Ask a Counselor: How do we invite growth as a community around racism?

Last month, I wrote about the natural process of individual growth. Our individual problems surface over time throughout our lives, and when they surface, it’s not a cause for alarm or self-shaming. When our problems surface, we are simply facing an opportunity for growth.

We might even come to be grateful for those chances to mature more and more into the people we are intended to be.

Instead of seeing those openings as failures, we can view them as necessary and even holy occasions that invite us to be, as the baptismal liturgy of my childhood said, “risen to walk in newness of life.”

This month, I want to expand that discussion about growth to suggest that what is true for us as individuals is also true for us as communities and cultures.

Issues will surface over time, and when they do, that is the time for us to recognize reality, accept the truth, release our dysfunctional ways of living, and receive new life.

In this small community of A Life Overseas, we recognize the issue of racism among us white folks.

We want to work on our racism as a community.

We want to own up to the ways in which we perceive ourselves as superior to others, simply on the basis of the level of pigmentation in our skin or the pure dumb luck of being born on a particular piece of the planet.

We want to be open to the possibility that we’re racist without knowing it.

We want to listen to the voices of others, receive input, and move toward health.

I believe that moving past racism is primarily individual work, because our communities and cultures are made up of individuals.

We can set community standards and goals, and we should.

We can support one another in our good intentions for change, and we should.

We can confront one another when we recognize racism in one another, and we should.

But ultimately, the work of moving past racism into a real experience of the Imago Dei in each other is individual work.

It is hard work, and it is work that will not be done without deep introspection and self-awareness.

As a therapist, the one thing that I see most hindering the individual work of growth and maturity is shame.

I truly believe that if we want to work on our racism, we have to work on our shame first.

We will never be able to bring change onboard when we are full up with shame.

When we release shame, we find ourselves open and able and even eager to be filled instead with the goodness of Love.

Shame says, “I am a bad person.”

And then, ever since Adam and Eve ran and hid in the garden, shame throws up a wall of defense mechanisms, all designed to hide the shame and pretend that the bad thing didn’t happen.

Our painful logic goes something like this: if the bad thing didn’t happen, I’m not a bad person, and therefore I don’t have to feel this shame.

Problem solved, right?

Unless the bad thing really did happen, and then we dig ourselves deeper and deeper and deeper until the truth is so far from us that we can’t even see it anymore, and we are lost in a pig-pen far, far away.

The solution to all this is the one Jesus told us about so long ago, in that story we call The Prodigal Son.

The solution is to leave shame behind, and turn for Home.

Receive all the Love that we need for ourselves, for our mistaken beliefs, for the behaviors that have harmed ourselves and others so deeply.

We must receive Love enough to confront the genocide of Native peoples by the hands of our ancestors.

We must receive Love enough to face the murderous enslavement of African peoples by the hands of our ancestors.

We must receive Love enough to bear the disillusionment that we are better than others, the narrative of our cultural superiority and exceptionalism.

We must receive Love enough to endure the pain of what our cultural collective has allowed and encouraged and even preached from pulpits, as though God is on our side when we abuse those made in God’s own image.

We must receive Love enough to carry us through our own recognition of our own racism, here and now.

When we have received Love enough, we are beyond fear because Love casts out fear.

When we have received Love enough for this, we will have Love enough for the others we have secretly despised for so long.

When we have received Love enough for all of this, we will release our shame and understand that even though the bad thing is real, we are safe in Love. We can admit to what happened, and then we can do what Maya Angelou tells us: “When we know better, we do better.”

When we have received Love enough for all of this, we will finally and truly understand that there is no limit to Love, no scarcity of supply, no need to hoard for ourselves, no requirement to harm others to provide for ourselves, no necessity to dehumanize so that we can use God’s Beloved as objects to our own ends.

This is the heart-work for the healing of racism: receive Love in abundance, and share out of that abundance with others.

If our response to the possibility of our own individual racism is defensiveness, that’s our shame and fear speaking, and the antidote to that shame and fear is Love.


Love enough for me, Love enough for you, Love enough for us all.



In my own life, contemplative practice is the best practical method I’ve found for receiving all the Love that I need, so that I can share with others, and so that I am less defensive and more open to new things I need to learn about myself.

Contemplative practice is as simple as setting aside a few minutes each day to focus your attention on Love. Many teachers of contemplative practice encourage us to sit in silence for 20 minutes, which trust me, is an eternity the first time around.

There’s a story about Thomas Keating, a teacher of contemplative prayer.  When a student complained that her mind wandered 10,000 times in a 20-minute prayer session, Father Keating said, “How lovely! Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!” (Source)

And I think that is the beauty of contemplative practice: when your mind wanders, you simply say, “Love.” And when it wanders again, you say, “Love.”

That’s the practice: turning back to Love, so that it becomes a habit.

In contemplative practice, we’re just reminding ourselves over and over and over of the truth that Love is enough for us and everyone else as well.

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Ask a Counselor: is it a failure, or is it a growth opportunity?

Things I used to believe:

You’re supposed to “deal with all your stuff” before you go overseas.

If your stuff starts to resurface while you’re overseas, that’s because you didn’t deal with it enough beforehand.

Stuff resurfacing is bad and an indication of failure.

You better be perfect, or close to it–or else.

If you can’t be perfect, or close to it: pretend.

What I now believe:

You can only deal with your stuff as much as you can at any time.

If your stuff starts to resurface while you’re overseas, that’s because you’re ready to deal with more of it now.

Stuff resurfacing is completely normal and an indicator that you’re growing.

Stuff resurfacing is simply an opportunity to do the work that’s now needed.

The truth is, we’re never done growing and changing.

If we aren’t growing and changing, we’re dying, so growth and change mean we are alive! Yay!

The need for growth and change is not an occasion for shame; it’s just part of the design.

Our past is also not an occasion for shame; it’s simply our past.

We did the best we could at the time.

Now we know better, so now we do better.

Perfect is not possible; just be present.

Perfect is not possible; be open to change.

Perfect is not possible; embrace growth.

For anyone needing to grow and change today (which is all of us, unless we are dead):

You are normal and healthy.

Growth is natural, not shameful.

It’s okay to be in your process, right where you are.

Growth takes time.

Take all the time you need.

When it’s hard, remember: this is not forever; it’s just for right now.

You are perfectly loved, safe, and chosen, exactly as you are.

Yes, exactly as you are. NOW.




(I really mean it. Big deep belly breaths, long and slow. For 3 to 5 minutes. Try it and see.)

Love wins.


Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning

The Inner Voice of Love, Henri Nouwen

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff Van Vonderen

Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli

photo credit

Ask A Counselor: Can I leave my abusive spouse, when “the Bible clearly says”…?

I’ve written before about domestic abuse among missionaries. (Here and here are my previous articles.)

I always wish that I didn’t have to write about this, because I wish it didn’t exist in our communities, but it does. Because domestic abuse does exist among missionaries, it is my privilege and calling to shine a light on it, to offer hope and support to the victims, and to call all of us to greater awareness and action against abuse.

I fear that the mission field is an especially safe haven for abusers, as there is often little oversight, a lack of accountability, and zero support for the victimized spouse.

Abusers very often isolate their victims from family, friends, and support systems.

What better place to do this than the mission field?

I believe that if we are not actively aware of the issues around abuse, if we are not prepared to take action against abuse, we are probably going to be complicit in abuse.

We may have good intentions, but if we don’t know what we’re looking for, we’ll get sidetracked and bamboozled more often than not.  Why? Because abusers are charming, they are manipulative, they will make their spouse look crazy while they act like “the sane one,” they say and do anything to protect themselves from reality, they will flat-out lie.

Victims cannot bear this burden alone, and they shouldn’t have to. They need and deserve our awareness, our attention, our support, our care.

Today I want to address a couple of supposedly “biblical” ideas that are used to coerce women into staying with abusive spouses. If these get trotted out in front of you, whether as a victim or a bystander, I want you to be prepared to address them.

I then want to offer a perspective on power and control that is helpful in accurately identifying abuse. Basing assessment on specific behavior without looking at the overall system makes the unwise pastor or counselor vulnerable to manipulation by the abuser. On the other hand, being able to assess a system based on toxic power and control patterns helps avoid manipulation by the abuser, who very often knows how to walk just inside a line of “acceptable behavior,” but has a well-established system of power and control firmly in place.


“God hates divorce” is the most common “reason-they-told-me-I-had-to-stay” that I come across. I think people like to quote this one because it’s quick and easy to remember. You can slap it onto someone and go on your merry way, convinced that God is on your side.

These days when folks quote “God hates divorce” to me, I simply ask: “Are you telling me that  God hates divorce more than he hates domestic violence?”

I want people to face the reality of what they are so glibly saying to victims, because it in no way represents the Way of Jesus.

Those who quote “God hates divorce” don’t quote the second part of the verse: “’For to divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,’ says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.” (Malachi 2:16)

This is a recognition of the cultural reality that, in Old Testament times, divorced women would be utterly without a livelihood; divorce was essentially a death sentence.

“God hates divorce” because divorce was a weapon of cruelty to women!

How incredibly ironic that this verse is now used to trap victims with abusers, therefore overwhelming women with cruelty. 

“God hates divorce?”

Imagine how much more God must hate the bastardization of His Word, used against women to betray His holy Love and passion for justice!

If you need a New Testament source to combat “God hates divorce,” Romans 6:14 is a favorite of mine:

“For sin shall not have dominion over you—as the slaves of a tyrant lord. For you are not under the law, but under grace.”

Dear friend: God hates CRUELTY TO WOMEN. 

You are not a slave to sin, including your husband’s sin.

You are not required to stay and submit to his sin.

When you are ready and able, grace has freed you to walk in newness of life.


Here’s what women get told: “You can’t leave your abuser. You have to stay and love him like Jesus would.”

Here are two main points we must keep in mind, when it comes to unconditional love.

ONE: I am not the source of unconditional love, so it’s not up to me to supply love to every abusive person on the planet.

Unconditional love means that every human being is inherently precious and valuable.

Yes, even the abusers. God loves them too. Which just proves that you really don’t want me to be the source of unconditional Love because I just don’t have it in me. Any love I’d give to the abusers would be pure pretend, and I think they need better than that. They need real, healing Love. So let’s just accept that God gets to be in charge of that, and it’s a good thing for everybody.

Because I’m not the source of unconditional Love, I am not required to be close to people who are abusive, unpleasant, or in any way toxic to me.

I can still accept that the person is precious and valuable, and probably doing the best that they can, while I remove myself from toxic situations.

Unconditional Love will still be available to that person, even when I am not.

I can leave an abuser and Jesus can love him just fine without me.

TWO: I am included in unconditional love, so I get to receive love just like everyone else.

Because I am included in unconditional love, that Love does not allow others to abuse or harm me.

Unconditional love must include love FOR ME just like everyone else, otherwise it’s a very limited, seriously conditional sort of love.

Unconditional love does not condone abuse FOR ME, just like unconditional love does not condone abuse for anyone else.

(Those of us who grew up in abusive systems will have a hard time believing that unconditional love includes us, but sit with it a while.)

Because the other person is included in love,

even while they are being toxic to me,

I can do what is healthy for myself

while trusting that Love will do what is best for that person as well.

Unconditional Love does not depend on me,

and unconditional Love always includes me.


If you’re wondering whether a particular situation is abusive, I encourage you to check the Power and Control Wheel, at the National Centers for Domestic Violence.

Domestic abuse is not simply a single, identifiable event like hitting.

Domestic abuse is a system of power and control within which identifiable events take place.

The entire system is abusive.

Many Christian pastors and even counselors do not take this systemic view into account. They tend to look at single events rather than examining the overall system.

I think one of the reasons for this is that many times, churches are power-and-control systems as well. Churches don’t want the victims to be educated about power and control, because the churches themselves often fit the profile for abusive systems. Many, many abusers find safe haven within Christian systems, precisely because those systems are already abusive and built to protect abusers.

Is your church or organization a power and control system, and therefore likely to protect abusers? Assess it with the power and control wheel and see what you think. Here are some possible patterns to consider:

  • Are women encouraged to isolate themselves from the scary outside world?
  • Are women required to be so occupied with church and family activities that they have no opportunity for independent activities?
  • Are women told that they must dress modestly so that they don’t cause men to sin?
  • Are women required to check with church officials or their husbands before making decisions for themselves?
  • Are women shamed for working outside the home?
  • Are women required to homeschool their children as proof of their holiness?
  • Are women told that they must give their husbands sex whenever they want?
  • Are women told that they must reconcile with their husbands, no matter how abusive the situation?

These are red flags for power and control, and very often a toxic religious system that supports abusers and oppresses victims.

If your church or organization does fall into the power and control realm, then it’s probably time to ask yourself how comfortable you are being part of a system like that.

If you are aware of instances of abuse on the organizational level, such as a leader abusing women or children, resources are available at GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments).

If we don’t get this straight within our own circles of influence, if we are complicit in the abuse of women, overlooking and denying the reality of their suffering, I fear that we are in for a big, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”

If we don’t want to be on the receiving end of that righteous judgment, we had better stop coercing women into staying with their abusive spouses, and instead get busy binding the wounds of these sisters who walk beside us every day, bleeding and bruised and broken from abuse by their “Christian” husbands.


Domestic Shelters

A High View of Marriage Includes Divorce, blogpost

Why Does He Do That? Lundy Bancroft

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Lundy Bancroft

The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Jeff Van Vonderen

Domestic Abuse Is A System, short animated video

Six Different Types of Abuse, blogpost

Financial Ideas, blogpost

photo credit

adapted from a post at

Ask a Counselor: Easter realities

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

St. Theresa of Avila

Easter Monday is always a bit of a conundrum for anyone struggling with just about anything, really.

After the solemnity of Lent and Holy Week and Good Friday builds to the triumph of Easter Sunday, after we sing the victorious songs and shout out, “He is risen indeed,” the sun rises on Easter Monday.

And those of us who struggle generally find that we are still struggling with whatever we were struggling with before all of the Easter hoopla.

Our depression still weighs us down.

Our anxiety has not abated.

Our abusive husband still abuses.

Our teenager is still self-harming.

Our narcissistic parents are still narcissistic.

Our boundaries still waver, and our colleagues still demand more than one human being can possibly deliver.

We thrilled to hear the words “It is finished”—but is it, really?

It doesn’t seem so.

Someone shared that Theresa of Avila quote with me on Easter Monday, and it was an “aha” moment for me, as I asked myself:

How much of our dissatisfaction with the Easter Monday state of life is because we’ve gotten so wrapped up in the idea of Jesus saving us for eternity that we’ve failed to be the Body of Christ on earth, here and now?

The word that’s translated “savior” in Koine Greek is “soter.” By far the most common meaning of “soter” in the Koine is “healer.” And yet, how rarely do we think of Jesus as our healer? We put all of the “soter” power out there on some distant day after we die, never accessing the today-power of soul-deep healing that is ours today.

We don’t consider how the Kingdom of God might come into our lives, today, with the peace and blessing of good boundaries, good sleep, healthy relationships, a reasonable work-life balance, decent self-care.

We “accept” Jesus as our savior for eternity, while rejecting him as our healer today.

When we do this, we strip Easter of its meaning, its power, its scope, its potential for creating Shalom in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.

We end up with a Body of Christ that’s stunted and limping–and having refused healing for itself, offers a limited gospel of hope to the world.

What would our lives be like, collectively, if we met ourselves and one another with compassion and goodness and blessing, as if we were indeed the Body of Christ?

I don’t know if we could make all the horrors of the world cease, but I believe that our capacity to withstand the disasters of this world would be improved if we experienced that we were loved and safe and chosen, even in the darkest hours of our lives.

I believe this because I’ve experienced it for myself, and I believe this because my work as a therapist allows me to participate in the Body of Christ in this way, and I believe this because I know that we are all capable of being open to Love, vulnerable with one another, and a force for healing in the world.

In order to get there, though, we’ve got to step beyond the simple idea of a savior for eternity, and open our hearts to a healer for today.

I suspect that when we fail to be the Body of Christ for others, we tend to recognize that failure, feel guilty, and try harder next time.

What we don’t often recognize is our failure to be the Body of Christ to ourselves.

We don’t allow compassion and blessing to flow into our own lives.

We don’t receive the goodness and mercy that God has for us.

We deflect, we deny, we push it away in some misguided attempt to make sure that others are taken care of first, and ourselves last or perhaps never, as if there is some shortage in God’s provision.

If we want to be the Body of Christ, a healing power in the world today, we’ve got to allow the healing to come to us as well as everyone else.

There is no shortage, on our Easter Mondays, simply an endless supply we have yet to receive, and an open invitation:

My friends,

Christ is risen to be our savior and our healer,

to inhabit our bodies and to make them One Body,

his own hands and feet and heart of compassion,

including ourselves and others,

all beloved, all safe, all chosen,

healed and healing, both as One.


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Ask a Counselor: How can I care for myself, when everybody else has so many needs?

Years ago, when I was overseas, in the throes of a nervous breakdown, my counselor at the time was trying to help me put healthy boundaries in place.

I was exhausted, barely able to get out of bed to come to counseling appointments, yet the thought of healthy boundaries was shocking to me, and I resisted the very idea that I should stop doing some of the things that had brought me to the brink of self-destruction.

“But how will the Arosi people ever get their Bible?” I wailed in a session.

I don’t remember how she talked me off the ledge that day, but I often think of my resistance to healthy boundaries when I hear the same kinds of resistance from my clients these days.

They tell me things like:

  • “Counting myself in” feels selfish.
  • I feel like I’m abandoning others when I care for myself.
  • I know I’m barely making it day-to-day, but if I stop, everyone will be so disappointed.

Our self-sacrificing behaviors are generally applauded and appreciated. Hardly anyone will tell you to stop meeting all the needs, and even if they do, those words of compassion often fall on our resistant ears (just speaking for myself here).

Over time, though, even the hardiest need-meeter will start to run out of steam. We’ll find ourselves exhausted, irritated, frustrated, burned out, losing function.

That’s when we’ll roll up to a therapist and say, “HELP!”

At which point our therapist will say, “Wow, you’re doing the work of 3 people. Let’s consider what healthy boundaries might look like for you.”

And then we will say something like, “But wouldn’t that be selfish? Won’t the Arosi people die and go to hell without their Bible if I stop to take care of myself?”

I love this little joke I first heard from Anne Lamott:

“What’s the difference between God and me? God never thinks he’s me.”

And it’s true: we need to examine our God-complex and stop thinking that we’re the answer to every need on earth. 

But why do some of us struggle with that God-complex so much more than others?

I think at least part of the answer lies here: those of us who have a childhood history of unmet needs often become adults who don’t want anybody else’s needs to go unmet.

This generally comes from a place of caring and kindness: we don’t want anyone else to be hurt the way we were hurt.

The problem, though, is that unmet childhood needs often are so impactful that they produce a kind of hyper-reactivity inside of us that makes it difficult for us to “scale” the need we’re confronting. Our own history of pain prevents us from accurately evaluating the needs before us. Because we’ve been so terribly hurt, we can’t allow others to feel any disappointment at all. We will drive ourselves to exhaustion and beyond to spare another person any pain whatsoever.

And while this may make us wildly popular as The Missionary Hero of the Century, this is not a sustainable way of life.

We need to learn how to SCALE NEEDS PROPERLY so that we can decide what we can reasonably do, given that we are human beings with limited capacity.

Scaling needs properly means that we evaluate whether the other person will have their expectations disappointed or their feelings hurt, or whether the person will actually be harmed if we fail to meet their needs.

Most often, unless we’re in the middle of an urgent medical crisis, we’re dealing with some kind of disappointment and not actual harm.

In those non-urgent cases, we need to consider where healthy boundaries lie. Here are a few questions that can help in setting healthy boundaries:

  • Do I have the capacity to meet this need at this time?
  • Do I desire to meet this need, is it in line with my gifts, my passions?
  • Is is necessary for me to meet this need, or is the other person capable of handling this for themselves?
  • If I take this on, am I crossing the line into codependency, protecting others from their own growth and necessary emotional work?
  • Is my “helping” just a nice way of being controlling?
  • Am I protecting myself from some kind of pain with all this “helping?”
  • Do I need to do some emotional work of my own, rather than helping someone else?

We can learn to include ourselves in the circle of Love that is the Body of Christ. Everything that needs to be done has already been done. It is finished. And because it is finished, you and I can rest easy and participate fully in the life of the Body, without self-harming.

We are not God, and we don’t have to try to be God.  

We are human beings with human capacity, human needs, and human limitations who are perfectly loved, safe, and chosen.

We live in the truth of Love: Love enough for us, Love enough for the needy, and we let it set us free.

Even if others have to cope with a little disappointment.

Even if we have to learn to live with a our own pain when we stop “helping.”

Love is enough for their disappointment, and Love is enough for our pain.

In Love, freedom is ours, and rest for our souls.

These are the gifts of God for the people of God, thanks be to God.

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff Van  Vonderen

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend

photo credit

Ask a Counselor: the epiphany of Love

I love the idea of an epiphany, that “a-ha moment” that brings a flash enlightenment.

Right now, we’re in the season of Epiphany, according to the church calendar. Epiphany begins just after Christmas and runs all the way up until Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins.

It’s a strange and beautiful story, the original Epiphany: astrologers following a star to find Jesus.

The way I grew up, the only way to find Jesus was through the Bible.

But here we find in the very birth-story of Jesus, the Magi, the Wise Ones, the Kings of the East, who found Jesus through astrology, used dreams as a method of guidance against the evils of Herod, and went away into their own country again without a conversion-to-Christianity story.

The story of Christmas is all about God-With-The-Unlikeliest: Mary the Girl, Joseph the Carpenter, shepherds in a field. Even the Kings who come to visit are outsiders, following a star instead of religious protocol, astrologers instead of pharisees.

If we take away anything at all from the story of Christmas and Epiphany, it should be this:

Love shows up everywhere, peace on earth, goodwill for everyone.

For women.

For the poor.

For the unclean.

For the unchosen.

For the unknown.

For the unexpectant.

For the religiously different.

Here, in the birth-story of Jesus, it’s so clear: the all-inclusive embodiment of Love has come to be With Us, whoever we are, wherever we are.

But for many of us, the beginning of Love is the hardest.

We can barely believe that Love loves us first. (I John 4:19)

We can see that Love is limitless for others, but we have a hard time accepting Love for ourselves.

We don’t truly believe that unconditional Love is truly unconditional–not for us, anyway.

Our experiences of abandonment, abuse, judgment, failure–these teach us that Love is highly conditional.

Toxic theology reinforces what our broken hearts feel must be true: we’ll never really be good enough, unless and until ___________. And the blank never, ever gets filled. It just stretches into endless, exhausting demands for perfection, performance, approval.

It’s an act of radical, counter-toxic-religious rebellion to love ourselves fully, completely, and unconditionally, the way we’ve always been told that Love is. The way that the Bible so clearly, clearly says. And the way we so rarely actually do.

But this is what we are called into this season of Epiphany: the great, epic, mysterious “a-ha” of Love that includes ALL OF US.

All of us star-followers,

all of us dreamers-of-dreams,

Epiphany calls us to into the great, unending journey of inclusion.

Love is limitless, and so we will never come to the end of what Love includes.

Beginning with ourselves.

May this be the year that Love includes you, and Love includes me,

until Love includes the whole, beautiful, beloved world.

adapted from

photo: Michael Bruner

Ask a Counselor: Annual Self-Care Check-Up Edition

It’s become my tradition to kick off every year with a post encouraging self-care for the year ahead.

Last year, I talked about using the biopsychosocial model as a basis for a well-rounded self-care plan.  I even created a fun, handy-dandy animation about it.

I still think that’s a great model to use, and I hope it’s useful to you well-organized, well-adjusted types who just make a plan and go with it all year long.

But for the rest of us–those of us who had good intentions that fell by the wayside, or who thought we didn’t need a self-care plan and are dragging ourselves out of 2017 like we were hit by a train–I want to ask you just one question for the year ahead:

What do you need?

That’s it: what do you need?

Sit with that question, and let the answer be the basis of your self-care for this year.

Whatever you need, accept it as the free gift from your Father who loves you with an everlasting Love, who has your name written in the palms of his hands, who can never forget you any more than a nursing mother could forget her beloved child.

What do you need?

Whatever it is, receive.

Many of us are experts at assessing and providing for the needs of others.

  • We’re great at understanding what the ministry needs.
  • We comprehend our friends’ emotions and desires and step up whenever we can.
  • We know what our kids want before they do.
  • We love and support our spouses in their needs and wants.

But when we turn the attention to ourselves, what happens?

When I ask you, what do you need?

What happens for you?

Do the tears well up?

Does your radar suddenly fail?

Are you the one and only person on earth whose needs you cannot comprehend?

If that describes you, then sit with that question until the answers start to come.

Sit with those tears and listen to what they have to teach you.

Accept your own needs, your own wants, your own desires.

Respond to yourself with kindness, just as you would to a friend.

Release the compulsion to shove all the blessing down the line to the next person.

Comprehend that YOU are included, accepted, loved, safe, chosen.

Your heavenly Father has gifts for YOU, rest for YOU, compassion for YOU.

Accept, accept, accept.

Receive, receive, receive.

You won’t exhaust the storehouses of heaven, I promise. There is plenty for all.

As you receive, every day, whatever it is that you need, may this be a New Year that brings rest to your soul.


The Inner Voice of Love, Henri Nouwen

Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff Van Vonderen

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Yoga with Adriene on YouTube

Don’t forget to check our Resource Tab for a listing of counseling and retreat centers around the world.

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Ask a Counselor: step back from the edge, my friends

Some of us here are overfunctioners.

This means that we tend to do more than our fair share of everything.

You name it, we do too much of it.

Overfunctioners exist in the real world of regular people, but I think the missionary world tends to attract more than its fair share.

After all, out of the millions of people who heard those sermons about going to the uttermost parts of the earth, we are the people who took it seriously.  We are the ones who actually did it.

That could, just possibly, be an indicator that we might, just maybe, have the tendency to overfunction.

Here are two quick questions to evaluate whether overfunctioning has become an issue in our lives, and whether you ought to keep reading:

  1. How much are other people slacking off and not going their fair share?
  2. How much resentment am I feeling right now?

If I know for sure that all the other people aren’t doing enough (people in my passport country, my work colleagues, my spouse, my children) then I’m probably overfunctioning right now to make up for their failures.

If I’m feeling overwhelmed with all the things I absolutely must do, and getting resentful of those terrible slackers who aren’t doing enough, then very likely I’m overfunctioning.

Now, if you are an overfunctioner, like I am an overfunctioner, then here is what we tend to do in situations where other people aren’t doing enough:



We push forward and do more when others aren’t doing enough, because clearly, the problem is that everybody’s not doing enough!

I want to suggest that, just perhaps, we have mistaken the root problem.

What if the problem is NOT everybody else?

What if the problem is our overfunctioning itself?

I don’t know why you feel like you have to do too much, but here’s the bottom line for me: I get confused about who’s God and who’s not. 

When I’m overfunctioning, throwing myself under the bus and being resentful of anybody who’s not under there with me, I’ve lost track of who’s in charge.  I’ve started believing that if I don’t do every single thing, then all will be lost without me.

And honestly, I’m just not that big of a deal, you guys.

And neither are you.

Neither of us are God.

It does not all depend on us. We get to participate, and that’s awesome, but we are not what holds the universe together.

There’s kind of a narcissistic ugliness about my motivations when I’m overfunctioning, to be honest with you.

Maybe you’re a better person than I am, and your motivations for overfunctioning are pure as the driven snow.  You can let me know in the comments.

The other problem I’ve had is this: the more I overfunction, the more I overfunction.

The demands never stop.

It’s a black hole. 

Everybody’s always hungry, victims are always needy, the world is an endless ball of pain and sorrow.

So of course I have to keep going!

But as long as I keep running on that gerbil wheel, it’s going to keep turning and I’ll have to keep running.

Here’s what happened to me:  I did all that running, I kept overfunctioning, until I literally dropped in my tracks with a nervous breakdown, back in 2003.

Here is the life-saving thing that I learned in recovery from that breakdown:

I can stop.

I can rest.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed, overworked, resentful, used up, and depleted, I can step back.

I can accept the invitation of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I like it even better in The Message:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

I’ve been trying this for 14 years now, and the world has never once stopped turning.  Things work out even when I don’t do too much, even when I don’t throw myself under the bus.  Sometimes things even work out better, as a matter of fact.  (That’s crazy talk, I know.)

So here we are, right before the holiday insanity strikes, my overfunctioning friends.

And I want to invite you to join me in one radical, life-changing act of peaceful revolution: step back.

When it’s just too much, when everything’s going to fall apart if you don’t doallthethings,

TRY the one insane thing that you’ve never, ever considered before:

Step back.

That’s right.

Instead of stepping forward, instead of doing more, step back.

Do less.


In this season of giving, RECEIVE.

Take what you need from the fountain of Love.

We were promised rest for our souls.

Open your hands and receive.

And I will too.

I know for sure what we are going to find: plenty for us all.

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Ask a Counselor: no child soldiers, no child sacrifice

Jesus talked quite a bit about the Kingdom of Heaven and its King.

Jesus told us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like:

  • Seeds, broadcast into a field
  • Yeast in a loaf of bread
  • A treasure, hidden in a field
  • A pearl of great price
  • A net full of fish.  (Matthew 13)

Jesus told us that the King of this Kingdom is like:

  • A shepherd, leaving the 99 sheep to search for the one sheep that’s lost
  • A woman, sweeping the corners of her house in search of a lost coin
  • A father, watching and waiting for his lost son to return home.  (Luke 15)

Here’s what Jesus NEVER said:  the Kingdom of Heaven is a military industrial complex, an imperialist power waging war on its enemies, churning out child soldiers to sacrifice in the name of God.

I don’t often talk theology in this space, as most of the time I think your theology is your business.  But recently, a prominent Christian leader pushed me into the theology-meddling I’m about to do, when he published a blog that began this way:

Should a Christian couple take their children into danger as part of their mission to take the gospel to the unreached peoples of the world? Short answer: Yes.

Why? Because the cause is worth the risk, and the children are more likely to become Christ-exalting, comfort-renouncing, misery-lessening exiles and sojourners in this way than by being protected from risk in the safety of this world.

The article tells us that our children are to be “trained as soldiers” by providing them “training in self-denial and risk” as they watch mommy and daddy sweating under mosquito nets, and winds it all up by assuring us that when it comes to our kids, “there are things vastly worse than death.”

Now.  The person who wrote this article is the pastor of a megachurch in America.  So while he’s willing to literally sacrifice YOUR child’s life, he didn’t do it himself.  This, for me, is reason enough to blow the blog off as a piece of epic hypocrisy and move on with life.

However, the nationalistic, militaristic, child-soldier-sacrifice metaphors he employs are a long-standing, shameful part of the dark side of missionary life, and must be confronted whenever they rise, shambling like zombies, from their unhallowed ground once again.

We all know what the world of missions has done to children in the past, using the exact logic of this pernicious post.

Once you decide that children are disposable assets for the Kingdom, you’re on the way to all the child abuse done in the name of God at schools of horror like Mamou in West Africa—to name just one extreme example.

Many who weren’t abused in boarding school still know what it feels like to matter less than “the ministry,” to have their needs subjugated to “the work of the Lord,” to know that everybody else is welcomed eagerly in the Kingdom, invited and celebrated and appreciated, while they have to just keep banging on the door until somebody listens and lets them in.  I actually found this article shared in an online group of individuals who were processing the pain of being raised exactly as described.  It didn’t turn them into good little Christian soldiers.  In fact, it’s made them question the whole racket.

Here’s a newsflash for you, Mr. Prominent Church Leader:

Children are not objects to be used to advance some religious project somewhere.

Children are not less-important life forms, to be prioritized somewhere below The Saving of The Whole World.

Children, including the children of missionaries, are of equal value and worth to anyone else in the world, and must be treated with the absolute respect accorded every person who bears the Imago Dei.

Anything less is a slap in the face of God.  Here’s what Jesus had to say about children in the Kingdom:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.  And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!

Matthew 18:1-7

A person who does not care for their own child is “worse than an infidel,” the Scripture says. (I Timothy 5:8)  “Caring for our own children” should not look like we’re traumatizing, ignoring, neglecting, or abusing them, with attempts to rationalize these behaviors as “the discipline of the Lord.” 

Anyone who says such things has fallen into millstone territory, I’m afraid.

While working on this article, I listened to The Liturgists podcast on Spiritual Trauma. I was not expecting to connect that podcast episode to this article at all.

But starting around 27:50, they begin exploring this question:

“What’s the difference [between a highly controlling religious environment] and a cult?”

One of the presenters makes this statement:  “In my past research, one of the big indicators of a cult versus just a fundamentalist religious sect will be the demotion of the family unit in a sort of Orwellian way to attempt to weaken or loosen the bonds of family to strengthen adherence to the faith community.”

They go on to discuss how an unhealthy, abusive “God” would make demands that would override a child’s pain.  “The strictures of the community get prioritized over the voice, the needs, the reality of that person, even in your own family system.”

And wow.  That’s exactly what this prominent leader is telling parents to do: ignore your child’s pain, because he says that there are more important things than your child’s voice, needs, and reality.

We have to acknowledge those cultic elements of missionary culture of the past, in which children were sacrificed to the “strictures of the community”—and then to recognize the times that these ungodly ideas continue to be espoused today, even by very influential faith leaders.

We have to see the lies, know the reality, and do better for our families today.

We are not called to deliberately–or carelessly–traumatize our children for God’s sake.  

When traumatic events occur, we should be the first ones at our child’s side bringing care, concern, and healing.

So.  If someone were to ask me the question, here’s how I would answer.

Should a Christian couple take their children into danger as part of their mission to take the gospel to the unreached peoples of the world?

Please don’t take your children into active danger, thinking that this will somehow make you a better kind of Christian than those softies back in your passport country and guarantee that your children will become perfect little soldiers for The Cause.

However, if the situation is reasonable, and if it’s a good fit for everyone in the family, go ahead, if that’s what you want to do.


Because the world needs Love.  Go and share it.

But: we don’t throw anyone under the bus. 

God’s work will be done in God’s time, and that work will be done in God’s way: 

with care and respect for everyone involved.

We have nothing to prove, no one to defeat or destroy in battle. 

We are not a military-industrial complex. 

We are Branches of the Vine.

A Body, fit together in Love.

When one part suffers, every part suffers.

We love and care for every part.

We honestly assess how things are going for our family—all the members of our family. 

We prioritize the needs of our family above the needs of any organization, church, ministry, religious system, or prominent leader.

And we care for our children as though they are the most precious gifts ever given to us. 

Because they are.


Jesus, The Gentle Parent, LR Knost

Trauma-Proofing Your Kids, Levine and Kline

The Liturgists podcast, episode on Spiritual Trauma

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Ask a Counselor: faith shift edition

It can begin any number of ways:

Burnout leads to a need for better boundaries

  • And you ask yourself: “If Jesus offers rest for my soul, why does everyone else want me to work harder?”

Social justice issues move to the forefront

  • And you ask yourself: “People here are literally dying, while American Christians sit in stained glass palaces and complain about persecution when their Starbucks cups are the wrong color.  I wonder what other justice issues I’m overlooking?”

Cross-cultural differences challenge your previous paradigms

  • And you ask yourself: “I was taught that in order to grow kids God’s way, in order to quench their rebellious spirits, I had to spank them from infancy onward. Spanking is illegal here, and the kids seem to be alright.  I wonder what that’s all about?”

Personal growth leads to spiritual conviction

  • And you ask yourself: “I’ve realized that I’m approaching God from fear, needing to perform perfectly so that he won’t punish me. But the Bible says God loves me so much that he sent Jesus.  I wonder how life would be different if I lived from Love instead of fear?”

Intellectual curiosity sparks new discoveries

  • And you ask yourself: “A friend on Facebook recommended The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton, and I discovered a whole world of Biblical scholarship that I never knew existed. I wonder what else is out there that I don’t know about?”

Addiction or abuse throws your entire world into chaos

  • And you ask yourself: “My husband acts wonderful in public, but at home he’s distant, disconnected, impatient, and verbally abusive to me and the kids. I recently discovered that he’s been looking at porn since he was a teenager, and now he’s going to massage parlors.  He says it’s my fault because I’ve gained weight.  My mentor told me to pray and submit, that he might be won without a word.  She told me to give him sex and lose weight to show my love for him.  She said I’m not allowed to leave him because he hasn’t had sex with anyone else.  Some days I just want to die. I’ve started cutting again, just to ease the pain.  Does God really require me to submit to my husband’s unrepentant sin?  And do I really want to be part of a church that doesn’t care how badly I’m hurting?”

Experiences like this, which bring up these kinds are questions, challenge our interior schema.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget observed that children begin with simple schema, for example:  Every animal with four legs is “doggie.”

Then, as more information presents itself, children either:

assimilate information that fits the existing schema (“Yes, that’s a doggie.”)


they accommodate information that does not fit the existing schema, creating new schema for the new information (“No, that’s a squirrel.”)

We’re used to this as children, but as adults we tend to become less open to new information.

New experiences and ideas about faith can be especially challenging to cope with, as changing our minds feels like it would change our whole world.  Many of us assimilate, assimilate, assimilate, until some particularly difficult situation leads us to realize that our schema can no longer contain our experiences.

When that happens, we may find ourselves in a faith shift. 

As Jesus said, we need new wineskins for the new wine.

Faith-shifting is not an uncommon experience in our world today.

  • The Barna Group’s research shows a downward trend in American church involvement, particularly among Millennials.
  • A quick Amazon search reveals a plethora of books on evangelicals moving away from that particular tradition.
  • Any number of Facebook groups exist for the support of faith-shifters.

There’s a lot of information out there about faith-shifting.

However, here’s a thing I haven’t seen anybody write about or heard anybody talk about, but which I know for a fact to be true:  missionaries are faith-shifting too.  

I know, because my clients tell me they are.

Missionaries are faith-shifting, and they can’t tell anybody, because it’s not safe.

Along with all the usual issues that faith-shifters face, missionaries face this additional huge question:

Will I lose my job, my supporters, if people find out that I’m not able to check all their required boxes anymore?

I don’t know the answers to that question.

I don’t know how churches will handle the reality of faith-shifting missionaries.

But let me tell you something I do know:

Why do systems use the threat of ostracism to keep people in line? 

Because ostracism is so painful that we will do almost anything to avoid it.

Ostracism as a threat works because it’s effective.

In my experience, faith-shifters will only come out of the closet when staying inside the system has become so painful that they have no other choice but to risk the pain of ostracism.

So, what to do?

  • Count the cost: keep track of how staying in the system impacts us.
  • Create healthy boundaries, based on the costs we’re counting in our lives.
  • Build community: find safe, supportive people whether in real life or online.
  • Trust God to be big enough for our questions.  Breathe.
  • Have faith for the journey.  Wherever we go, God is with us, loving us.
  • Know that you are not alone.
  • Care for your physical self with yoga sessions aimed at anxiety-reduction, to combat the effects of potential ostracism.

Resources for faith-shifters

Falling Upward, Richard Rohr

An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor

Faith Shift, Kathy Escobar

Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans

The Sin of Certainty, Peter Enns

Benefit of the Doubt, Greg Boyd

The Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns

Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood

The Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey

The Last Week, Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan.

Repenting of Religion, Greg Boyd

Love Wins, Rob Bell

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Brad Jerszak

Finding God in the Waves, Mike McHargue

The Language of God, Francis Collins

How God Changes your Brain, Andrew Newberg

Torn, Justin Lee

Unfair, John Shore

Folks to find online

Kathy Escobar

Cindy Wang Brandt

Angie Fadel

Center for Action and Contemplation

The Liturgists

Peter Enns


If angels and demons can’t separate us from the love of God,

then some questions about faith systems are highly unlikely to have that power, either.

Even ostracism, as painful as that can be, cannot separate us from the love of God.

We are loved.

We are safe.

We are chosen.

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Ask A Counselor: How’s my self-care plan holding up?

Hey friends, I usually write a self-care post in January, but I just wanted to run through a quick self-care check-up with you this month, and give a few ideas if you find yourself needing a little pick-me-up.

I like to use the Biopsychosocial model as a guide to make sure that we’re covering all our self-care bases.  We need to be caring for ourselves:

  • biologically (our physical selves)
  • psychologically (our emotional/spiritual selves)
  • socially (our relational selves, in the reality of today)

Here are some evaluation points for our biological selves:

  • How am I sleeping?
  • How is my appetite?
  • Am I getting regular exercise?
  • Am I fairly healthy, or am I experiencing repeated physical illnesses?
  • When I scan my body, are there areas of persistent physical tension?
  • Am I able to physically relax?
  • Am I experiencing panic or anxiety attacks?

If we are experiencing any disturbances in this area, we might:

  • See a doctor to explore issues of sleep, appetite, illness.
  • Find regular exercise routines that work in our setting.
  • Explore yoga as a way to care for the physical self.
  • Learn alternate nostril breathing as a calming technique.
  • Explore contemplative prayer as a way to connect our embodied selves with God.
  • Use a simple app like Calm as a breathing, meditation, or sleep coach.

Here are some evaluation points for our psychological (spiritual/emotional) selves:

  • How are my moods?
  • Am I especially irritable, angry, sad, anxious?
  • Am I acting out in undesirable ways?
  • When I sit quietly with myself, what emotions arise?
  • Am I feeling spiritually dry, distant, disconnected?

If we’re experiencing disturbances in this area, we might:

  • Journal 20 minutes daily.
  • Read good books–some suggested below.
  • Listen to uplifting music.
  • Find a good podcast.
  • Talk to a counselor.  (Check our resource tab!)
  • Join a supportive online group.

Here are some evaluation points for our social selves:

  • How are my closest relationships these days?
  • Can I easily access friends, family, supportive community?
  • What’s my work environment like right now?
  • Does life feel “fair” to me, or do I feel overworked and underappreciated?
  • Are there any particularly stressful or painful circumstances right now?
  • When’s the last time I really had fun?
  • When is my next holiday?

If we’re experiencing disturbances in this area, we might:

  • Make an effort to reach out to those closest to us, and explore any disconnect.
  • Consider what healthy boundaries would look like for me and my family.
  • Consider what healthy boundaries would look like for my work environment.
  • Take into account any particularly stressful circumstances the might require boundary adjustments.
  • Look for ways to have fun, relax, and nourish myself on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis.





The pattern of your life should reflect your infinite value and worth.

You are not the source and supply for every person on earth–not even if they think you are.

You are fully loved and safe and chosen, just as you are.




Resources to explore

The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk

Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend

How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg

The Anxiety Cure, Archibald Hart

The Inner Voice of Love, Henri Nouwen

Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor

Falling Upward, Richard Rohr

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Ask a Counselor: How can I help my anxious child through transition?

Letter of the day:

“I’m coming to you at this moment as a desperate mom in need of a resource, like, today for my 10 year old son. Briefly: After 5 years living in _____, we’re packing up and heading back to the states in 3 1/2 weeks. My anxiety prone son, who is very much looking forward to the move at this point, has shown major mental health deterioration over the last week or two leading up to this move. He’s now literally roller coaster riding through multiple panic attacks each day, and cannot make a single decision or handle anything requested of him. It’s breaking our hearts, and honestly, it’s to the point where we’re very concerned for him.”

For all the parents facing transition with anxious children this season, I’ve got two immediate interventions that should help right away, and then some ideas for longer-term brain and body care.


We’ve probably all had the experience of being with an anxious person, and feeling our own anxiety ratchet up as well–especially when it’s our child who’s panicking!  Well, the opposite is true as well: when we calm ourselves, others calm with us.

Deep, deliberate breathing is one of the very best things we can do for anxiety.  We can do it for ourselves, and coach our children to do it with us.

Research shows that just two or three minutes of deliberate breathing each day is enough to produce positive brain changes.  (Source)

One of the best breathing techniques I know is Alternate Nostril Breathing.  I have clients who use this technique to help manage major anxiety symptoms like agoraphobia and panic attacks.  It may look strange, but it’s amazingly and immediately, helpful.  Here’s a brief Alternate Nostril Breathing tutorial.

Cool life hack: almost every song is 3 or 4 minutes long.  If you put on a favorite calming song and alternate nostril breathe all the way through, you’ve done something great for your brain.

I think a 10-year-old should be able to learn alternate nostril breathing pretty quickly.  Let them choose a song they like, and breathe through it together.  (With a younger child, we might have them blow bubbles through a bubble wand, coaching them to “make bubbles for as long as you can,” which encourages slower breathing.)

If you’re out in public, alternate nostril breathing can look like you’re picking your nose, so the Calm app (Apple and Android versions both available) is a great resource to have on hand.  Calm has a beautiful front screen with nature sounds that I instantly fell in love with, plus it’s got a breathing coach that teaches you to breathe in slowly, hold, and breathe out slowly.

Since it’s perfectly socially acceptable to be on your phone in public, Calm is perfect for traveling.  Show your child how the Calm breathing coach works ahead of time, practice a bit together so you both have the hang of it, and let your child know that he can put in headphones and breathe with the screen anywhere, any time.


If breathing is too difficult in the moment, trying a grounding exercise first.

When our bodies are overtaken with anxiety, that anxiety becomes our whole focus.  Anything that involves focusing on the five senses and the outside world  will help “ground” us in the moment and bring calm to our brains.

One of the most common grounding techniques is the “5-4-3-2-1 Game.”  Coach your child through the following:

  • Name 5 things you can see in the room with you.
  • Name 4 things you can feel (“chair on my back” or “feet on floor”)
  • Name 3 things you can hear right now (“fingers tapping on keyboard” or “tv”)
  • Name 2 things you can smell right now (or, 2 things you like the smell of)
  • Name 1 good thing about yourself  (Source)

When your child is feeling calmer, you can continue to engage their senses with the outside world by transitioning to the old “I Spy” game.  Take turns choosing objects in the room, while the other person guesses what the spy sees: “I spy with my little eye, something that is blue (green, red, orange, etc).”

Here are some longer-term strategies you can use to help lower anxiety in general, and help everyone be prepared for future episodes.


The more your child understands what’s happening in his body and brain, the more he can decide how to handle that anxiety when it comes.  Help him understand that what’s happening to his body is pretty common, and there are many strategies that can help.

Pick up a copy of The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel, and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, by Dr. John Gottman to thoroughly educate yourself, and share freely with your child about what you’re learning.

Meanwhile, watch this video of Dr. Siegel’s hand model of the brain.  Here’s an article that uses Lego figures to explain the same “upstairs brain, downstairs brain” concepts to kids.  Share either the hand model or the Lego model with your child.

We want our kids to understand that the “downstairs brain” gets full of feelings, and sometimes the “downstairs brain” doesn’t know what to do with all those feelings, so we “flip our lids.”  If we understand what’s happening in our brain, our “upstairs brain” can help by knowing about things that will help “downstairs brain” feel calm again.  We might even learn to recognize the signs of an overwhelmed downstairs brain, and then we can calm ourselves before we flip our lids.

When your child is not in the middle of a panic attack, have a gentle conversation about the anxiety they’re experiencing.

  • Talk about the symptoms you’ve noticed.
  • Ask what symptoms they’ve noticed.
  • Ask how their body feels when they’re feeling anxious.
  • Does the anxiety sit in their chest, on their shoulders, in the middle of their forehead, in their stomach?
  • Tell your child that these are important signals from the body, and we’re going to learn to listen to those signals, pay attention to what our bodies need, and try to help our bodies to manage our feelings.

With conversations like this, we’re helping to put the “upstairs brain” back in charge of the “downstairs brain” and the rest of the body.

And then there are even more techniques we can use, like:


Yoga is one of the most effective treatments for anxiety, even severe types like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It’s a great, regular, daily way to pay attention to our bodies and to care for them gently and effectively.

Find a yoga practice that works for you as a parent, first of all.  The calmer you are, the more space you will have to help your child cope with his anxiety.  Plus, it’s just good parenting practice to model healthy behaviors, right?  

My favorite teacher is Adriene, on YouTube.  Her channel is free and has a wealth of material available.

Here’s my favorite Adriene practice for anxiety.  If you’ve never done yoga, don’t worry.  This one is low and slow, lots of stretching and breathing.  There’s no weird woo-woo spiritual stuff, and she doesn’t try to twist you into a pretzel or make you stand on your head.  It’s just 20 minutes of great, immediate anxiety help.

Your child might like Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube (here’s the Cosmic Kids “relaxation” page), or he might just want to practice along with you and Adriene.


Laugh every day.  It is physically impossible to be anxious when you’re laughing.  A funny movie or TV show, a silly joke book, baby goats in pajamas or that hamster that does backflips on YouTube (Yup, still funny after I’ve watched it 400 times.  I just checked.)—whatever it is that makes you and your child laugh, find it and keep it on hand.  (I think that hamster video would be a great use of a cell phone and free Wi-Fi while waiting in airport lines.)

Take time every single day for scheduled laugh breaks.  It’s just like taking your vitamins: don’t wait to get sick; just do it because it’s good for you.  

When I work with anxious young clients, I always give the parents this homework, with the children present:  Have fun together every day.  When the family returns each session, I’ll ask the child how the parents did with their homework.  If the parents struggle to have fun, we’ll sometimes do a sticker reward chart to help the parents remember their homework.  So, if you need a sticker chart, make one for yourself.  Just remember: have fun together every day.  It’s great for everybody’s anxiety levels!

Of course we don’t want to misuse laughter and fun to completely avoid our pain; however, we also need the daily reminder that life is still good, even when it’s hard.  Sometimes letting ourselves laugh is a great act of faith and hope.


Find music that’s emotionally intelligent, and keep it going as the soundtrack to life.  Here are a few favorites of mine.  I’d love to hear yours, too!

Blue Healer, Birdtalker

Beautiful Things, Gungor

Night Has Passed, The Brilliance

Be Kind to Yourself, Andrew Peterson

What helps you and your child manage anxiety in healthy ways during transition times?  

Give us your ideas in the comments!

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