Thursday, September 20, 2018

Finding Rest: How to Combat Emotional Exhaustion

Finding Rest
In 1974, a man named Herbert Freudenberger published a journal article about "occupational burnout." Initially focused on burnout in the workplace, it has since spawned a body of research spanning 40 years examining why some people succeed in stressful job situations and others "burn out" quickly. Why some people can cope with difficulties and others fall apart. 

Whether it's in the workplace or your home life, there are a number of factors that can lead to burnout. All of them can impact us, but one theme I consistently see in people who are struggling is a sense of "emotional exhaustion." Researchers have determined that emotional exhaustion often results from too many job or personal demands and a constant level of stress. 

It leaves people feeling "drained," easily overwhelmed, fatigued and they have difficulty finding pleasure in the successes they do have.

How many of us does that describe right now?

Although emotional exhaustion is often examined through the lens of the job performance, emotional exhaustion permeates every area of our lives. In a society where there is pressure to do well as your job, be the perfect parent and have a showroom-worthy home (all while maintaining friendships and your social media), it is easy to slip into a state of emotional exhaustion where you consistently feel like you aren't doing a good enough job. 

Just look at memes and articles online. There are so many cartoons and posts about people feeling wiped out, struggling to get through the day, and feeling overwhelmed by their children/responsibilities/lives. It's no wonder so many Americans hide in their phones, video games, and pornography. We need something to take the edge off, to numb ourselves, to isolate because life just feels hard.

The beauty is that emotional exhaustion is not inevitable. Research of employees found that overall, using positive coping skills such as seeking advice from others, working harder and maintaining a healthy sense of internal control ("I've got this") was associated with lower levels of exhaustion and using coping skills such as avoidance led to higher levels. Using this research, companies have been able to use several techniques to help their workers go from feeling burnt out to positive and in control, and I believe we can use this information to help all of us, regardless of your job title or role. The best part? These concepts are also biblically-based.

So how do we decrease our feelings of emotional exhaustion?

Learn to prioritize. There are so many demands for our time, and we only have a limited number of hours per day. Learn to prioritize what you say yes to and find ways to simplify your day. It is okay to buy your family pizza instead of creating Pinterest-worthy recipes daily. Don't beat yourself up if you need to buy pre-made cupcakes for your child's party. You don't need to organize every social event at your job. It is okay to say no and cut corners occasionally if it gives you a moment to breathe. 

Luke 10:38-42 tells us the familiar story of Mary and Martha:

"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, 'Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!'

'Martha, Martha,' the Lord answered, 'you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed--or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Martha's priorities not only kept her from time with Jesus, but it made her resentful and frustrated. Emotional exhaustion results from feeling like you have little control over your life and eventually leads to bitterness and resentment. Learning to prioritize and define your schedule can help you regain a stronger sense of control (which reduces emotional exhaustion).

Adjust your expectations. There is a difference between standards and overly high expectations. It is reasonable to have a good work ethic and be an involved, caring parent. However, many of the clients I see with emotional exhaustion have unreasonably high expectations for themselves to be "perfect," so when they make a mistake (they forgot to sign their child's permission slip, missed an appointment, or didn't attend a lunch meeting), they beat themselves up emotionally ("I'm a failure as a parent/worker/spouse). 

Striving to be a "perfect parent" can be detrimental to your mental health and will contribute to a sense of emotional exhaustion, so tempering your expectations and reminding yourself that it is okay to make mistakes can be helpful. 
Find your tribe. We often view seeking help as "weakness" or that being honest about our struggles will reflect badly on our abilities. However, researchers found that seeking advice from others was one of the most important ways workers could reduce emotional exhaustion.

So surround yourself with a community of people who can support you and give you advice. Struggling to get everything done? Start a babysitting co-op. Swap premade dinners with a friend. Delegate appropriately at work. Learn to ask for advice from people who love you, but will also be honest when you are doing too much or holding yourself to ridiculously high standards. People you listen to when they tell you that you are stretched too thin and need to take a step back. 

One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 15:22: "Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers, they succeed" (NLT). If you find yourself feeling emotionally exhausted or burnt out, build up or reach out to your support network. 

These are only a few techniques. Interestingly, they are not anything new; many of us have heard these at one point or another. However, too many people struggle with actually implementing them and find themselves on the verge of burnout. 

If you find that even with taking these steps, you are still worn out, edgy and irritable, please seek help. Find a solid counselor, consult your pastor, meet with a mentor, spend time in prayer. 

In Matthew 11:28-29, Jesus tells us: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." 

Don't let the popular culture tell you that we were made to barely make it through the day. God wants us to rest, and he gives us the tools to do so. We just have to use them.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Insidious Root of Bitterness & Anger

This morning I stumbled across a quote from A.W. Tozier (a famous theologian). It said: "We cannot pray in love and live in hate and still think we are worshipping God."

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I believe that many Christians would read this and say, “But I’m not living in hate, I’m doing pretty well.” And from outward appearances, they are. They are nice to people at the grocery store, they buy their children’s teachers end-of-school gifts, they volunteer in the nursery at church. But as a counselor, I also hear story after story of how many of us as Christians appear okay on the outside, on Facebook, Instagram, Sunday morning, but as soon as Monday hits, we struggle with internal “hate”: anger, bitterness, resentment. We smile on Sunday, but after picking up our spouse’s shoes for the third time (by Tuesday!), we let anger and frustration fester: “No one ever picks up after themselves, I can’t believe my spouse can’t do a simple task like picking up his shoes. I’ve asked him a hundred times…”

Note that I am writing under “we.” I am just as guilty of this. Despite having all of the psychological tools at my fingertips, I still struggle with frustration, road rage, resentment, and anger. Not all at once. Often, I think I’m doing pretty good. I view my job, my spouse, my children, my family and my church positively. But it’s amazing how subtly resentment creeps up on me. How I’m doing okay until I’m merging on the freeway or my children start bickering again (hello summer break!).

When I was younger, I would say that those feelings weren’t a huge deal. I could still paste a smile on and “fake it.” However, the Bible is clear that God views anger just as negatively as other, more “obvious” sins. We often quote James 1:19 (NIV): “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” but skip James 1:20 which reminds us that “because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” We can justify anger all we want, but ultimately, it goes against the righteousness that God wants from us.

And for those who say, “Well, I don’t struggle with anger,” remember that anger takes on many forms. Paul told the Ephesians to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (Ephesians 4:31 NIV). Bitterness, resentment, rage (even road rage!) are just as dangerous as full-on anger and aggression.

Jesus was very clear that our internal feelings and beliefs are just as important as our actions. In Mathew 5:21-24, Jesus warned us that: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Jesus didn’t want people to go through the motions in the temple where they offered their sacrifice for outward appearances, but secretly seethed or burned with resentment on the inside.

So how do we get rid of anger? How do we let go of the bitterness and resentment towards others that we struggle with throughout the week, so our hearts are pure when we approach God?

Pray for them. As part of the Beatitudes, Jesus said that we must “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” (Luke 6:28 NLT). When we pray for others, it becomes easier to step out of that cycle of justification and rationalization we fall into. “But you don’t know how much he/she hurt me,” “He’s just so awful to me,” “My boss purposely makes my life harder.” When we fall on our knees and focus on the fact that we are all human, and admit that we all makes mistakes, it makes it easier to move from anger to acceptance. Sometimes it is humbling to realize that someone right now could be gritting their teeth and praying about something you did to them!

We have to come to a place where we believe that God is in charge of the situation and realize that the anger we hold onto does not resolve the problem. Seething about your spouse while doing the dishes doesn’t improve the situation and all that bitterness does is slowly devour you!

Find someone to hold you accountable. I had a situation where someone hurt me very badly emotionally. I remember one day I was ranting to a friend a year later (it took me a longgggg time to get over it), and she looked at me and firmly said, “Hilary, get over it. It’s been a year, you need to move on.” I think my mouth literally dropped open, and although I was initially defensive, she was right! I needed to get over it and move forward. We need people in our life to say, “I love you, but this anger is killing you, you need to deal with it and move on.”

Create some distance. I have had some situations in my life where no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t let go of my anger. I had a job where it literally got to the point where my heart rate went up the moment I walked in the door and I could feel my resentment simmering the entire eight-hour shift. I realized that despite praying, using thought stopping and trying to reframe my frustration into something more positive, I just. couldn’t. stop. stewing. So, I found another job, one where my needs were being met and I could function at full capacity.

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations or relationships that are so toxic, we can’t see straight. Those may be the moments where you step back from the friendship, job or church situation and try to regain some perspective. I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with saying, “I’m not in a good place right now. I love you/this job/this church, but I need a small break to find clarity.” Even in a marriage, we can tell our spouse, “This topic is too intense, we need to take a break from discussing it, so I can figure out how I can better handle it.”

Ephesians 4:26It is easy to minimize the impact of anger in our lives, especially when it is the low-level frustration and resentment, but Ephesians 4:26-27 is clear: “And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil.” I used to dismiss this idea, did we really have to let go of anger immediately? But I’ve learned that the answer is yes. Being angry at your spouse/children/boss/family leaves you vulnerable to the Enemy.

Hebrews 12:15b tells us to: “Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many” (NLT). Anger often becomes resentment, which turns into contempt, which turns into bitterness. So when Satan whispers, “You’re better off without your spouse/church/job/family,” it is easier to believe him. Hebrews warns us that bitterness can corrupt many, and it's often true. Because we exist in a community, the choices you make don't just impact you or your marriage, they impact those around you as well. And it's amazing how often those feelings started with a simple tendril of resentment or frustration.

Do not let anger give Satan a foothold. Use these techniques to let go of that frustration and bitterness. Find a friend to hold you accountable. Pray fervently for those who wronged you. Create some distance and use that space to seek counseling and learn to be as gracious with others as Christ is with you. As Christians, we must be authentic. If you look content and joyful on the outside, make sure that your inner self is too!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Finding Hope in Suffering: Psalm 126:5-6

I recently taught a high school psychology class, and towards the end of the semester, we started a unit on the psychology of emotions. The students were surprised there are psychologists who spend their entire careers focusing on emotions – what they are, how they impact our behaviors and thoughts, and why we have them. I asked the students if they knew why we had emotions, and one kid in the back yelled out, “Because Jesus gave them to us.” It led to an interesting discussion about the complexity of human emotion and the benefits and disadvantages of feelings.

Finding a joyful harvest
We know that emotions can be a wonderful thing. They allow us to feel loved and connected to others. David danced and laughed for joy, Jesus told his disciples, “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (John 15:14 NLT) and Paul wrote, “How we thank God for you! Because of you, we have great joy as we enter God’s presence” (1 Thess. 3:9 NLT). God created us to experience love, laughter and joy here on Earth.

But Ecclesiastes 3:4 also tells us that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” We know that along with the positive emotions, there are difficult emotions. There is grief, suffering, emotional and physical pain, guilt, addiction, fear, anxiety, depression. And although I know that I treasure laughter more after I’ve wept, and that dancing is more poignant after mourning, those emotions can still feel like such a burden.

One difficulty of being a social worker is knowing that I will have to deal with fear, anxiety, grief and hurt not only in my personal life, but my work life as well. There are nights, driving home from work, where I have seen horrible things and I literally feel my heart in my chest. When I’m an edgy mess, tears behind my eyes, on the verge of falling apart. The emotion is overwhelming. 

I had a client several years ago say, “Why do you even care? I’m sure you go home and forget your day.” There are times where I wish this was the case, when the weight of suffering weighs on my soul. Even after ten years, there are so many moments that I remember vividly – horrible child abuse cases, heart-wrenching conversations with victims of sexual abuse, watching people reject help and resources, conversations with those who have just survived a suicide attempt – and I still see their faces, hear their words and feel an echo of that sorrow and grief. Ask any police officer, nurse, counselor, paramedic, social worker or pastor about their "worst" cases, I promise you, they will remember them in detail.

The answer is not to reach a point where you forget those faces or your heart is so hardened that you can't feel anymore. I’ve always said that when I reach the point as a social worker where I see suffering and feel nothing, I need to find a different line of work. We are called to walk alongside others emotionally. In Romans 12:15, Paul tells us to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (ESV). 

But how do we do this without feeling overwhelmed or becoming jaded? How do we weep with others while maintaining healthy boundaries? How do we keep from falling apart?

I recently came across Psalm 126:5-6 and it spoke to me.

“Those who plant in tears will harvest with shouts of joy.
They weep as they go to plant their seed, 
but they sing as they return with the harvest” (NLT).

Sometimes we plant in tears. Helping others can be painful. Seeing suffering, evil, sin and the consequences of addiction feels like a weight on our soul. Even more difficult is when we see suffering, but don’t receive closure. We never find out what happened to that child that went into foster care, we never know if that patient ever found sobriety, we don’t know if that teenager managed to survive their chaotic family. That lack of closure and the intensity of emotions with others leaves us vulnerable. It becomes easier to question and doubt God’s justice, His goodness, His plan for other’s lives when we are overwhelmed by grief over the suffering of others.

But reading Psalms 126:5-6 reminds us that planting seeds isn't always a frolic through the farm, singing and throwing seeds. There are times where planting seeds in others is easier, when we laugh and discuss the Bible over coffee, when we worship together and giggle at a retreat. But there are times when the needs of others feels unending, when showing the love of Jesus is back-breaking, emotionally damaging work. When work leaves us broken ourselves, wondering how we can keep helping others when we feel like we are drowning.

We may weep as we plant our seeds in others, but we find hope knowing ultimately, there will be a joyful harvest. We may not see the beauty from ashes in every person we impact, but I know that if I can even plant a few seeds of hope, compassion, and Jesus' love in someone else, it is worth the tears. I have watched God take incredibly depressing situations and make them beautiful. I have seen people survive situations I can’t even imagine and use their suffering to help others. 

I hope that at the end of my life, when God shows me those whose lives I touched, I will shout for joy as well. That my tears for others, my broken heart over the suffering of this world was not in vain.

So the next time I feel despondent, I will remind myself that while it is okay to cry tears, I must also remember to rejoice in the hope that God is a god of justice, compassion, love and He is in control. Psalm 10:14 reminds us:

“But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; 
you consider their grief and take it in hand. 
The victims commit themselves to you; 
you are the helper of the fatherless" (NIV).

I will continue to obey His call to love and serve, even in dark moments when my heart is breaking. My prayer is that those of you that are serving and also struggling will rest on God's promise that a joyful harvest is coming. That He will help the fatherless, the afflicted, those who are grieving, the captives to their addictions and pain, and because of Him and a few humble seed-planters, the broken will shout for joy.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Living Well: Adopting an Eternal Perspective

Two weeks ago, our garage ceiling started leaking. Apparently, our shower has cracked and is leaking water into the ceiling. I didn’t realize our deductible was high, so the first round of bills we received was overwhelming. While I was budgeting (since these bills don’t even include the cost of repairing the shower), trying to keep my anxiety at bay, my phone rang.

It was our neighbor letting me know that his cancer came back aggressively, and they are admitting him to assisted living. That he was being put on hospice and given three to six months to live. After a sad conversation (on my end at least, he’s ready to be pain-free and home with Jesus), I was humbled. I thought of his four children, grieving over this news. I thought of grandchildren who won’t have their grandpa at graduations or weddings.

Suddenly, my financial issues seemed minor. Laughably so.

action, adult, affectionOur pastor once preached on the need for an “eternal perspective.” At the time, I shrugged it off. Why would one spend their life focused on death? Heaven? The end?

But then a good friend of mine’s mother died of cancer. Then another one. Then another one. Then my dad had a heart attack and stroke (simultaneously) and I became painfully aware that my parents will die eventually. I realized that I am creaky and getting older each year, and one day I will die. That we are not immortal.

Growing up in the church, I’ve heard/read/said Psalms 23 a million billion times. Okay, maybe not quite that much, but I’ve said it a lot. Anyone who’s spent any time in church can recite it. However, one day after my dad’s heart attack, when we weren’t sure if he was going to make it, I reread Psalm 23.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.” - Psalm 23:1-4 (ESV)

As a child, I always thought of the valley of the shadow of death in an abstract way. It simply meant “bad times” to me. The knowledge that life would have good and bad times, easier and harder times, and that God would be with me always.

However, reading it as my dad was lying in a hospital bed, my heart skipped a beat. Suddenly the phrase “shadow of death” had new meaning. The shadow of death is that niggling feeling that reminds us that life is short. That the people I love will not always be around. The quiet thought that I will not always be around, and my time on Earth is limited. That as we get older, we become more aware of our mortality and as we lose family, friends, our grandparents, parents, this shadow appears more and more often. It can dampen our joy because we know that each day is closer to the end.

I had to make a choice in that moment. Did I deny this shadow? Did I pretend it didn’t exist? Live life for myself, not caring if I hurt others? Justifying my conflicts with my spouse? Rationalizing my frustration with others?

Or did I adopt an eternal perspective? That we are not guaranteed tomorrow, that we should strive to live well, seeking holiness and showing God’s love. Today. Tomorrow. Every day that we have left.  

I recently watched a TedTalks where the speaker mentioned the “mortality motivator,” a reminder that life is short and precious. I realized that an eternal perspective isn’t simply focusing on the end or thinking about death all the time. It is using that shadow to motivate us to live for Him now. We are not guaranteed 70, 80, or 90 years to live out our lives. Life is short, and we are called to live for Him well.

As I age and lose more people around me, I use that motivation to speak my mind. To share God’s love boldly. To proclaim the beauty I see in my life as the result of following Him. I don’t want to minimize the fact that it is only because of God’s grace and love that I am here.

It also means that I try to kiss my husband when he leaves for work, even if I’m upset. It means that I make time for my parents and family, even when I’m tired. It means I work (hard) to forgive those who have hurt me, even when I feel that I am justified.

Speaking with my neighbor this afternoon, he said, “I’ve lived ten lifetimes worth of memories. I’ve had a good life. I’ve had people that love me. I’m ready to go.”

An eternal perspective is the realization that we must make a choice: do we focus on ourselves? Do we let our worries and fears about bills, how we look, and doubts about our abilities destroy each day? Or do we work towards loving others and seeking God every day? Do we love boldly and well?

There is some debate what David meant in that psalm: some commentators think it was an actual valley, some think it’s a metaphor. Regardless of the valley, David was confident that God was with him and because of that, he could go through life unafraid of what comes next.

My challenge to all of you is to reflect: did you live life well today?

If you passed away or received news of a terminal illness, are you ready to go?

Have you forgiven others, spent time with your family, resolved conflicts with others?

Have you told your children you love them, have you told your children that God loves them?

Have you acknowledged that shadow of death, the ticking of the clock, while staying confident that God is with you?

I will hug my children extra tight tonight, spend a little bit more time with my husband. I will call my mom to tell her I love her, text my best friend, then put down my phone to snuggle with my family. 

Life is short. You won't have forever. Make sure that however many days you have left, live them well.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Social Work: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful

adult, business, close-upAs we come into March, national Social Work Month, I've been reflecting on my ten years of social work experience. At times, social work seems simple, at times it seems unbearably hard, but it is exactly where God has led me to be.

So here are my thoughts about what social work really is:

Social work is too many clients and not enough time. It is endless paperwork, fighting with insurance companies, reviewing, reviewing and reviewing.

It is the highs – when you are able to reach across the divide between two people and regardless of our differences, you can truly connect because we are both humans and suffering is universal. It is squealing with teenagers who passed a difficult test or made the varsity team. It is finding the perfect placement for a child with an amazing foster parent.

It is the lows - hiding behind police cars while police kick doors down to make sure children are safe. It is crying with a police officer outside of an apartment after a horrific abuse case. It is feeling your own heart break as you watch a mom weeping as she pulls her syringes and drugs out of her baby’s diaper bag.

It is trying to keep a strong face in moments of chaos and terror. It is weeping with someone who has just lost a spouse, a child, a baby. It is crying when things are so horrific for your clients that there’s nothing else you can do.

It is walking through trailers filled with garbage, cockroaches, holes in the floor, mold on the walls, and realizing that you don’t need to travel to the third world to see complete and utter poverty.

It is buying children happy meals at two in the morning because they haven't eaten since lunch at school. It is spending the night at the department with a child because there are never enough foster families.

Social work is crying on the way home every day after working at a homeless shelter because no matter how many applications and programs there are, there will never be enough housing for your clients.

Social work is endless background checks, endless paperwork, endless reports.

But it is also the beauty of teamwork – working with incredible doctors, nurses, lawyers, police officers, teachers, counselors, and co-workers who have dedicated their lives and hearts to helping people.

It is the heavy moments, but it’s also playing Play-Doh, endless games of Uno, quoting Justin Bieber lyrics and Twilight, and connecting with teenagers over silly things and serious things.

Social work is maintaining a calm face as you sit in groups where men who have been convicted of domestic violence weep as they disclose their own childhood traumas and abuse. It is keeping your jaw from dropping as people disclose horrific sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, or all three.

It is watching children melt down knowing they have to face their abusers in court…and breathing a sigh of relief with them as the abuser is sentenced to decades in prison.

Social work is being cussed out, degraded, and dismissed, but also being told that I’m the first caseworker to make them feel like a human being.

It is seeing terrible things and having no one to process with because you’re bound by confidentiality.

It is seeing incredible, miraculous things, and not being able to share them because you’re bound by confidentiality.

Social work is weeping as you watch the news because you can imagine what those counseling sessions with the victims will be like and how burdened those school counselors/police officers/child protection workers will be. It is compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, but also joy.

It is feeling like no matter how many starfish you throw back, there will be too many for you to make a noticeable dent.

But it is also saying goodbye as you switch jobs and hearing stories from clients about how you have helped them. It is seeing past clients on the street years later and being told you helped change their lives, or their marriage is still going strong.

Social work is being the hands and feet of Jesus in every way that you can, even when your soul is broken and you are beyond exhausted.

Philippians 4:13: “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength (NLT)” has taken on a deeper meaning for me as I see the good and the horrible, as I work 15-hour shifts, as I put my own struggles and pain aside to focus on listening and caring for others.

Social work is an emotional roller coaster, but I am exactly where God wants me.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Embracing the Lost and Disconnected Child

As a country still trying to wrap its head around the tragic loss of life in Florida, I’ve seen many people debating the whys. Why have there been so many school shootings? Why are so many young people willing to kill others? Why did the shooter have access to a gun? We are a country of confusion. Is this a gun control issue? Is it a school safety issue? Is it a community issue or a national issue?

As a social worker, I have been working with teenagers for 12 years, and over that time, I’ve seen a disturbing increase in rageful teenagers. Ones whose anger has caused them to completely disconnect from those around them. These are not simply frustrated or angry kids who don’t know how to express themselves. These are children with a chilling combination: they are furious at the adults around them and they are completely disconnected emotionally from their families.

There is no perceived emotional boundary between them and those around them. As a child, I couldn’t imagine assaulting my parents. I remember being angry at them, but there was an unspoken rule that they were still my parents. That even when I didn’t like them, I still loved them. That the school principal and teachers and adults may have angered me, but they were still valuable human beings (and that they cared about me at some level).

However, I’m starting to see an increase in kids who no longer view adults that way. Ones who are so incredibly angry at the world, that their fury overrides their ability to see others are human beings. I’ve worked with 9, 10 and 11-year-old boys (and sometimes girls) who have assaulted teachers, headbutted school counselors, beat up school nurses, and attacked their parents. I’ve had young children who have bitten, kicked and left bruises and scratches all over their siblings and parents and have no remorse about it. Their anger at the world consumes them.

I don’t believe these are sociopathic children who can’t feel remorse. These are normal children who in better circumstances, those who had a more involved, stable set of caregivers would probably do well. Many are intelligent and have the capacity to love, but their disappointment and resentment has suppressed their remorse to the point that they no longer care about others.

I’ve started calling these the “disconnected children.” The ones who are caught in the middle of highly contentious divorces, with parents who call child protection and the cops on each other constantly. The nine-year-old children who make statements like, “My stupid mother owes my dad $841 a month in child support, and she doesn’t pay him so she doesn’t love me” or “My mom says my dad doesn’t even want me, because if he did, he’d show up for things.”  The children, who starting at a young age, have learned to lie about the opposite parent to teachers, police and social workers to assist their parents in custody cases.

adult, alone, boy
The heart-breaking teenagers who are let down repeatedly by the adults in their life – the dad who doesn’t show up for the scheduled weekend over and over, the mom who is more interested in fighting with dad at the exchange of children than actually seeing her children, the parents who refuse to show up at football or basketball games because the other spouse might be there.

It is the children terrified to connect to adults because their parents have a revolving door of stepparents. I had a young (and very angry) boy tell me that he hated his mom because every time he got close to her boyfriends, she would break up with them and he was stuck grieving that loss. After several rounds of this, he was so bitter towards his mother that he would bite, hit, and kick her when angry. His anger overrode his feelings to the point where he didn’t care if he hurt her. He felt it was a fair payback for the times her actions hurt him.

This is not a condemnation of divorced parents. There are many divorced parents, who even if they can’t stand their ex, try very hard to remain civil. Who cautiously wait to introduce a new boyfriend or girlfriend and manage to work out the kinks in their second marriage to stay together. I’ve seen incredible stepmoms and dads work together and support and love these children.

However, I also see too many families where the children learn over time that anger is the only protective tool they have. Where they fall through the cracks at school because overworked teachers with huge classes don’t have the time to focus on every single child. Where harried school counselors are juggling the needs of 200 of the most “high-needs” children, but can’t help all 1,000 children in the school. Where school psychologists spend their time doing testing, and lack the time to work with every lost and broken child. Where they fall through the cracks at home because their parents are so distracted by their own brokenness and problems, that no one is nurturing and loving them.

The result is heartbreaking. These children push others away, and as their parents retreat because of untreated mental health issues, drug addiction, anger and hurt at their exes or simply too much time on their phone, these children become more lost and more angry. They lack mentors, connection with adults who love them, and the meaningful relationships that remind them of the beauty of human connection.

When you have angry and disconnected children, are we surprised they can walk into a school and shoot their peers (who they view as against them), adults (who they view as untrustworthy and against them) and themselves (who they view as worthless and abandoned)?

So how do we fix this? It is a complicated situation. There is no easy answer. However, as a community, there are things we can do.

We need to connect with the disconnected children around us. We cannot expect the schools alone to “fix” these children. We as adults, neighbors, church leaders, and parents need to reach out. A program in Portugal found that building community was the best way to “cure” drug addiction, what if the best way to cure rageful, disconnected children and adolescents is the same?

We need to teach our own children to love others. We need to constantly be having conversations with our children. How can they love that angry kid that sits alone in the cafeteria? How do they connect when they sense someone is hurting? It is often our children who see the lost children first, and teaching them how to connect and intervene, and tell us, teachers or principals when they see the warning signs - the angry rants on social media, the whispered words of rage or threats, the rumors of violence.

We need to teach our children empathy. Many of the children I see, both through work and in my personal life, lack empathy. They spend their free time in their rooms, lost in YouTube and hiding from the world, and never have a chance to build empathy and connection with others. Developmentally, teenagers tend to be fairly egocentric, but they do have the capacity to be empathetic. We as adults have a responsibility to teach them those skills, to help them be aware of suffering in others. (We also have to role-model it ourselves!).

We need to support struggling parents. We all have friends going through messy divorces and breakups. Whose marriages are on the rocks. Are we supporting them? Or do we distance ourselves because we don’t want to interfere or get involved in the messiness? I’m so blessed to have mentors and people in my life that can step in when I am frustrated with my children or my spouse, who remind me to stay calm and not say nasty things about my children or other adults when I am angry.  We need to wrap our struggling friends and neighbors in love. To let them vent, to gently remind them to not involve their children in the messiness, to offer tools and mentorship so they can build sustainable, stable relationships with their partners and children.

So many of us watch helplessly at the news footage and feel unsure of where to start. Start by reaching out to the disconnected children in you and your children’s lives. Commit to inviting a kid to church, to go lift weights with you. Commit to spending a few extra minutes asking that awkward kid who lives a few doors down how he is doing. Help support programs like Girls on the Run, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, coaches and youth pastors that mentor those who are struggling. Volunteer at a school so the overworked teachers have more time to focus on the children and not just grading and testing. Help with your local youth group or ask if there are ways you can mentor teens in your church.

We have an obligation to connect with the lost youth in our communities. To support those and the programs who are helping them. To support the foster families in your area, so they can try to love the lost children. Tell your own children (as well as you!) to get off YouTube and serve and connect with those around you.

With repeated school shootings, we can no longer boil this down to an occasional “weird” kid. This is a culture of lost and broken children, and I believe the problem will get worse, not better, meaning these shootings won’t stop. And they need to.

Today, don’t just hug your own children. Hug other people’s children. Connect. Jesus uses the parable of the shepherd searching for and rejoicing over the one found sheep, and we have a culture with many, many lost sheep. Let us search and love on the broken. Love is the answer, but not just for your own little circle. For all the children in our communities.  

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