Thursday, August 3, 2017

Trauma Recovery

Have you or someone you know been traumatized?

Symptoms: Sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, nightmares, irritability, anxiety, withdrawn, mood swings, anger…

If you have three or more of these symptoms in your life, it may be that you are suffering from a level of trauma that has been caused by a change in your life that has overwhelmed your capacity to manage.

We often think of trauma associated with military vets or first responders, but people do not realize that the death of a loved one (a common loss in life) can trigger various levels of trauma.

Many of the people I serve in my private counseling practice are suffering from the after effects of trauma, but do not realize that is what they are experiencing. Not knowing, and therefore being treated for trauma, creates other struggles in life:

·      Marital strife

·      Low self-esteem

·      Depression

·      Parental issues

·      Job dissatisfaction

And so because we are not being treated for trauma, we attempt to treat the symptoms, often resulting in re-traumatization without realizing that our efforts are making our situation worse.

So what can someone do once they realize they are dealing with the after effects of trauma? My first suggestion is that you get professional help; someone who can walk you through a treatment process like the one I am going to share with you here.

Knowing that trauma is a real factor in your life opens the floodgates for treatment success. In other words, it does not help someone to be treated for depression when they are dealing with trauma. When I work with clients who are struggling to cope with trauma, I walk them through a process that is simple, easily remembered, and can be measured for movement.

A word of warning when it comes to trauma: People are not machines, so we must avoid the following advice to others and especially to ourselves when we know that trauma has occurred:

“Get over it.”

“Deal with it and move on.”

“Grow up!”

Although the intention is to help people work through their experience, people must process pain before they are able to categorize and value it. When I work with clients going through trauma (loss, sexual trauma, violence, vocational trauma), this is a model that gives people something they can use to monitor healing.

When people have experienced trauma they need a vessel, distance, and an anchor.

Imagine getting into a boat, rowing out to a remote location into a peaceful cove in the middle of nowhere where you are alone with your thoughts, a pole in the water, a cooler of drinks and snacks, perfect temperatures, and the day to just relax and enjoy having no pressures or expectations upon you. There were three things you needed in order to experience a day like this: a vessel, distance, and an anchor.


When you are on the water, you need a vessel that will float. You need something that will allow you to focus on the amenities that surround you without any fear of sinking. Holes in the boat must be addressed before setting sail so that your time on this vessel is not invested in worrying about the means through which you arrive or depart.

For some people, their vessel is their work. They pour themselves into projects, meetings, people issues, and keeping occupied. Though this might be a form of re-traumatization for some, there are those who find comfort in their work. If your work provides a place for you to “do your thing”, then this can be a good thing.

But for some people, their work reminds them of their trauma, or is a constant source of irritation, making the vessel a daily concern instead of a daily support. If you are distracted by “holes in the boat” it is unlikely that this means of travel is going to provide the necessary vessel.

So others might find their vessel to be a hobby (sports or collecting), a new venture (cave-diving or a puppy), or an old habit (journaling or coffee with a friend). These “vessels” are a regular part of your week that you look forward to, that are stress-free, and that do more to energize you than drain you.

Do some creative thinking here, but make sure there are no holes in the boat. Better yet, have a back-up vessel that you can choose from in case one vessel needs the occasional break.

Once you have identified your vessel(s), decide which direction to go and put some distance between you and that which has traumatized you. There  are so many ways to accomplish this, but because we have chosen poor vessels, distance seems to be a daily battle.

Obviously, quitting your job is not an easy decision, but in some cases, that is the most logical way to distance yourself from trauma. But in case you have other options, and your job is not the source of daily irritation, consider how else you might put distance between you and the things that prevent you from healing.

Sometimes, distance means that certain relationships must go away…for a while. I am not advocating for isolation, only distance with a purpose. It may be that those relationships can be mended at a later time, but if your goal is to heal from trauma, then distance is required in order to process and repair what has happened.

For many people, relationships cannot just “go away”. Perhaps some relationships can be in a cooling off period with the explanation that you are receiving help for some things you have experienced and privacy is appreciated. Close friends and family members are sometimes not as understanding as we desire, so let it be known that this is not permanent and that you will let them know when it is ok to re-engage.

Boundaries must be set and maintained at this juncture. I have literally been sitting in a cove on a lake, thinking I am all alone, only to have the moment ruined by a jet ski looking for calmer waters. Maintaining boundaries is harder than setting them, but the sooner they are set, the quicker people will begin to understand that you are serious about healing.

Ask for advocacy here with those who are aware of your need for healing so they can help you protect your boundaries, giving you the distance you need.

One more word of encouragement on boundaries: Initial criticism is due to not understanding or even believing that trauma is a reality in your life. Expect criticism from some, but be ruthless to find those in your life who believe you and partner with you so you can be protected as you daily set sail to your cove of choice.


My dad always had two anchors in the boat when we went fishing in Lake Okeechobee, FL. So my encouragement is that you have more than one anchor in your life that will be the mainstay for your healing process.

Anchors are that which ground you. They are steady and stable and understand they have one job…to keep you from drifting. This means that anchors know what you have been through, they understand the nature of your trauma, believe in your plan, and protect you as you sail toward more peaceful rivers of healing.

Anchors are weighty, and a little unyielding when you try to pick them up but their weightiness works to your advantage if they understand their purpose. Anchors work with you, and therefore, against anyone or anything that is attempting to move you where you do not want to go.

Partnering with anchors takes honesty, openness, and regular accountability so they can use their influence to your advantage. It is unwise to get into a weight distribution contest with an anchor. The wasted effort is a form of re-traumatization, so working together is a must.

Choose anchors wisely as they have a key position in the healing process. Much like the vessel, they are steady and dependable. The only flexible part of this process is the distance (How much? How long? Where?).

Obviously, trauma is a serious issue that require specific care, but having a model to think through helps the person get started, move forward, and see actual progress.

Trauma recovery is possible if treatment is offered and received. The path on the other side of healing is paved with wonderful discoveries for those who have the help and the courage to work toward that path. Today is the day to start, so share that encouragement with someone in need. They are just small one step away from hope and a few steps away from healing.

© 2017 by Tim Bolen, LPC

Tim is a professional counselor and marriage therapist and has a private practice serving two locations in Covington, GA and Loganville, GA. Tim works with adolescents and adults, and families in crisis. You may contact him or set up an appointment by visiting his Psychology Today profile. Tim specializes in marriage and family issues as well as offering various groups and workshops in the Newton and Walton County area. You can also visit his website for additional resources at TriCord Hope, LLC.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Tough Conversations with Kids (Pt. 3) - Anti-bullying tactics

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.

1. Origins

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.
Action plan
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.

2. Signs
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.

3. Alliances

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.

© 2017 by Tim Bolen, LPC
Tim is a professional counselor and marriage therapist and has a private practice serving two locations in Covington, GA and Loganville, GA. Tim works with adolescents and adults, and families in crisis. You may contact him or set up an appointment by visiting his Psychology Today profile. Tim specializes in marriage and family issues as well as offering various groups and workshops in the Newton County area. You can also visit his website for additional resources at TriCord Hope, LLC.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Tough Conversations with Kids (Part 2) – Having the Same-sex Talk

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
Copyright 2017
Tim has a private practice serving two locations in Covington, GA and Loganville, GA, and works with adolescents and adults, and families in crisis. You may contact him or set up an appointment by visiting his Psychology Today profile. Tim specializes in marriage and family issues as well as offering various groups and workshops in the Newton County area. You can also visit his website for additional resources at TriCord Hope.