My Inside vs. Your Outside

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A client’s mom recently asked me what I see as the biggest challenge for teens.  I thought about all  of the work I have done with so many different teens and answered based on what is most commonly discussed in my sessions.  As teens walk through the hallways of their high schools they encounter hundreds of peers at each class passing  and scrutinize the clothes, hair and bodies of their classmates.  These teens see what appears to be  ‘put together’ kids who look happy, confident and surrounded by friends and compare this image to their own inner struggles of anxiety, depression and low self-worth.

I remind my clients time and time again that they are comparing what they feel on the inside to what they see on others’ outsides.  A teen who is feeling insecure and shy sees a bubbly group of kids walk by and assumes that the bubbly girls are happy and ‘perfect’.  What the insecure teen doesn’t know  is that  Ms. Bubbly’s parents may be getting divorced, she may be failing in school or she may have an eating disorder.  Another piece of this puzzle is that as low as the insecure teen may feel, Ms. Bubbly might look at her and think that she has it all together and is stress free.

One never knows what is going on inside of another person  or what happens behind the closed doors of what appears to be the perfect home. Too often we assume based on what we perceive to be someone’s happiness, and so many times we have assumed wrong.

I have clients tell me that they work really hard to look “happy” at school so that people won’t know that they are suffering.  I ask if they share their sadness or problems with their friends and most of the time they say that they don’t; they don’t want people to know, they don’t want to burden their friends or it is just easier to not discuss their pain.  I’m grateful that these kids are able to open up to me (or rather break the silence after gentle therapeutic coercion; they rarely want to talk to me either).  I do wish they had others with whom they felt safe about disclosing their personal challenges.

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I have yet to meet the ‘perfect’ person.  I share this with my clients regularly and the notion that everyone has challenges and bad days.  It is true that some suffer more than others, but there is no one that is issue- free.  Often I use the word “human” when trying to impress upon my clients that no one is perfect.  We are all human; we hurt, we laugh, we grieve and we celebrate.

I must say, we grown-ups often fall into the same patterns of comparing our insides with others’ outsides. That one has a nice car, great kids or perfect vacations; not so true.  Just like with the teens, we adults are not always aware of the struggles that our peers endure. If you or your teen falls into the “compare and despair” habit, try to remember that things aren’t always as they appear.


Community College: A great choice for some

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Disclaimer: Each of my client cases are fictional. They are compilations of hundreds of client situations I have encountered throughout my career. This is to protect the confidentiality of my clients. Anything that may resemble a real person or family is simply a coincidence.

 

Last night was the Spring Sports Awards Banquet at my son’s school.  ‘Banquet’ in the sense that the teens dressed nicely and ate California Tortilla in the cafeteria.  The coaches spoke and presented awards, the teens were polite and enthusiastic and it was a nice event to celebrate these athletes.

After the initial dinner and awards, each team had their own presentation.  At the track break-out meeting, the coaches got more personal, talked about the season and highlighted several of the most improved and best sportsmanship award winners.

All of the seniors were asked to stand in the front of the room, introduce themselves, announce in which track event they competed  and share where they would be going to school next year.  There were at least fifteen kids;  handsome, fit, young and proud standing before us.  They spoke from the left side of the room towards the right: Virginia Tech, Virginia Tech, James Madison, Virginia Tech, William and Mary and it proceeded.  I smiled when one boy said North Carolina noting that someone was leaving the state.  Then one boy shyly said “unlike the rest, NOVA for two years and then Virginia Tech”. The line went on to Virginia Tech, UVA and Georgetown.

My heart sunk.  I don’t think anyone else noticed the discomfort emanating from this young man, but I couldn’t let it go.   He seemed ashamed of his choice and intimidated by all of the four year schools that his teammates were attending.

The pressure that these kids experience day in and day out can be overwhelming; from appearances to finances to grades, peer groups and college.  There seems to always be an opportunity for shame and comparison as a teen (and adult as well).

As I mentioned in this blog post , I have worked with many students attending Northern Virginia Community College.  Some students began at NOVA directly after high school and some started at another school and for various reasons decided that NOVA was a better fit for them.

It has been a great learning opportunity for me to work with these clients that are attending NOVA.  I’ve learned a lot about the NOVA system, its academics and its culture.   One client who had struggled at several other universities grabbed an opportunity at NOVA and soared.   He took his classes seriously and put a great deal of time into his studies.  He was thrilled when he found that he was getting all A’s and gained an entirely new outlook on academics and his own power to have success.

One of my clients struggles with learning challenges.  This client has embraced his studies at NOVA and also had success.  He took the placement exams before matriculating which placed him in the proper classes for his specific abilities.  He has enjoyed his classes and been able to receive the help that he needs with his specific challenges.

Another one of my clients always felt “dumb” at his private high school. He spent a semester at a larger university and decided that it was not the right fit for  him. Since being at NOVA, this client has become a new student; he feels comfortable in his classes, has felt encouraged to raise his hand and participate regularly.  He likes the fact that the pressure is less and it is a more relaxed atmosphere.

A few years ago, I was having a discussion with two friends.  One of them made a derogatory comment about someone going to NOVA.  I stopped her and requested that she re-evaluate her comment.  After working with all of these kids, some of who do have shame about attending NOVA, I have a better appreciation for their journey.  I want to promote the upside to community college; it can be right for so many.  With the price of college, many kids have to attend NOVA for economic reasons solely. And, as I have stated, sometimes it is just a better fit for some students.

I am really glad that my clients have taught me about positive aspects of community college and I hope to help shape others who have yet to see the benefits.

As much as the therapist in me wanted to approach the boy last night and tell him “it’s going to be okay”, the mother in me knew that both he, and my son, would have been mortified had I done something so outrageous (and my poor son has been witness to many an outrageous measure performed by this mother of his).  I do hope that someone tells that young man that it is okay and he is going to get exactly what he needs as he continues on his own personal academic path.


Temper the stress of exam time

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Ah the stress of April and May – SOL’s, AP’s, SAT’s …..the alphabet continues. Exams, projects and more.

Today I was greeted by  a good-morning text from that college kid who was up all night studying for exams. Last week,  a client  shared that at the end of her Spring Break, she was so anxious about the numerous AP exams ahead of her that she was unable to enjoy her last weekend of vacation.  My sophomore in high school is spending the end of April reviewing for all of the upcoming assessments that occur in May. (My confusion lies in the fact that  Fairfax County schools  have been extended until June 25, and yet, this high schooler claims that they are done learning new material in the third week in April.  Once the exams are done the  Finding Nemo  continuous feed begins in many of the classrooms while the kids sleep at their desks…don’t get me started)

So, how do we help the kids with the stress and the reviews and the push for high grades and high scores?

If I have learned anything, I have learned about the diminishing returns of sitting on one’s butt and staring at a page in a book.  Sadly, I didn’t really learn it  until graduate school, thus have wasted many an hour in the library getting nothing done.

I encourage students to spend a finite amount of time (1 1/2 -2 hours depending on the student) focusing  hard and then take a break.  Get up, take a walk, have a snack for a brief period of time (20-30 minutes) and then return to the studying a bit fresh and renewed.    So many of us have spent six hours at a desk but only gotten half as much work done.

Sleep.  It’s a good thing.  How can we operate at our best either studying or performing at an exam if our body is in overdrive from not sleeping?

Food.  That helps too. Especially  a breakfast before an exam.  I remember being told for best results to eat eggs for breakfast the morning of the SAT’s;  the green smoothie phase had yet to be enacted in the early eighties. Blend away my friends, our current SAT takers need their kale.

Other things that have been helpful are group studying. Not the kind where your basement is filled with teens and closed backpacks while the XBOX is on.  But,  two or three kids seriously quizzing one another and talking about the material can really help kids learn the content, retain the information and stay focused.  I might encourage some popcorn or pizza to add to the focus.

And, please, remind your kids that it is all okay.  All that matters is that they do their best.  The students that are super high stressed need reassurance that it is just a test.  It is an assessment of what they know at the time that they sit for the exam.  The tests are not self-esteem measures, although too often some kids see them as so.   A child who may struggle academically may view a hard test or a low grade as another failure on their part; this should be avoided at all cost.

Academics and grades are one part of who we are.  I hope that we all remember to remind our kids that they are special and unique people despite their GPA’s;  this can be easily forgotten amidst the stress of the moment.


This soccer mom has retired her cleats

Although this post is a little less ‘therapist’ and more ‘mom’ than normal, I write with both hats as I know many of my clients who have been on a baseball field, pool bleacher or dance theater and can definitely relate to the sentiments presented.

Grab your cleats, water bottle, shin guards and GET IN THE CAR…the words of every soccer mom.

Week after week, practice and dinner, dinner and practice and then weekend games.  Home or Away? House or Travel League? Win or Lose?

The soccer moms were my lifeline “can you drive him, I have a client ?” .  “We are out of town, can he stay with you for that game?”   “I got this practice, can you get tomorrow?”.

We spent hours on bleachers together; the soccer moms (and dads).  Freezing our tails off and burning into lobsters – soccer has no regard for the weather, if the fields are  open they are playing.

So many different teams; the three-year-old clinics, the house league made up of kids from the elementary school, the All Star team and the merging of house teams to make a travel team.  Each season new faces; new players bringing with them new parents.

The parents became my friends.  I spent more time with them than with my dearest  girlfriends.  It was so very seasonal; we’d be in each other’s faces all  Fall until the break before a short indoor Winter season and then Spring season started up again.   We rarely spoke to one another off season, but there were always warm greetings and hugs  at the beginning of a new game rotation.

Tournaments, oh the tournaments. Up at o’dark thirty to drive hours to a field in nowheresville.  Myself, another mom and four boys in my van.  It was always sweeter heading out than the return trip with the sweaty socks and smelly boys on their phones in the back.    We’ve had team meals all over Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, gathered in many a hotel lobby for pizza and once, even washed the uniforms in the hotel laundry room.  And, never was a weekend so much fun and connecting than the exhausting cold (and/or hot) tournament weekends.

Constant  laughter filled the parent cheering section.  We rooted for each other’s kids and cringed together when one of our players missed a crucial shot.  At every (and their were many) injury, all the moms pooled their Advil and ice in the spirit of healing.  On the sidelines we talked about books and vacation spots, we compared notes about our growing kids and tried to get the scoop on our own kid from a more-knowing mom.

We always had a season end party;  often at my house which was a lot of fun.   Fourteen sweaty boys in my basement playing X-box and a bunch of parents celebrating another good season of soccer and teamwork.

With the start of each season  we would lose a player or two. They moved, switched schools or went to another team.  For me, it was  sad.  I missed the kid and I missed the mom, my friend.  I would bump into her at the grocery store, we hugged, caught up and moved on to our shopping list.  Where was the bond? Was it a real friendship? All those texts between games, the laughter in our soccer chairs with the sun beating on our faces, it was so genuine at the moment and then our kids took us to different fields and new parent groups.

I could always count on the next season bringing another new kid with new parents.  New friends.  More car pool combinations.   More tournaments and laughter.

Last year there was a shift.  High school made for more options: Cross Country team, track, swimming and basketball.  The kids had new and differing interests. They also had more school work and less time.

My kid began Cross Country/Track all three seasons;  he liked it and was progressing really well. Daily practices, weekly meets as well as a heavy academic load plus soccer practices and games became overwhelming.  It was too much to make it all work and something had to give – my kid quit soccer.

Suddenly, I am a track mom.

But, what about our soccer friends? The connections, the games, the great coach and the wonderful memories.

Was it all just that: soccer? He misses it, he loves soccer, but he is running and has joined a new group of athletes.  Does he feel the loss like I do? I miss the team, the friends, the game.  Sure, he  misses it, but he is a sixteen year old boy, not a hormonal therapist mom who oozes in emotions.

Don’t get me wrong, track is great. The parents are wonderful and supportive, the coach is tough and committed.  A Cross Country meet can be half as long as a soccer game and the school provides buses!, but I miss MY soccer people.

What does it all mean? This role of being the kids’ mom to whatever activity is the activity du jour? Are connections fleeting? Were they real? Was it just in the moment on that one field?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have great memories and wonderful people in my heart that I know will cross my path again be it in the produce section or on some bleacher in my future.

 

Retired cleats and shin guard (oh so stinky)

Retired cleats and shin guard (oh so stinky)


The Boomerang Teen Part 2

AirDancer

I said I would return with suggestions to avoid having your teen flop back into the house for an extended stay in the middle of a semester.  I make no guarantees, sometimes a one-way ticket home is inevitable and necessary, but here are some thoughts on how to prepare for a successful flight out of the nest.

I love the idea of sleep away camp. Any reader that has spotted one of my summer posts is aware of my proclivity towards all things camp.  I have promoted camp for infinite reasons (friendship, bonding, summer structure etc.) and one of the biggest reasons is for kids to get a taste of  being away from home.  There are many kinds of  camps that can meet this objective;   sports camps, Scout camps, academic camps and arts camps and they vary in length from a few days to an entire summer.

Camps provide a sense of independence for kids with the safety net of responsible adults who are not their parents to guide them.  At camp kids learn to manage their own clothes, toiletries and meals without mom and dad micromanaging all the details. If they miss a night of teeth brushing or lose a sock (or hundreds), it is all part of the process of learning to have some independence.  I have found that the kids that have spent time away from home for a period of time during their middle and high school years have had the easiest transition to college and have had  less risk for the boomerang swing.

When a teen has increased responsibility throughout high school, he will have an easier transition to college.  Freshmen start slowly, perhaps getting  more opportunities to socialize with peers in groups before they are juniors and driving independently. Many juniors and seniors obtain part-time jobs which teach them responsibility, time management and a bit about finances.   Extra-curricula activities also help a teen with independence; there are clubs with responsibilities, teams with obligations and bands and theater with commitments that the teen must learn to balance with academic and other expectations.

One of my biggest selling points with my clients and their parents is for the kids to become responsible for their own academics.  A freshman in high school should manage her own schedule by knowing when she has an exam, when papers are due and the status of her grades.  I encourage parents to be supportive and helpful WHEN ASKED, but to allow the student to manage his own work load.  The more autonomy a high school student has, the more success will occur in college.

Parents often tell me that their teen will fail if the parent lets go of the academic reins.  The best advice I ever got was at a back-to-school night when my oldest child’s teacher said “Parents, you have already completed second grade, it is their turn.”  Yes, it is their turn; their turn to learn,  their turn to succeed and their turn to fail.  I constantly stress to these parents that the fall is easier when they fail junior year before they are legal adults and still in high school than when they are half a state or country away, paying thousands of dollars for tuition and suddenly realizing that they don’t know how to manage their work load without mom leading the way. (Students with learning disabilities or attention challenges do require more parental supervision.  It is important to strike a balance between over-doing and supporting the student; not an easy task for many families).

My last thought is to address mental health issues if and when they present themselves.  If a child is predisposed to anxiety or depression and has struggled throughout her adolescence with symptoms of sadness, feeling overwhelmed or anger management issues, please GET HER HELP.   Sending a child off to college who is struggling emotionally can be a set-up for failure.  College is inherently stressful with its huge life transitions and rigorous academics.  If your teen seems to be struggling, getting him the help he needs before he leaves home can arm him with the extra tools he may need to have a successful college experience.

Again, sometimes things happen.  Unplanned trauma, anxiety or homesickness can occur; kids come home and it is okay.  There is always another path and other options, so don’t fret.

One last thought, have your kids learn to do their own laundry……if nothing else it will make for a more pleasant aromatic experience for the roommate.


The Boomerang Teen

AirDancer

I am dedicating this to all the parents who have kids home tomorrow either due to snow, teacher workdays or other various reasons.  Find yourself a few free moments and read a post or two. Laurie

As has been previously mentioned, I work with many adolescents.  I work with them both in high school and beyond. One population that I have had nice success with is the college kid who, for a variety of reasons, has returned home for a semester (or more).  I have worked with several kids who have become very depressed and/or anxious while away at college which has necessitated a medical leave of absence.  The schools’ counseling centers have been very supportive in such a scenario and huge advocates of the student taking the time off to heal.

Bringing your child home from college for mental health reasons is terrifying.  Many parents have shared their fearful trip of driving to the college to pick up the pieces of their child’s lost semester; kids so depressed they haven’t left their room in weeks, have fallen behind on all of their school work  and become so anxious about academic failure that the cycle becomes a virtual tornado whirling inside the poor kid’s soul.  After being dismissed from the mental health center and packing up the dorm,  the families find themselves in uncharted territory.  Our child is home, our child is really struggling, our child won’t get out of bed, our child has no peers around.  How can we make it right?

Enter Laurie Levine. When I  get the frantic call, I schedule the assessment for as soon as possible.  Usually the parents come in for the first session and I never see them again (they are left to pay the bill, contain the worry and get a vague update every few months).  That is good, that is how it should be; the teen establishes a nice rapport with me and begins to delve into his presenting problems in an independent and adult-like manner.

What went wrong at college? How is it that so many students are able to make it work in what appears to be a seamless manner when others find themselves back in their childhood beds struggling with mental health issues, legal charges or or sometimes somatic symptoms brought on by stress?

Each kid has his unique story.  Be it a predisposition to depression, an uncomfortable roommate scenario  triggering despondency or an over arduous academic load.  Sometimes college or this specific college is not a good fit for a specific student.  That is okay, it saddens me though, that to find the right fit there are often periods of despair and worry both for the student and the family.

I work with the teen on the initial complaints until she is feeling stabilized. Sometimes a referral to a psychiatrist is necessary when medication is indicated, other times weekly therapy isn’t enough and we bump up the intensity for a short time.  Usually, the crisis period is short lived (weeks to a  month) and then the task becomes identifying and processing deeper core issues to avoid a relapse back to the  malfunctioning  behaviors.

Meanwhile, there are many hours per week that the client is not in therapy.  Lying in bed should not be tolerated for more than a day and  half.  Family discussions about employment, local schooling and household chores can cause conflict especially when the teen is still feeling low.  I always encourage structure in one’s day, especially in the case of depression, he needs to get up, shower and have a reason to leave the house.

I am happy to say that the kids that I have worked with have  had good outcomes.  One student took a semester and a half off and then returned to his original school.  We did Skype sessions upon his return to school and then terminated after his first semester back because he was doing so well.  Another student struggled with such depression that after coming home, it was a struggle to just get her in for her session. After a year of good therapy and the proper medication regime, she found her calling in another field and attended a certification program. She is now working in her chosen career  and has not received therapy in over a year.  I’ve worked with several students that have settled in to some classes at Northern Virginia Community College during their time at home.  Most of them have had very positive experiences which has afforded them the time to work on their mental health challenges while also continuing with their education.

You are probably thinking: “Thanks Laurie for sharing your professional experiences with us, but what can we do to avoid being the next boomerang family on your caseload?”  I will fully oblige with such recommendations in a Part 2 to this post.  Give me a few days to collect my thoughts and I will be back here with brilliant (?) suggestions.


What may really be going on with your high school senior

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He got in to ________.    She was deferred from ___________.    He was rejected from ________.   Two more applications to submit.    Anyone know how to fill out the FAFSA?

This is what I have been hearing from seniors in high school and their parents for the past couple of weeks.  The SATs/ACTs/ABCs, the essays, the waiting and that email (in my day it was a thin or thick letter) that elicits exaltation or deep sadness within one click of the mouse.  And, these are just the ones that applied early or rolling admission – this will continue over  the next few months until the big push in April when all colleges will have admitted their incoming freshman class.

I have worked with many seniors in high school.  It is such a pivotal time. In some ways it is a ticket out, a ticket to freedom and a move towards independence.  In many ways it is a very scary time.  As much as the  seniors are flexing their muscles to be on their own, there is something to be said for home cooking, clean clothes and mom and dad lurking around to ensure that life tasks have been checked off, paid for and handled.

Early in my career I worked in high schools and observed the precarious nature of that status of “senior”.  The seniors were the leaders of the school, captains of the teams  and enjoyed privileges of the upper-most upperclassmen (definitely the best parking spots and lunch tables). And yet, in my office they presented as anxious and vulnerable. Would they get in to a college? Would they be able to handle the work load, the transition and the independence?

It is normal to feel apprehensive.  I continually reassure my senior clients that they are not alone in these fears.  They have been under so much pressure since junior year jumping  through all of the “get into college” hoops that they have barely had a moment to ponder what it all means.

Enter second semester senior year, also known as “senioritis” or “senior slump”.   The applications have been submitted; some have heard from schools and some are still waiting.  Grades matter, but not as much as  before.  There is time again to pause, reflect and realize “HOLY COW – I AM GOING TO GRADUATE”.

Seniors may experience this as a sudden shock, a slow building of anxiety or depression or  via other symptoms like withdrawal from friends or a drop in grades.   Some of my clients have suddenly brought home D’s and F’s after a high school career of A’s and B’s.  I talk to them frankly about self-sabatoge; if they have anxiety about graduation and leaving home, a handful of F’s could easily upend that plan without having to admit “I’m nervous about the next step”. It can be easier to crash and burn through that last English credit than have to face the reality that this graduation thing is actually going to happen.

We adults often forget how emotional and challenging this time can be.  Teachers, parents and other adults act as  cheerleaders raving about graduation and the exciting changes that are coming. But the awareness of these trepidatious months can be really helpful;  attend to your seniors, acknowledge that this is a big time of transition and it is okay to feel uneasy or anxious.  They may just appreciate it enough to stick around for dinner one night this week.