That sense of joy, that view of the world is what allows me as a social worker and an educator to walk with people in their vulnerability.  People are people.  They are by definition imperfect.  They will stumble and fall and they will rise and overcome.  As a social worker you will see their fear, their weakness, and their shame.  Working effectively with people (and living with them) is like differentiating between happiness and joy.  You must love them and believe in them in a constant way.  You must know without a doubt that whether at the bottom of a valley or the top of a mountain their value doesn't change.  Their value is constant and whether they know it or not irreplaceable.  The world needs them. 

Self-care as a social worker is more than whether or not you did that run.  It is about protecting your joy and your belief in the “inherent dignity and worth of the person (NASW Code of Ethics)”.  Be mindful to protect this, because the world can never be what we have given up hope on.
My hope as an educator is that we will model and teach our students about the very real and complex work involved in maintaining self-care from the inside.  That we will teach students to articulate who they are well, so that when the world is filled with negatitivity they will guard their joy and love for people.