Archive for September, 2012

In one year, two 9th grade girls found the courage to speak words that no child should ever have to speak…

It guts you… absolutely rips at your insides, to hear children speak of being molested by someone in their family.

As a counselor, it was, and will always be, my job to temper my own emotions and reactions to the stories of others… so I can find the way to help them begin their healing. And this is no easy task.

With these two girls, it started with a gut feeling… and one that I get all too often in my line of work. The student(s) walk into my office, either on their own or because a teacher sent them to me, and I start my process. I make sure my own “stuff” is put to the side… and I pay attention. I look. I listen. I quiet things down inside myself to be sure that I don’t miss a cue. I mind my tone and my volume. I mind my expressions and my posture. I watch for their reactions to my presence and I make any necessary adjustments until I see ease on their faces and hear in their words the trust I need to hear to move forward.

I know how badly each child needs to be seen, and it’s my job to give them an adult who sees them. Sadly, to really see the students who come to me, I have to keep the horror stories close in mind. I need to keep the worst case scenarios accessible because for them, the words won’t come easy… at least not yet… and for the healing to begin, sometimes they need me to carefully guide them towards the places that scare them most.

But the steps they need to take won’t be taken unless they feel assured that that they’re no longer alone with their demons… and that I am not afraid of their demons.

My goal for these two girls who had experienced the most heartbreaking betrayal of trust imaginable, is the same goal that I have for any child I speak with about a hurt or a trauma they’ve experienced:

To move them through their hurt towards the strength that’s already inside them… so they can someday speak, with steady voice and strong eyes, about what they’ve endured… and have now overcome.

For three years, I made adjustments with these two amazing young ladies… separately… all the while following their leads and reading their needs. When to challenge. When to stir laughter. When to invite tears. When to validate strength… and when to face vulnerabilities.

For three years (and countless other big and small student issues), I had to know when to give space, when to reach out, when to look back at the past… and when to demand that they start looking forward. And for three years, I met with them separately in pursuit of that strength that allows people to one day own their scars and speak of them fearlessly.  Which each of them found.

I don’t remember exactly what made me suggest that they meet each other (which they both agreed to without hesitation)… but I suppose it was the way they could both speak to me about their pasts and their futures… with laughter… with humility… and with a perspective reserved for only those children who have known and faced demons we all wish they never had to.

And so there we were… the three of us. Some counselor guy, and these 2 beautiful, strong, intelligent champions.

Needless to say, it was super awkward. There I was sitting with 2 teenagers who had been molested by different family members (which remains hard to say, hard to write, and most definitely hard to hear)… and somehow, I had to kick things off. Which I did, with the same lightness and confidence that I knew they both possessed.

“So yes, I am fixing the two of you up, strange as that sounds, and from the looks on all our faces, mine included, this is pretty awkward… but we’ll get through it, ’cause you guys have gotten through stuff much harder (I say with my most reassuring smile)”

Chuckling ensued (not me, just them)… which eased the room.

“To move this forward, I’m just going to say it out loud… the two of you share a story, and have come so far, and I couldn’t be more proud… both of you, separately, have worked so hard and shown so much courage… I just felt that the two of you could give to each other a kind of support and understanding that I, for obvious reasons, just can’t… plus, you’re both just really cool kids who I thought would get along”

More smiling… and now, eye contact between the two of them…

“So how about we start with who it was that hurt you…”

And without hesitation, looking directly at each other…

“My father” says one…

“My brother” says the other…

And I sat back, eyes watering… humbled beyond words…seeing the tears run down their cheeks and the smiles on their faces… watching them gently listen to each other… and hearing them speak fearlessly about the shared stories they lived.


Posted: September 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

it’s an “emotional management” issue that people have labeled as an anger issue.  the problem is, we’re just not as angry as we often look. but we are hurt. we are overwhelmed. we are scared. we are ashamed. we do feel powerless. we do feel neglected, rejected and abandoned. and we are lonely and we do feel more hopeless and helpless than we’d like. and instead of being taught how to face and feel our real feelings, we reflexively just flip them in our heads and hearts into anger… which is why people think are problem is with anger, and not the real stuff underneath.

disguising our real feelings as anger has become a habit for those of us who you label as “angry”. instead of being taught that all emotions are natural and actually useful and beautiful, we learn to ignore them, deny them, repress them, or drown them…

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A young boy, about 14, came into my office with 4 other boys. They were all there to try to find out how they could get their ID’s so they would be let in to the cafeteria. The 5 of them shared the same expression… the expression that nervous kids wear when they’re trying to appear comfortable.

It was their 2nd day of high school as new 9th graders in my Brooklyn high school with almost 3000 kids. Their nervousness was obvious, normal, and to be expected.

My words came easy to me (I’ve done this many times before), and after a few kind, understanding words, and a couple of comforting (and deliberately unfunny) jokes… they bravely (though still nervously) went on their ways together through the crowded halls to the cafeteria.

Except one.

While the others were leading the reluctant charge out of my office, the 5th boy, who stood behind them all with his back to my wall, who was a tallish, lean, good looking kid with shaggy, “skateboarder” type hair, asked me if there was any way he could be allowed to wear his hood.

His question piqued my curiosity… as do most strangely placed reasonable questions asked by a student. It was respectful. He asked because clearly, he didn’t want to break a school rule. And it was definitely motivated by some other less obvious need… and so I did what I normally do when a young person does or says something that triggers even the slightest hint of a concern… I smiled at him and told him to grab a seat “for a second”.

And it didn’t take long to get a clear picture of what was going on. This kid was a good kid, clearly. And he was carrying with him an added anxiety that made him ask me, a complete stranger, to be allowed to do something we both knew he wasn’t allowed to do.

And so after less than a minute, and with some purposefully placed and reassuring questions, this young man bravely told me that he’s been losing his hair, and “not just a little”. He explained to me that the doctors were trying to figure out what was going on, but that “his bald spot just kept growing”. And after this young man showed me the bald spot that covered nearly the whole back of his head that was barely obscured by his intentionally long and shaggy hair… I got it.

I got his need. This kid, on his 2nd day of high school, was just looking for any way possible to minimize the likelihood of being teased. He was just trying to find a way to keep the anxiety of starting high school at it’s normal level and not have it magnified by this “really weird” (his words, not mine) bald patch on the back of his head.

So with my most reassuring smile, I set out on my mission. I set out, with my tone, my directness and my confidence, to assure him that I was going to listen to him and help him navigate his minefield. I committed to teaching him, in this first interaction, that 1) there was an adult in this huge new and unknown building that he could talk to about anything, that 2) good things can happen when you communicate honestly and openly and bravely, and most importantly, that 3) there was a way to not have to hide, and a way to trust that he’d be fine, regardless of how he looked, or what others said to, or about him.

Right now, all of us are in period where the issue of “bullying” is on every adult’s, and child’s minds. We’re all worrying about the impact that being bullied has on a young persons safety and sense of self. We’re worried about kids killing themselves to escape bullying and we’re worried about kids becoming bullies as a way of stealing back some power.

And here I was in front of one of the thousands of kids I’ve known and will get to know, giving to him the gift that each kid deserves to be given… the idea that there is a way to reject and remain unharmed by the verbal and emotional attacks directed towards them. That there’s a point any of us can get to, where we realize that we have the power to choose whose words affect us… and whose don’t.

No kid deserves to be taunted or teased. Every kid needs to know there are adults in their lives who will back them up. And every adult needs to be more vigilant to the realities of young people today.

But whether we like it or not, teasing and harassing and bullying are a part of the developmental process. It’s true. We all know it, no matter how old we are, and because of this irrefutable truth, we need to do a better job at arming kids with the tools to cope, rather than fruitlessly trying to shield them from something that’s inevitably going to happen.

Instead, we need to teach our kids, like this kid with the “weird bald spot”, that it’s in them to have the quiet confidence that can empower them to hear verbal attacks, yet not let them in to cause harm. And I’m not talking about telling our kids to sit back and allow the abuse to continue… of course we should teach them to reach out for support when it exceeds a threshold we help them define. Nor am I suggesting that we teach our kids that bullying is normal or acceptable.

What I’m saying is that it’s in each kid, if there are adults in their lives to tell them as such, that they are more than capable of hearing a tease or a harsh word, of looking the bully in the eye, of shrugging off the attempt at harm, and moving forward in the direction of their choice.

Just as it’s in this young man with the attention-grabbing bald spot to be able to react to the next kid who says something stupid and mean, with a confident look, a sturdy shrug, and a step forward in the direction of his choice.

I spoke to this 9th grader for a few more minutes. We talked about quiet confidence. I told him that when, not if, the teasing happens, he’s got adults he can come to for support or help if he needs it. I told him that he wasn’t alone. And I assured him that everyone who has ever walked the planet, has had insecurities targeted and mocked by others… including me.

And then I introduced to him to what I knew. I told him the truth that the character and the confidence he needed to become graceful and strong with any shot that comes his way, was absolutely already a part of who he was. I told him straight away, that sitting there with me and speaking to me as openly as he did, was proof that it was in him to walk tall with ease and confidence… with or without the hair he preferred.

And he cracked a smile, looked me in the eye, and answered my question by saying “yeah Mr. Rockman, I believe you”.

And then I wrote myself a note to check on him the next day…

Whether it’s your own child, or a student of yours, the following is an example of a way of asking a question that can lead to a profoundly positive change in your relationship… and it can be used with all of the most uncomfortable, scary or emotionally charged issues. It’s not soft and it doesn’t lessen your authority, in fact, it magnifies your authority and role models courage… and more importantly, it gets the result you want:

“So, I’m going to ask you a pretty direct question, and it’s not to make you uncomfortable or because I want to tell you what to do or what not to do, I just want to be sure that you fully understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.” 

Obviously, it’s a long lead in to ask a question, and it’s geared more towards adolescents than younger children, but there is a point. And while you may choose different words that sound more natural to you, when you approach a provocative topic in a thoughtful and purposeful way, you’re truly maximizing the likelihood of getting an honest answer and ending up with a strengthened relationship.

I’m going to break down the elements of the above sentence to illustrate the purpose of each word.

“So, I’m going to ask you a pretty direct question”– This sentence prepares the child for what will be a more serious topic, and it guides them into a more appropriate state of mind… without scaring them or making them feel too cornered.  Though you are essentially cornering them into a conversation they most likely don’t want to have, this preface definitely eases the blow a bit. It simply shows that you respect them enough to not blindside them.

“… and it’s not to make you uncomfortable”– This disarms them by showing care for their feelings. And it shows understanding, because they most likely will feel at least a little uncomfortable (just as you will). It also begins to clarify that your intentions are good ones, and are not to “catch” them.

“… or because I want to tell you what to do or what not to do”– This portion is very important developmentally. When talking to an adolescent, you’re talking to a young person who is growing into independence. One of the most important needs of a teenager is to feel as if they have more control over their lives than when they were younger, and by stating that your intention IS NOT to control, you prevent them from being able to accuse of of trying to control them… which happens easily and often with teens. It shows that you respect them enough to make decisions for themselves which will make it safer for them to be more honest with you… even though underneath the surface, you may be afraid of what they may be doing. It simply increases your chances of having a conversation… instead of a fight.

“i just want to be sure that you fully understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it”– This is your big dismount. By saying these words you’re showing respect for their rights to make choices for themselves while also conveying your authority, life experience and wisdom. You’re essentially telling the child that your goal is simply to arm them to make the best decision for them… without telling them what to do. These words will make them feel guided and cared about… and not minimized or controlled. And these words may seem sneaky, because they are in a sense, but they’re sneaky in a way where both parties win. You win as the adult by making it difficult for the child to refuse to talk or to be honest… and your child wins because they are being inspired to be more thoughtful and reflective about their choices.

Whether you’re asking your student or child if they’re using drugs, having sex, involved with a gang, failing their classes, bullying others or doing any other potentially risky or hurtful behavior, when you choose your approach and words deliberately, you’re more precisely targeting the best possible results. As the adult, you may not want to have to be so careful, and you may just want to ask what you want to ask without seemingly “pandering” to your teenagers volatility, but if you want genuine honesty and calm communication, taking a little extra time and putting in a little extra thought will get you the results that you want far more often.

And once you get through your opening, and the safe, honest, respectful exchanges begin to flow, just keep the same principles in mind… choose your words thoughtfully and respectfully… and then listen well. Regardless of the answers you get from your child or student, whether they’re comforting illustrations of good decision-making, or admissions of dangerous or unhealthy decision-making… just be sure to honor your intention of arming them with the insights and information they need to make the best possible choices, and resist, with all your might, the temptation to overpower.

I’m going to keep this real simple parents… never again, as  long as your child is living under your roof, should you ever ask your child the following question:

“Do you have homework tonight?”

Why? Because the only thing that comes of asking this question is a power struggle. If your child answers “yes” they have homework, then you have to figure out how much they have and negotiate when they’re going to do it and for how long… which will surely be debated. And if you’re child answers “no” they don’t have homework, then you’re left wondering if they’re being honest and considering whether or not you want tell them to do some school work anyway… which will also surely lead to a debate.

Sure, there is the argument that young people should be given the opportunities to succeed or fail on their own so they can learn to take ownership of their decisions… and this I agree with… but not too soon. Instead, let your child work for and earn the right to make bad decisions. Don’t make it easy for them to make bad decisions. Set the limits that you know will help them cultivate healthy habits and keep setting the limits that are good for them… at least until they start showing determination to want to learn the hard way (at which time you can either give consequences or let them feel the impact of their own bad decisions). By creating healthy routines and structure regarding learning, you’re giving your kids the best chance to do well… with the added bonus of minimizing the likelihood of those nightly fights you so badly want to avoid.

So instead of ASKING your child if they have homework, starting from day 1 of the school year, simply TELL them to do their hour (or 2… your choice) of school work, and if you want, throw in some milk and cookies (or whatever snacks you choose) as a gesture of affection.  And if and when they tell you that they don’t have any, simply tell them… “that’s fine, so go over your notes, study for an upcoming test or read through the text”. And if you feel so compelled to give them an explanation, just tell them that you’re helping them create good habits that will lead to the freedoms, choices and futures they want.

Obviously, the younger your child is when you start creating healthy routines, the easier they’ll adopt the healthy habits you’re trying to promote. But if you’re starting later in their adolescence to set some limits, be prepared to weather some storms, and keep in your mind the reality that resistance is a part of a teenagers development… though it should never deter you from parenting your child. And by all means, when your child defies you, give them some consequences… but only if you’re also willing to reward them when they start to follow your lead.



because when we’re away from you, on our own, faced with a choice,  we’re going to feed the most powerful need or go after the most enticing feeling… no matter how many times you warned us.  for us, NOW is the only thing that matters.  what feels best RIGHT NOW.  what choice avoids the most pain or discomfort RIGHT NOW.  we’ll cut class even though we know we have a test tomorrow because it’s more fun and we want to feel connected to our friends… RIGHT NOW.  we’ll smoke weed or take a drink instead of taking a stand against it because if we don’t, we’ll get teased or mocked… and RIGHT NOW, we’d rather laugh with others than get made fun of by others.

if our need for acceptance is stronger than our desire to feel like a leader or an independent thinker, then we’ll follow the crowd. if our need to avoid loneliness is more powerful than our hope for a “healthy” relationship, then we’ll choose to be with friends or boyfriends or girlfriends regardless of how “unhealthy” they are for us.  if our need to feel visible by our peers is stronger than our need to learn what the teachers is teaching, then we’ll goof off in class rather than quietly focus on the lesson. for us, it’s all about how we feel and what we need most in the moment, and if it conflicts with what you’ve taught us or what you want us to do, than your wisdom might  lose out, and often does. at least until we start to see or feel some real benefit to making the tough choice.  somehow, we need to KNOW that your wisdom will lead to feelings that are as great as you say they are… we won’t just take your word for it.  for example, if you want us to make the tough decision that will bring us a feeling of dignity or pride, but we’ve never really felt those feelings, then they’re not real to us. and because they’re not real, we won’t choose them over the feelings that are real, like feeling understood by our peers.  if we’ve never experienced the feelings of courage or  honor, than we’ll most likely choose the path of lesser resistance, like acceptance or connection.  a lot of the decisions and choices we make are to avoid unpleasant feelings like loneliness, shame, embarrassment, rejection or powerlessness… rather than in pursuit of feelings like dignity, honor, pride, self-worth and courage.

we act out in class so others don’t see that we don’t know the answers… to avoid feeling ashamed or embarrassed.  we have sex with people we know we shouldn’t, and sometimes don’t even want to, just to avoid feeling lonely and to prevent feeling rejected.  we’ll mistreat or abuse others, even though we know it’s wrong, just so we don’t have to feel powerless in our lives (which we often do).  are you starting to see? do you understand just a little better? does it make more sense to you now why we often ignore your advice and wisdom? it’s not because we think you’re wrong or want to piss you off (well, sometimes we do), it’s simply because your advice usually offers rewards that we’ll appreciate more when we’re adults … while we’re more focused on feeling as good and as safe as we can RIGHT NOW… IN THIS MOMENT.

as young people, we’re constantly being barraged by wisdom, lectured, and preached to by adults who have learned their lessons… but remember, just because your advice might in fact be “good” advice doesn’t mean we’re going to integrate it into our lives quickly. our priority as young people is to survive and feel as good as possible, and if it means defying you or ignoring your sage words… then there’s a possibility we’re going to disappoint you on occasion. so keep this in mind, and use your understanding of our motivations to more creatively try to motivate us to follow your leads… because frustratingly for adults, defiance is a normal part of the process of us growing up.