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Friday, August 29, 2014

Losing a Child to Death

“If we lived in a perfect world, life would never be extraordinary.”
—Michael Bishop

I have always been a collector of quotes and consider myself quite the philosopher as a result of embracing the brilliant minds of those who preceded us but today the words of wisdom I repeat are from my nephew, Michael, whom I have always believed understood human nature more than any young person I’ve ever met. It’s as though he were an old soul brought here to impart on us. These words have pentetrated me on such a deep level that I was compelled to share so that others might feel comfort if only for today. Here is my story.

I am no stranger to death or dying as many people I have loved have passed. At one point I even referred to myself as the angel of death because so many people around me died. In one year alone, I lost 11 people who I cared for deeply. My grandmother, Bertie, would always allow a few tears after a loss but would then gently guide, “That is enough…we’ve got to keep going.” I embraced her acceptance of death and life and moved through the stages of grief quickly by automatically accepting death…until last year when my son, Katlin, died unexpectedly. Before, I had never asked why. I had never felt cheated. I had never questioned the directions or turns my life took—ever. I only trusted that nobody gets out of here alive. My faith was so strong and incredibly solid. But now I find myself questioning my own existence. What does life mean? What is my purpose? Why am I here? Why couldn’t it have been me? How can I go on?

I realized I had never truly grieved the loss of loved ones and I felt like a fish flopping and suffocating out of water. My emotions unpredictable, my gratitude gone, my desire for life diminished. I lost my meaning. I stopped caring how others felt. I no longer wanted to be helpful to my humanitarian causes. I no longer wanted to live. Then Michael’s word struck me so deeply, “if we lived in a perfect world, life would never be extraordinary.” I realized in that moment with those words that everyone faces adversity. Everyone has difficult times. Everyone feels despair. But that is why the other times feel extraordinary. Without the comparison we would take life for granted. We would not envelop the special times or those precious moments that make us feel whole.

I will not kid myself or lie to you…I have experienced a pain so intense it feels like I am stumbling aimlessly with a spear impaling my heart but for the last two days Michael’s words have provided a peace and I feel comfort for the first time. Each and every time, I begin to feel the pang of sadness his words blanket me, if we lived in a perfect world, life would never be extraordinary.” Until this moment, I had lost my reason for being but I know that my son would not want that for me. He has two beautiful children who need to understand what extraordinary means. I had kept looking for signs that gave me permission to move forward. Each time I tested the universe demanding a sign they were presented to me but then I would want another and another. I disregarded them all. It wasn’t until Michael shared his insight that I finally got it. I cannot promise I will never feel sadness. In fact, as I write these words, my eyes well up with tears, but for today, for this moment, I will carry on in my son’s honor. I have always lived for him and my promise and commitment to him is that I will live for him now. I will carry on our message to help families live better. If you are interested and want to know more about our goal, please visit,

Again, I am eternally grateful to Michael for his words and to Katlin for his inspiration. Also, I want to thank my loving husband, Alan, for his tremendous support during this very difficult time.  And it is because of the support of family and friends that today feels extraordinary. Below is a poem my son wrote to me in 2004 which means so very much to me:
Katlin Shaw
January 2004

All I want is to get along,
But I guess I feel like I don’t belong,
I feel like I have no one to care,
But then I sit and think…you were always there,
To help me out with anything I needed,
Quick to forgive every time I pleaded,
So I guess my mind likes to play tricks on me,
Covering my eyes with anger through which I can’t see,
But deep down inside, I know what’s right,
And I cover up emotions every time we fight,
I know how mad you are at the things I do,
And how you want to help but I just ignore you,
How you want to spend time with me and I just say “no,”
Then I leave and sometimes don’t even come home,
I know all this builds up inside of you,
And makes you feel helpless and there’s nothing you can do,
“Sorry” doesn’t mean anything coming from me anymore,
So I’m not going to say it cause I’ve said it before,
But I will say I realize every time I lie, or cheat or steal it scars you inside,
And some of those scars will never go away,
No actions I make or any words I can say,
I wish I could take all the shit I’ve done back,
And erase it from memory and that would be that,
But what if one of us were to die today,
And the word “Goodbye” we didn’t get to say,
What if we never saw each other again,
No more hugs or laughter or funny looking grins,
No more “Bye, love you, see you tomorrow,”
And the last words you said would drown you in sorrow,
All that was left was pictures and memories,
The last minute we were together you wished you could seize,
Take back all the things you didn’t mean to say,
This is why we need to live for today,
Cause you never know if tomorrow will come,
And if it didn’t, I would feel pretty dumb,
That I didn’t get to say what I wanted to,
“You are the greatest person I know and I love you.”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Failed to Death Commentary: Caseworker Burnout

Last year Channel 9 News, in conjunction with the Denver Post, presented a series of news stories called “Failed to Death” that brought to light the system’s inability to protect children from abuse and neglect. I was so relieved at the news teams' courage for speaking up for the sake of the children. This blog series pays homage to those reporters who were brave enough to speak out against a system that is failing these kids to death.

Recently, I spoke at a conference where the topic addressed resiliency in victims of abuse. What I have witnessed over the years is that families will thrive when you incorporate the five protective factors: nurturing and attachment, knowledge of parenting and of child and youth development, parental resiliency, social connection, and concrete support for parents. Most parents don’t start out wanting to hurt their children but many have grown up in abuse themselves and have never had healthy habits role modeled to them. I have taught a court ordered parenting class for almost fifteen years and I can count on one hand the parents that didn’t care and had no business raising children—all of the others did. What does that tell us about how we are approaching this critical issue? Maybe—just maybe—we need to repackage our services to families and start looking at treatment as healthy and right for them rather than viewing the help as a punishment. They don’t know what they don’t know…until we educate them. How many times have we heard that knowledge is power?

For years, I have proposed that we order the entire family to treatment when Child Protective Services becomes involved or when children witness family violence, as family systems are much like ecosystems…when you change one part of the environment by ordering only one parent to treatment the entire unit becomes imbalanced—and it doesn't work! There are many other advantages to mandating the entire family to treatment besides the obvious—good mental health. This series will share how we can reduce caseworker burnout, save time and money in the court system, take the guesswork out of mandatory arrests for the police officers and redirect child abuse convictions through education—all while achieving the goals to build healthier families.

Today, we will address caseworker burnout and the negative impact their decisions can have on the family system. The emotional tolls experienced by workers who have to cope with extreme exposure to child abuse is horrendous and could significantly traumatize these professionals subjected to such atrocities. It’s no wonder the caseworker burnout rate is between 1-5 years. Therefore, when families get caseworkers that have been serving in their positions for 15-20 years, goals of customer service and family reunification might be low priority or even nonexistent.

At a conference, a caseworker supervisor indicated to me that 35 positions had become available and that the department had to hire and train new personnel to fill the vacancies. When I challenged why the money was being allocated for new caseworkers rather than revitalizing the ones already in place the supervisor frustratingly retorted, “That's a great question.” What I sensed from the conversation was that caseworker development is much like puppy mills where we produce an over abundance of professionals, place them in extremely untenable and harsh conditions, mistreat them and then release them—permanently tainting these fundamentally caring individuals. I have seen these highly educated and motivated people quit and work as bartenders and bus drivers. They enter this field because they have a passion for kids and then the system breaks their spirit. My recommendation is that instead of taking the dwindling dollars to unnecessarily train new personnel, use the resources to protect our most precious commodities—the children and the superheroes who save them. We could create team-building programs, respite retreats, better collaborations and staff appreciation days. Burnout impacts these professionals’ ability to objectively advocate for their clients, which doesn't bode well for the families. In fact, children are needlessly being ripped away from their families and our system is creating deeper levels of trauma—that we have to pay for later when the children grow up. I repeatedly hear from parents that their caseworkers have threatened to take kids away unless they leave their partners. Others have been advised that caseworkers had found a “more suitable” home for their kids. This…is…not…the…goal. The objective is to keep families together. When most caseworkers trained for this field, I’m confident that they wanted to help families, but the inevitable exhaustion and trauma they experience causes significant problems. When I address these solutions in a professional training, the caseworkers wholeheartedly agree that they love their job, but they are tired. This is a solvable issue if we envelop and nurture the invaluable resources that we already have available to us.

In Part II of this series, we will discuss the child-abuse-conviction approach and how it often causes more harm than good. We will provide alternative solutions that could work.

Raise With Praise: Motivating children through re-recording positive messages

Language is a key element when attempting to change how kids meet our expectations. Consequently, how we say things determines how children respond. Always remember that children are apt to make a good thing better rather than to make a bad thing good. Steering them in a positive direction through language gives them a clearer vision of what they need to do. We so often become reactive to our  children and attempt correction after bad behavior has occurred. With a communication style called  re-recording we can stop behavior mishaps before they even starts. Let us show you how!

Children sometimes talk to you with sharp admonishments like Shut up! Leave me alone! I hate you! What they are trying to convey is that they feel powerless and need to fight for their rights to express their feelings and, as cornered dogs (parents), our  knee-jerk reaction is to bite. Evaluate the differences in the below communication styles and decide if they could work for you .

- "Becky, don’t use THAT tone of voice with me GO TO YOUR ROOM!"
- "Becky, normally you don’t use that tone of voice with me so if you need me to listen, I’ll stop what I’m doing so you can feel good that I hear you."

- "Jeff you’re such a mean big brother. Stop bullying your brother."
- "Jeff usually you try really hard to be a great big brother.  This is so not you.  Is there something we can do to help you turn this around and be the person we both know you are?"

By saying to children that they don’t normally or usually behave a certain way, you are suggesting to them that they are not being their charming beautiful selves and then by acknowledging and validating the children’s feelings, they can talk and behave in a more positive manner. Some adults may view this as molly coddling but when you think about your own  motivations for doing the right thing, you might  see that you too respond better when people give you the benefit of the doubt. We can either build  children or repair adults. The key to successful and effective communication and behavior modification is to ask three questions:

-  Does what you’re doing feel good to the child?
-  Does it feel good to you?
-  Is it working?

If even one out of three doesn’t work, you’re  not  effective.  You  might win through submission, but  your children are not internalizing right from wrong. In fact, they have externalized the lesson by blaming you for being mean—causing a cognitive shift that teaches them to deflect responsibility for their behavior and not to own it themselves.

Part II: “A child is apt to make a good thing better rather than making a bad thing good.” - Unknown

Following up on yesterday's post, another example of ineffective parenting that holds true for humiliating children is embarrassing or chastising them for being wrong or losing. Again, my hope is that this is not a malicious attempt to destroy kids’ self-worth, but rather a thoughtless behavior that has been deemed an acceptable form of correction that has not been challenged for it’s validity. We go with what we know and we are often overwhelmed. So whether it’s because we feel worn down, depleted or defeated, persistently pointing out our children’s mistakes conditions them to avoid self-improvement because of the emotional consequences of being wrong or of losing. Think about it…do you know any adults who refuse to apologize or admit when they are wrong? My guess is that they were forced through embarrassment as children to recognize their flaws and the emotional outcome for them was that they were bad.

Naturally, we want our children to say they are sorry because apologies go a long way to healing hurt hearts. What’s the answer then? Tackling the problem through a technique called re-recording often works well. This is where we tell kids what we want them to be and over time they will be conditioned to comply. Here is a wonderful way to reframe a situation using re-recording where an apology would be nice, “Oh, I bet you’re sorry you hurt your little sister. You’re such a great big brother. I’m sure it was an accident. Sweetie can you give your sister a kiss? It might make everyone feel better.” More times than not our children would want to do the right thing and when they do and we reinforce the positive behavior with a hug or kiss, our kids will repeat the behavior. I tell people all the time that I know they love their kids, but I challenge them to ask whether they like their kids. Meaning: do we talk and respond to them as though we like them or do we bark out, “Shut up! Get out of here right now! Get away from me!”

Children need guidance from us and the best way to get desired results is to help them like themselves. People in general behave the way they feel. If they feel good, they are good. A great tip for helping kids avoid the win-lose concept is to promote “the winner” and “a winner.”

Years ago, my grandson struggled with losing so after each race where he won I would cheer, “I’m a winner!”

Initially, he argued, “No, I’m the winner!”

To which I responded, “You might be the winner but I am a winner!”

After about ten of these moments I forgot the drill and when he won I lamented, “Oh, I lost again.”

Here was the amazing piece…He said, “Nonni, remember you’re always a winner.” 

Part I: “A child is apt to make a good thing better rather than making a bad thing good.” - Unknown

As children, positive self-esteem is something gained through internalizing external praise. As we develop our own truths, we are able to create our own value. Les Brown once referred to this as, “to feel worthy by permission.” What this means is that we condition children to do as they are told, to not talk back, to respect their elders and to believe that adults are always, always right. The problem with this philosophy is that sometimes grown ups are not healthy or patient with children and their negative input can hurt kids. I want to share some ideas regarding healthy ways to assist you with building positive self-regard by pointing out effectiveness. Ask yourself three questions to determine whether you are being effective:
  1. Does it feel good to you?
  2. Does it feel good to your child?
  3. Is it working?
For example, when children make mistakes do we forced them to apologize?

Towering over them with a pointed finger, “YOU SAY YOU’RE SORRY, RIGHT NOW!”
The kids will begrudgingly comply, “SORRRRRY!”

Did they mean it? Was the forced apology effective to changing negative feelings and behaviors? We all know the answer is of course not. So why do we insist on humiliating our children? Consider the internalized message embraced as our kids watch the other person gloating in their misery and humiliation. The overriding message delivered is, “You’re bad, you’re inadequate and you’re unworthy.” Nothing positive comes from a forced apology. Consequently, parents unwittingly condition their children to believe that saying sorry means they are insignificant and, I promise, in reality they will avoid being sorry at all costs. When we had our children did we consciously plot to degrade and crush their self-esteem? Not likely, but our actions suggest otherwise.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Children: Who Do They Think They Are?

Children are conditioned to do as they’re told, to not talk back, to respect their elders and to know that adults are always right. Consequently, children are forced to embrace external input and feel bad or good based on the whims of others. As we mature into adults, we often carry many of these generated inputs with us into our daily lives. These thoughts and feelings are our conditioned responses to that indoctrination and, whether they are negative or positive, kids act accordingly. Therefore, if you had an uncle who called you lazy, you may be lethargic or unmotivated when you are exposed to him at Thanksgiving. But then a neighbor who often praised your hard work tells you that you’re wonderful, you will shine in her presence. This reaction is typically referred to as object referral and occurs when a person’s self-esteem and self-worth shift, change, decline or elevate as a result of an external source entering the room. This makes the esteem and worth malleable and unsteady. With clients I will tap on a table and ask them to identify the object and they’ll state matter-of-factly that the object is a table. I ask them why and they say because that is what they understand the object to be. Then a debate proves that no matter who walks into the room a table is a table is a table. It’s value or representation doesn’t change.

Self-esteem and self-worth need to have the same reference points. We need to allow children to decide what the facts are about them. This means we have to provide them with an internal source that doesn’t require external input. Instead of stating that we are proud of them, we need to say, “You must be so proud of yourself for…” or “You should feel so good about yourself because…” The translation for them becomes, “I must be proud of myself and should feel good about who I am.” And although initially we are providing external suggestions, the intended message can be compared to passing the torch during the Olympics. We have to allow our children to shine on their own without us. This can only be accomplished by giving them the ability to know the truth about them. Therefore, we must teach children to back every thought and feeling up with facts so that when someone negative walks into their lives, the impact is minimal.

I recently spoke to an 86-year old woman who I have always revered as an angel. She lamented that she was a bad person and I asked her to back that thought up with a fact and she absolutely could not find one reason for that thought. It saddened me to see that throughout her entire life she had given to people and loved them yet she hated herself. And for what? Because perhaps sometime in her childhood or maybe later as an adult, someone told her she was inadequate, inferior or incompetent. When I shared how much I loved and admired her, she admitted that when I was around she felt good about herself. The sad part is that I can’t always be there so if her sense of regard is based on me then her feelings will change once someone else walked into the room—this is object referral. Her sense of self never gets to be solid like that table because she adopts the opinions of those around her instead of knowing her own self-truth.

A parent once shared that he was frustrated with a neighbor because the neighbor would scream the F-word at his 6-year old daughter when she was outside playing. I suggested that he tell her that hurt people hurt people and that the neighbor was a sad old man. Later, the father came to me and reported that he and his daughter were walking down the street and the elderly man raced out onto the porch and threw out the F-bomb again, but this time his daughter with the sweetest sincerity announced loudly, “Daddy, you’re right, he is a sad old man.” The grump stopped in his tracks and then retreated back into his home where he never bothered them again. The poignant element to this story is that this father gave his daughter the ability to let others own their own feelings and behaviors. She was no longer forced to embrace the external input and take responsibility for how others feel. She was able to recognize that his pain was not her issue or fault. This child, if guided properly, will not have to experience object referral as she is not dependent on the opinions of others to judge herself. This precious child is a precious child is a precious child.