That sweet little girl who handed me a note that said “you are pretty Ms. Jen” after group couldn’t possibly have known about the battle that was raging in my mind that day. I had just posted some family pictures on Facebook and someone made the mistake of thinking (and also commenting publicly) that I looked pregnant due to the flowy shirt I was wearing that didn’t hug against my stomach. I chose this flowy shirt because after 2 kids I feel like I consistently look 3 months pregnant no matter how many ab workouts and low carb diets I go on. I can’t win. Most people don’t know that I struggled with anorexia during middle and high school. I ate maybe 500 calories per day. I never ended up in a hospital or treatment. I finally recovered and started eating more (my disorder just shifted from anorexia to OCD and I was rigid about my diet and exercise up until about 2 years ago, even now I have to fight not to compulsively exercise daily). This little 7-year-old girl couldn’t possibly have known any of that about “Mrs. Jen” her counselor. I gave her a big hug and we both smiled as she left that night. I sat in my car just looking at this drawing for about 10 minutes. I said a prayer of thanksgiving for giving me this little girl and her sweet drawing which I am blessed to have in my life as a stark contrast to everything in this world that causes me thoughts of “not good enough”. There is so much negative stuff in this world, but kids haven’t been in it long enough for it to take away their love and their truth. I need kids in my life. I need what they show me. I need their truths. We all do.
But sometimes kids scare us with their messiness, unpredictability, their emotions that they haven’t yet learned to bottle up and keep quiet so they are loud and they scream and cry. I know they scared me when I first started as a children’s counselor. There was always this feeling of “what if they mutany and I can’t keep order and they tear the place down with their teeth and then everyone finds out I’m not some magical child whisperer and then I’m out of a job and I’m living in a van down by the river with my kids….” There was serious panic in my mind those first few weeks of work. Simply because kids are kids. Now, I’ve learned to roll with it and embrace their enthusiasm, honesty, desire to help, their messiness, and their hugs that usually leave me with boogers on my pants.
Did I ever tell you I never wanted to work with kids? Sometimes when you make a plan, God laughs. “Honey, you don’t know what you need, bless your heart” I think of God saying to me.
As I was suffering through graduate school trying to become a counselor, I always imagined a nice office with soothing colors, a fish tank, some houseplants, a couch, and a chair. I would sit in a chair and my client would sit on the couch and I would try to understand, empathize, and help them in some way. My sons were 4 and 15 months old at this time and I just knew that I would NEVER work with kids all day and then come home to my house full of kid chaos and messes. No sir. No way. I told many professors this. I didn’t get the first job I applied for working at a private practice because they were seeking someone to do therapy with young children most of the day and I was honest about that not being my ideal career.
Fast forward to my husband losing his job (that is another whole blog post right there) and rent being due, mouths to feed, yadayadayada…I needed a job…like yesterday not in a month. It was either go back to waiting tables, being a preschool teacher, or accepting that maybe my first counseling gig would involve messy, shin-kicking booger-eaters.
After sending no less than 20 resumes and job applications off…nothing. Finally, after breaking down in an ugly puddle of snot and tears on my bed and praying something to the effect of “God, I know I’m a mess and I’m unmarried with 2 kids and I have all kinds of love and financial problems and (garbled, incoherent list of everything wrong I’ve ever done) and I haven’t been to church in a decade, but IF you are real, IF you hear this….SOS HELP, please help me get a job before we get evicted. Please see how hard I’m trying, please give me something…anything! I give up, I surrender. Just give me what I need, please. Give me a sign, anything!”
The very next day when I opened up my inbox, worried I would just see yet another ad for a job 3 hours away from my house….there was this job posting…in my town…part-time…and all it involved was getting up in front of middle and high school kids to talk about dating violence and healthy relationships. I wasn’t really sure I was qualified to discuss healthy relationships, but none of mine had ever been violent so I felt at least moderately qualified to talk to teenagers about avoiding dating violence. So, I applied thinking this would at least help pay the bills while I continued my search for a “real” counseling job. You know, the kind where I get to sit in a chair in a nice office and no boogers are involved.
I arrived for the interview and hit it off with the director of the non-profit and my (now) supervisor. They told me that after reviewing my resume and talking with me about the work I had done during my internships, they actually wanted to offer me an additional position: Children’s Program Coordinator. I would be facilitating groups for children who had experienced domestic violence. GROUPS OF CHILDREN. AHHHHH! You have to understand, I NEVER would have even considered this if my bank account hadn’t been close to overdraft status. But, I smiled and said I would love to facilitate these groups and try my hand at doing both positions- community educator and children’s program coordinator.
When I got there to start my first shift, I realized my predecessor hadn’t left me with a “How To” manual and there wasn’t a specific curriculum I was required to follow. I had some training materials on children and trauma, but nothing that listed specific activities to try with the kids. I had done children’s groups before- a group for children of incarcerated parents, children whose parents had passed away, a social skills group, a friendship group for shy kids, etc. but these had all taken place in a school environment (kids would be pulled out of class to attend a group for 30 min to 1 hr). They were cool with circling our chairs up and doing the activity that I had pulled from a curriculum workbook. On my first night facilitating a group of 7-11 year olds at the DV center, I made the rookie mistake of trying to have them circle up and let’s do a “getting to know you” activity. This didn’t go well. First, one child got up and started dancing on the table, then another got up and opened the (unlocked) closet door pulling out hula hoops and throwing them everywhere. Other kids were making fart noises and saying curse words. A few little girls just sat there looking terrified. “OH.MY.LORD. what have I gotten myself into!?” were my thoughts. I never would have made it without my co-worker, Shelby, who said “don’t quit, at least give it a month, these kids need structure and discipline, you can do it.” You see, children who have experienced trauma and witnessed ongoing violence often reflect with their behavior the chaos of their homes and their minds. This was going to be the nature of my work.
Maybe I can wing it….structure and discipline aren’t really my forte….so I started doing more research and just using common sense to bring order to the chaos I came into. I locked the closet that all of the kids liked to climb and hide in. I re-decorated the group rooms with activity centers instead of open space. I added therapy tools like a doll house and sandbox. I noticed the kids loved arts and crafts, so I bought a ton of arts and crafts stuff. I asked them what activities sounded fun to them. I bought some therapeutic games that helped open up the conversation about home life and family issues. We went outside and burned up some energy on the playground at the start of every group so that we all could focus and get along better. I let them lead me. But I still kept that closet locked. Boundaries, input, structure, choices, unconditional love, encouragement, meeting their physical needs as well (we have a snack box in our room for any child who comes hungry), consequences and accountability, but above all else unconditional love. All in balance. Trial and error. I paid attention to what worked and what didn’t. I was figuring this out. We were winging it together.
And on nights when I have those questions in my mind of if I’m good enough…these kids always help me find my answer. Out of the mouths of babes….