119: Parenting Teens During the Loneliness Epidemic
Children want to be heard and seen. Ron Deal had a conversation with Dr Mark Mayfield about how parents can help teens with loneliness. They offer wisdom and practical help for sensitive, serious topics such as suicide and address the role parents have as children navigate their overwhelming feelings and confusing thoughts.
About the Guest
- Blended Family resources
- Smart Stepfamily on Right Now Media
- Learn more about the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry
- Dr. Mark Mayfield
- The Path out of Loneliness and The Path to Wholeness
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Children want to be heard and seen. Ron Deal discusses with Dr Mark Mayfield about how parents can help teens with loneliness, purpose, and truth as they mature into young adulthood. Parents play a vital role to help navigate their overwhelming thoughts.
119: Parenting Teens During the Loneliness Epidemic
I think parents, I am guilty of this. I want to fix it. I want to make it better. I want to jump in and give advice. I want to think that my years of knowledge somehow is going to make it through into their brains and they want to sit and listen and ask. No, they just want to be heard. They want to be seen and so I really challenge parents bite your tongue if you feel like you need to give advice or want to fix it, but just see them.
You know my favorite tool in that moment is to tell my daughter "Hey, I notice I'm seeing something else is going on here, and I'm not going to push you on it, but I want you to know that I see that you're struggling and I'm here. I'm here to talk when you're ready," you know, and calling it out so she knows that I actually see her. She can't hide but now it's on her terms to come talk to me when she's ready.
Ron: Well, welcome to the FamilyLife Blended podcast. I'm Ron Deal. We help blended families, and those who love them, pursue the relationships that matter most. Maybe you've heard there's an epidemic mental health crisis going on in today's young people in America. Kids are more connected through technology than ever before, and yet they are feeling more lonely than ever before. What is going on and what can you do about it? How can you help your kids? That's our topic on this episode of FamilyLife Blended. We'll get back to that in just a few minutes.
We recently got a question from Rae. She says, "What event or resource is right for us? We have been blending for five years. We have three teenagers, and our marriage is struggling. I see multiple events and resources; is one specific to our needs? What resource is a good start?"
Now, I don't know about you, but you may be wondering a similar question. It used to be that there just wasn't much available, especially within the Christian community for blended families, but now FamilyLife Blended, we have so many resources to choose from and Rae's question is a good one. She's looking at a dozen book resources, video series that you can watch. Best books to start, I would suggest are maybe the Building Love Together in Blended Families book if you're just beginning to get your head around the blended family journey, if you will. My book The Smart Stepfamily is the most comprehensive of all the books that we have available.
It's the deep dive into every corner, if you will, of the blended family house. Other resources like, Gayla Grace's devotional Stepparenting with Grace is another great one. Again, designed to help you connect your heart to God and each other as husband and wife as you work through that book. Other books that I've done: Smart Stepmom, Smart Stepdad. Those obviously are deep dives into that particular role, if you feel the need for that. And our book on stepfamily finances is all about helping you manage money as you're blending your home and thinking about the future.
The starter books are Building Love Together in Blended Families, The Smart Stepfamily. Then those other resources can come around that and really supplement some of that core training that you're going to get there. The core video curriculum that we have is called The Smart Stepfamily. It's available in RightNow Media. Again, look at our show notes. We'd be happy to get you connected to all of those resources and just pick one and dive in.
And by the way, this podcast, at this point has over a hundred episodes on a variety of topics that are relevant to blended families. Take two minutes and just kind of scroll through the topics. I'm sure you're going to find something that pertains to you and then just listen and keep going. We'd love to have you do that.
And one last thought. Rae's question highlights the need for more churches doing stepfamily ministry, stepping into this space, whether it be in children's ministry or in student ministry or with adults, maybe it's premarital with couples forming blended families, or maybe it's the marriage education program. All of those are places where you can begin to do some things. Again, we want to help you with that as well. You can host Blended and Blessed® every spring. We put on this live stream one day event that is available for churches to make available to couples in their church and community.
In the fall, you can attend our Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. That's where we try to help people think about ministry in the local church and community. Our next one is Thursday, October 12th. It's a virtual event this year. Thursday, October 12th, sit at home, sit in a place where you're comfortable and participate with us on that day. This is also a great event to share with your church leader, maybe a pastor or you know somebody in the adult administration. Tune in and learn more about what they can do, what they can just simply add to the current ministry of your church in order to be relevant to blended families.
Alright. Boy, that's a mouthful. There's lots of options there, but that's the point. There's good stuff available for you; pick a resource and dive in.
Okay, Dr. Mark Mayfield is a licensed professional counselor, and he is the founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers. He is passionate about the integration of faith and mental health, and he's been featured in a number of media outlets. He's the author of two books at this point, The Path Out of Loneliness and his newest book, The Path to Wholeness. Mark, thanks for joining me today on FamilyLife Blended.
Mark: Thanks, Ron. This is great.
Ron: Glad to have you. Dude, we see the headlines. We hear the reports about teen suicide and loneliness. Parents are worried about their kids, and they should be, right. What is going on out there? Can you give us some perspective on what's happening?
Mark: Well, I mean, I think it's—we blame Covid as kind of the catalyst, but I think it was boiling and building before Covid and Covid was just kind of the break point. But I think what we're seeing is that there's just a lot of kids that are being unseen and unnoticed, mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. Whether it be the busyness of life, whether it be the struggle to find identity and purpose and place. But I think a lot of it too has to do with just the insurmountable like level of hopelessness that's kind of being pervasive in our culture right now in the midst of headlines and political stuff. I mean, you name it, our kids are getting bombarded with it.
Ron: And that's so ironic to me. Hopelessness in the midst of a world that believes that you can invent your own realities and that's everything you need. It's sort of like the messages so much that we're faced with today, that young people are faced with today, "Live your truth," and if you just live your truth, then, "Hey, it's truth so it's going to be good," right? It's going to be, you know, everything you need life to be will then flow out of your truth. I think I hear you saying, but that's not really what people are experiencing.
Mark: No, and there's no—but that's the thing. I think they're probably experiencing that, but there's no anchor, there's, there's no, there's no foundation. I talk a lot about this idea of, as parents, we need to maintain posture and position, and position is the anchor. It's the truth that we come back to that helps bring us back to reality. I think right now in this whole world of "Live your truth," there's no anchor, there's no foundation, and that just catapults you into a place of loneliness. There's no place to come back to and go, "Okay, at least I know this is who I am," or "This is what I'm about or what I like even if I don't know who I am right now." And I think many of our kids don't even have that.
Ron: Okay, let's talk about social media for a little bit. Kids are doing what some people are calling branding on social media. Actually, I don't think it's just kids. I think it's me. I think it's everybody in the world. Like we're, you know, it's, we call it fake book for a reason, right? We all put forward our best pictures and, you know life seems to be wonderful, and how we do all that. Essentially, we're sort of branding.
Well, kids are growing up learning how to brand—how they pose in a picture, the kinds of things that they wear, who they're with, what they're doing, all that kind of stuff. And somewhere inside they know this is not really who they are. This is incomplete. And doesn't it sort of set them up with this sense that "I'm being fake, and I know I'm being fake, but if other people find this out about me, I am really in trouble."
Mark: Well sure, and it's interesting in research there's a social psychologist. His name is Douglas Rushkoff, and he did a study—oh gosh, I mean it's been about 10 years, but found he coined this term, digiphrenia. It's this idea that kids are developing multiple versions of themselves online and it's creating a dissociative almost like what we'd find in the DSM, like a multiple personality or dissociative identity struggle because you know as we know, teens when they develop that identity versus role confusion, you know as 13, 14, 15, 16 years old, it's really important as they figure out these questions.
But now they've got their Twitch. They've got their Snapchat, their face, well not Facebook, because they don't use Facebook anymore.
Ron: That's right.
Mark: But like their Insta or their Twitter and they're holding onto multiple versions of themselves, and I don't think they know really who they are, or do they know what to believe about who they are in those multiple variations of themselves. So when you say, "Are they being fake?" I actually think they're being genuine. They think they're being genuine, which therein lies the greater chasm of loneliness, because they don't know what is fake and what is real anymore. And they've convinced themselves that what they're doing is real.
Ron: Oh, wow. And then someday they wake up and they go, "Okay, the avatar that everybody thinks is me is not really me or not fully me. I mean, that just feels like such a fragile—
Mark: It is.
Ron: —social experience; that there's no safety unless I keep performing and living up to my avatar and making you believe that I am everything that I'm putting forth.
Mark: Yes, and that's why people are so dumbfounded when we talk about the fact that the highest risk for suicide are middle class, upper middle class, and affluent populations of teenagers.
Mark: Because of that very statement that you just made; that they get to a place where one day they wake up and they realize they have no sense of substance. Now, obviously we're speaking in generalities, right? I mean, there's a lot of things we can do about this. There's a lot of hope in this, but this is kind of the crisis that we're in right now and trying to help equip parents to really step in and create some catalyst for change and be against the norm of society.
Ron: Yes, and I definitely want to pull out of you what parents can do here in just a minute. I still want to get a wider picture. There's one other dynamic that I'm sort of wrestling with; help me with this one. So kids have that fragile avatar experience thing that they're putting out for the world. They're doing a lot of branding. And at the same time, they get a message of "Live your truth," they also get a message of "Conformity is absolutely critical because if you don't, we will cancel you."
Ron: So how do you live in that space?
Mark: That's interesting. I've asked a lot of the teens that I've worked with to help kind of tease that out. I think the generation that's getting ready to graduate in the next, this year and in the next couple years, is a little bit more confused than I think generations coming up. Because the generations coming up, I'm finding almost this grassroots movement of "I don't really want a phone until I get to high school," "I really don't want to be involved with these things. I'm kind of, you know, balking against that."
But you're right, they're caught between a rock and a hard place that if I had—you know do these things on one side, but then if you have a differing opinion or stand out in any way, shape, or form that goes against certain things, now we're out to get you. And now we're engaged in cyber bullying. We're engaged in, like you said, canceling out. And then there's this whole language within social media that you can still have somebody like your picture but do it in such a way that's actually canceling—you know canceling you out.
So it is, I think that's where it's so important for parents to understand the culture that that is before they try to enter into it. Because our kids are trying to hold up just some semblance of normalcy, and I'm not even sure that they know what that means anymore.
Ron: Okay, I want you to educate me. I'm one of those parents. My youngest is 24. Okay, Nan and I are empty nest at this point in our life. I often think if I had a 12-year-old, 15-year-old right now who is navigating all this stuff that we just described, I'd be clueless. I'd be struggling to, as you just said, understand that world so that I have a sense of what it is that I can do.
We've talked on this podcast before about Access, which is a great ministry that helps parents understand youth culture, right, so there's some things like that you can tap into that are going to be helpful. But just in terms of dialogue with our own kids, what do you suggest are some ways that we can try to step in and have them teach us what it's like to be them? And how do parents, what's the big goal that parents should have as it relates to helping their kids wrestle with this whole identity social media thing?
Mark: Well, two things. I think if it's not been a part of your family culture up until this point, don't just dive in and start changing things because you're going to disrupt it completely. Find entry points. I always tell parents; parents ask me this question all the time. "When do I give my kid a phone?" I'm like, "When they're responsible." I said, "Some people that's eight years old, other people that's thirty-two, [Laughter] like when they're—they're still not responsible, but there's ways to do it too.
For my daughter who will be 15 here this summer, we've gotten her—she's had a Gabb phone, G-a-b-b, and it's a phone that is hardwired. There's hardware, not software, so she can't download apps, but she has access to taking pictures and video, weather, music. We're just going, "Okay, you need to show us that you're responsible with this, and then when you get your driver's license, we'll upgrade to an iPhone, but there'll be protections on it and that kind of stuff."
And then we talk about different pitfalls, age-appropriate pitfalls, with social media and that kind of stuff. We've been really blessed with our oldest in that sense that she has really no desire. She doesn't have any desire to play the game. She has no desire to get on and have a social media account and those kinds of things.
But when I sit with parents, I'm like, your kids are telling you something all the time when they're communicating and it's your job to pay attention to figure out when are some of these invitations. Whether they say, "Hey Mom, let's talk about this" or not, there're invitations they're putting out there when they're telling you about something that they heard at school or a social media, new app, or a new trend. "Tell me more about that." "I'm so curious. What is that? I want to understand," and asking these curious questions instead of freaking out or instead of trying to control or fix.
But I'm telling parents that if we haven't developed a culture around this, it's going to take some effort and time if your kids are 13, 14, 15, 16 years old. These are things that you should have—you know not should have. I don't want to use shoulds; that I encourage people to do at eight, nine, ten, and eleven, so that they're prepared for the teenage years instead of diving in. But it's never too late, right; go for a walk, go for a drive.
But also, I think this is where Axis, you mentioned Axis. That's why I love Axis, because you get the culture translator in your email every week. There's this conversation starter right there. Like, "Hey, tell me, I heard about this. Like what is that?" "Oh Mom, you're so silly. Let me tell you." And then it gives that conversation, opens that door of trust. I tell parents that you have an opportunity to step into their world and you have one opportunity to either screw it up or to do it well. And if you do it well, then it opens up the door for more opportunities. If you screw it up, there's still, you can come back to from it, but it's going to take five or six tries before you get another open door.
Ron: No, that's good. And yes, it's awkward in certain times. And one of the things we've talked about a lot on this podcast is step into that space as much as your child will let you. At least try to be present in the space of grief and sadness, of unwanted change, of all the transition that takes place for children in coming out of death of a parent or divorced parents' transition, single parent years, transition into new blended family. There're all kinds of little moments there where you want to try to be in that space. Not that they'll always let you, as you said, but you're trying because that then gives you an opportunity when that big conversation happens to arrive about loneliness or something like that, this is not the first conversation that you have. So that's good.
Okay, so once a parent gets in—let's say they ask that question, "Tell me about that." and a kid starts opening up or talking and you could kind of tell they're wrestling with how people perceive them on social media and how they're handling all that stuff—what is the main objective? What are we trying to accomplish as a parent in that moment?
Mark: See them. I think parents—I am guilty of this. I'm sure you could probably say you've done that too, but like, I want to fix it. I want to make it better. I want to jump in and give advice. I want to think that my years of knowledge somehow is going to make it through into their brains and they want to sit and listen and ask. No, they just want to be heard. They want to be seen and so I really challenge parents bite your lip, bite your tongue if you feel like you need to give advice or want to fix it, but just see them.
And maybe you see them by the kind of questions you're asking and the curiosity you bring to the conversation sometimes. They're putting off body language. They're—you know if you're really engaged in the conversation and you know something's going on, you ask a question and they kind of balk at it.
You know my favorite tool in that moment is to tell my daughter "Hey, I notice I'm seeing something else is going on here, and I'm not going to push you on it, but I want you to know that I see that you're struggling and I'm here. I'm here to talk when you're ready." I will tell you without fail, she'll come. It might be two o'clock in the morning, but she'll come and want to have a conversation. But if I sit there and try to push, you know, "Tell me what's going on. I see this is happening" and "This is what I would've done if I were you." I grew up in the age of no social media. I remember when we got our first personal computer, so like, you know—
Ron: Right, I'm with you.
Mark: But if I'm not pushing it, but if I'm actually seeing her beyond the surface and calling it out so she knows that I actually see her. She can't hide but now it's on her terms to come talk to me when she's ready.
Ron: Yes. Oh, I love the gentleness with which you did that, and just the softness and stepping in. One of the things I learned that I had to do—I have three boys. One of the things I had to do with them was go to a third person, talk about somebody else in order to not make it about them. And true stories; I would not make them up, wouldn't lie to my kids, but true story—"You know I was talking with another parent the other day"—saying this to one of my sons—"and they're struggling with their child over X. They had a conversation about something that happened at school. I don't know; can you relate to any of that?" Or, you know, that sort of third person focus sort of made it okay for them to say something about it without it being about them?
Ron: Sometimes that's—at least that worked for us a few times.
Okay, so once we get in there, we're trying to see them, we're trying to affirm them, we're trying to listen, and then not necessarily try to fix, but try to help guide and help them figure out how they're going to navigate this space.
Mark: Yes. I always tell families that I work with that the hard work of parenting is done between zero and eight or nine, ten years old. That's when we're able to kind of control the outcomes. We can put things in place that we know that we're instilling values, but when they hit 11, 12, 13 years old, now it's our job to influence. I think a lot of times that's a hard transition for parents because we still want to be able to control the outcome.
But remember, we're not creating mini-mes. We're creating hopefully very well-adjusted, godly men and women that are going to engage their world. And they can't do that if everything's controlled for them. And there has to be those natural consequences. They have to have that opportunity to figure things out, develop. You know you can't have resiliency without grit, so you have to have both of those together. That's a hard transition for parents but it is, you're right. It's that ability to kind of help guide and direct and draw out through conversation and then through influence, obviously. I mean, we still influence them and have the ability to influence, but it's more grace based than it is rules based as you get to be a parent of teenagers.
Ron: Let's loop back around for a minute; talk a little bit more about loneliness. You know—yes, we can go existential here but I also want us to just sort of wrestle with the experience of loneliness just so we can understand our kids a little better. We all know Hebrews 13:5 God says, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." so we sort of have this spiritual truth that we can hold onto that we're never really alone, but my goodness, in the midst of pain and difficulty and questions and no answers, it sure feels lonely.
Ron: What impact does loneliness have on people? I mean kids, yes, but even on us.
Mark: I, well—are you tooth and nail with people right now in the fact that I think we're not in a mental health crisis. We're in a loneliness crisis, but it's coming out in mental health issues. Loneliness is the state of, in my definition, is the state of being unseen or unnoticed, mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. Relationally, it's driven by a lack of purpose and meaning, relationship or identity, and it's marked by a deep sense of hopelessness.
If you think about all those components, right, on being unseen or unnoticed, relationally, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, that has a stress response engaged in that and so when we go into that stress response: "I'm not being seen. I'm not being noticed. Nobody gets me, nobody sees me, nobody understands me," now my body is in a stress fight, flight or freeze state. And we know that if it's kept in a fight, flight or freeze state for long enough, it's going to create adrenal fatigue. It's going to create a weakened immune response.
Now, we're opening the door to what I call disease pathways—getting sick more often. You know maybe our anxiety is going to be around a lot more, depression, thoughts of suicidality. I mean, it's just, it opens the door to a lot of things and so I really challenge my students at Colorado Christian, the clients I work with, "Let's look at it through the lens of loneliness." I think if we do, that's going to posture ourselves a lot different when we sit with people.
I think for parents, it's going to posture them a lot differently when they're sitting with their kids, not projects to be worked on, but people that need to be seen, valued and loved mentally, emotionally, relationally, physically and spiritually. And that's going to positively affect our physiology, our mental health, our relation, I mean, all those kinds of things.
Ron: Now that's really good because if you're sitting, especially with a child, and they're doing something out of their loneliness that really annoys you, or frightens you, then we're going to freak out and try to do control stuff. We're going to try to fix the external behavior. We're going to be so focused on that, that we don't, as you said earlier, see them in that state of loneliness. So we've got to slow down, I guess, our reactions and really try to look beneath.
Mark: We do. And I can't tell you—and I know you're probably the same way—I can't tell you how excited I get when I get a mom and dad that want to come to counseling just for themselves so they can be better. Like I just, I go nuts. I'm so excited for that because what they're telling me is, they go, "We got stuff that we need to work through it, so we're better engaged and better equipped to sit with our kids without letting our own stuff—most of the time when we react and interact with our kids in a way that's less than ideal, it's not about them. It's about our own junk that's come up and so if we can work through our own junk and be ready to be engaged in a way, that is where our kids need. Most of the time when our parents react, we're reacting based off our own fears not about anything that the kid's doing.
Ron: Yes, that's absolutely right. I definitely want to loop back around and hear a little bit more about the path to wholeness, I think is what we just hit on there. We'll get back to that in just a second.
What if a parent that was listening to us right now and they're going, "Okay, I'm hearing you. I got it. There's loneliness going on underneath my kid and how they, and it's kind of helping me connect some dots. What do I do? My kid's really, really hurting?" And then let's also wrestle with that caveat of, "And I don't get to see him but three days a month" or "You know most of the time they're in the other home" or "Yes, there's things happening over there that I can't really control and they're not really paying attention."
Yes, there's a lot there; feel free to take those one at a time.
Mark: Well, I think, I mean, just as you were saying that the one thing I just heard is "How do you avail yourself to be a safe person?" and so it goes back to that, the comment about being seen. Like, how do you avail yourself to go that no matter what, rain, shine, night, day, "I've made a bad choice and I need somebody to come pick me up, but I'm afraid to call the other parent," whatever it is, that you're available for your child?—and to see them.
I think that's what, especially in blended families, our kids may feel like a project, you know, because you want to make sure that they're okay. You want to make sure that they're adjusting, you know there's maybe some shame and guilt attached as a parent to that as well and so we kind of sometimes work over more than we need to on that. Just take a step back and if there's a way that you can just allow your child to know that you're available and accessible, and then be available and accessible when they need you.
And remind them of that, whether it be through a text, "Hey, praying for you; love you." You know, "Today, hey," and remember, right, "Hey, you know I remember we talked about this last week. How are you doing with that?" And if it's through a text, you know, if you're not seeing them face to face and they may not respond, and it's not about that reciprocal relationship right now. We don't really have a reciprocal relationship with our kids until they get out of the house and become adults and that kind of stuff. Don't expect them to respond and don't make them feel bad if they don't but keep consistent in that being accessible and available and finding ways to remember and see our kids.
Ron: If there's been a rupture. I'm thinking of a parent who's listening right now who's going, "Yes, it's kind of my fault. Whatever the backstory is, I know I'm part of the problem. That my kid feels disconnected from me, and that's adding to their loneliness." Alright, so repair. What would you offer us there?
Mark: Don't be afraid to admit when you're wrong and seek out that forgiveness. I think that's the most humble and vulnerable a parent can be, but it may not fix everything, but it begins the process. And so I tell—you know I've worked with families where—I had a mom once that I worked with that her kids were out and grown and they lived in the same town, and they never really engaged with her. She recognized that she had created some pretty big ruptures and she goes, "What do I do?"
I said, "Reach out, write a letter to each of them, reach out individually and own the stuff that you've been kind of not wanting to own, but you need to own. And even own some stuff that maybe you shouldn't, didn't need to own, but they've kind of put on and just kind of be that humble, vulnerable place and see how they respond and don't expect, but see."
They started responding through their own letters and that kind of stuff and she goes, "Thanksgiving's coming. I want to have them over for Thanksgiving." I said, "Okay. What would it look like for you to have them over for Thanksgiving and just go around the table, hold eye contact and apologize?" She was like, "Ah, I don't know if I can do that." I said, "Well, we'll practice it here in session and we'll work through it."
But she owned a lot of the things that led to their divorce and those kinds of things. I think they lived with their dad and instead of her, but she had recommitted her life to Christ, recognized some of those things and so she did. And she came in about four weeks later, just beaming ear to ear. And she goes, "My kids called me this week and they wanted to come over and bring the grandkids and they wanted to engage."
Mark: And she goes, "I thought it was too late." And I'm like, "It's never too late if we recognize the rupture and begin to make the repair." Now, it took her like six months from the time that we started, and she wrote the letters and she put herself out there.
She had one daughter that didn't come around until after she saw her siblings all come around and then, you know, made that final repair.
For those that are listening, it's never too late and no rupture is too big if we can get down on their level and apologize, own our stuff, recognize how it's made them feel, if we can throw out some feeling words of how we might think it made them feel and then be consistent as best we possibly can with how we show up after that.
Ron: Man, that is so good, and it casts hope. Because I know somebody's listening right now and you're in a tough spot and you're just not sure what to do. I do know from time to time somebody says, "Yes, okay, I did that and I'm just still waiting, haven't seen the impact yet." Yes, maintaining that posture. Is that what you would say? Just maintain that posture.
Mark: Yes, yes, you've got to because if, especially if they're adults, you can't force them to come back around, and even if they're teenagers, right? They may feel justified in holding unforgiveness or bitterness right now and it's you, taking on the heart and I think the stance of the prodigal son's father. I just start—I was preaching on renaming that the prodigal father instead of the prodigal son, just because he was waiting with anticipation of the son's return. I think a lot of times we want that instant, quick fix and sometimes it's going to take time.
Ron: Yes. Okay, somebody else is listening—a little bit of a twist on this—and the child is opening up to this parent and they're talking about all the hurt and pain and how they feel when they're in the other home. And this is the parent who has that connection, has that ability to see the child and the child feels safe with them.
Yes, you know to me it's about hugging their hurt enough that they can sort of feel that when they go to the other place. It's just a difficult experience for them to go over there. Not that you're trying to win, you know, or defeat the other home. None of that. What you're hoping for ultimately is that the other home wakes up—
Mark: Yes, yes.
Ron: —to the wonderful relationship they could be having with this child. But until then, you've just got to try to pour into the kid as much as you can.
Mark: Oh, absolutely. And in the midst of it not demeaning or bad talking the other family—you know the other home too, which is so hard.
Mark: So just being that consistent, safe place. And it's heartbreaking, however, you can advocate for them with the other home too, but you don't want to put them under, throw them under the bus either, you know, so it's a tough place to be. I think you're right; just being that consistent foundational place for the kid to come back to is going to be huge. And then, praying. I mean, we don't, oftentimes, put enough emphasis on the power of prayer and speaking truth over our kids, and also over those that we struggle with.
Ron: I'll go back to that co-parent relationship is a potential point of influence. How you, first of all, pray for them and posture yourself in your interaction with the other parent in the other home to be one full of grace but at the same time, at times, you know speaking truth. And not in a confrontational way, but in a, "Hey, I think you have an opportunity with our son to talk about a few things. If you're open to that, you know, that might be something."
You never know where those little seeds are going to go, but it has to come out of a posture of, you know dripping with kindness, wrapped in kindness. Otherwise, the other home just discredits you as they have done in the past and you get nowhere. But ultimately, that's a possible point of change for parents who are listening or in that situation.
Mark: Yes, absolutely.
Ron: Let's come back to wholeness for a minute. And you, you said it. I actually was going to ask you; you know it seems to me that I've had to do a whole lot of growing up in my parenting years. Dog gone it. What? [Laughter]
Ron: I just hate that. You know, I mean, but parenting seems to constantly make us look in the mirror and go, "Wait a minute. What? Why did I do that? Where'd that reaction come from? What's going on with me?" Talk more about that journey for adults, for us as parents, indirectly, so we can ultimately help our kids with a similar journey.
Mark: Well, I just want to caveat, and this is two therapists talking about the fact that we had a lot to learn— [Laughter]
Ron: That's right.
Mark: —and growing.
Ron: And still learning, my brother, still learning.
Mark: And still learning, so if that encourages parents right there, that's, you know, all of our education didn't prepare us for being parents at times.
I was doing some, as I was researching this book, I'm realizing that a majority of our population can only name the five emotions: mad, sad, glad, fear, and disgust. And we know that there are so many more beautifully nuanced emotions out there that we can't put names to, but we also find that all of us have different definitions of mad, sad, glad, fear, and discuss based on our observations and experiences of our own upbringing in our childhood and our worlds that we grew up in.
When we think we're speaking the same language at home, we're speaking a completely different language. I think what a lot of what I do with families is go, "Let's just lay out a foundation of definitions; that they can be agreed upon and at least communicated at home. But I also find that people don't realize that there's a difference between emotions and feelings.
Emotions are physiological states brought on by our interaction with external or internal stimulus, so it's our body's reaction to something is the emotion. The feeling is then the meaning making we make from that, so it's the cognitive meaning making that we make based on of our observations and our experiences and our languages. Some of us are more crippled than others when it comes to that meaning making piece because of our own journeys.
And so, the ability to help families develop a culture of wholeness really goes into the nitty gritty of going, "Okay, where have we come from, where do we want to be and where are we going?" And "How do we act, react, and interact with our emotions and feelings in a way that is creating common language and common culture?" I wish I would've known this kind of stuff ten years ago. It'd made my life a lot easier.
Mark: I really challenge families just to sit down and create a family mission statement, create a culture around these things—you know, do a whiteboard, especially if you've got kids that are older elementary and older. Get a whiteboard out. Get some butcher paper or something and go, "Okay, let's talk about sad. How would you guys define sad? Give some examples of sad," and you guys create your family definition around that. But then as your kids are emoting, we know that the brain doesn't fully connect to the frontal cortex like it should until we're in our late teens, early twenties.
Ron: Oh, I thought you were going to say 85 or 90.
Mark: Or older. Yes, yes, right. [Laughter] But as we create common language, as we help our kids make sense of their experiences and create language around it, now they're developing a more holistic brain so that they aren't reacting as much. They're more interacting in that world.
And so, you know the book itself is just a—I wanted to make it an easy read. It's only 130 pages so that people can pick it up and go through it together as a family. There's questions for reflection, action steps, but I've got like five or six activities in there that if you as a parent don't even know where to begin, like, I've given you some tools on how to become old friends with your emotions, experiencing your emotions through the five senses, the practice of lamenting, which we don't do much in the church anymore, and those kinds of things that really help unlock some of those things that might be stuck.
Ron: So deep inside this, Mark, I'm hearing is we as parents have to connect what's happening in our world with our own emotions so that we can help our kids connect and that whole family discussion around it. What a fascinating idea that, so I can just see how that opens up kids and adults to have family dialogue over time about emotions. "We have talked about that. We kind of have a shared definition of that feeling," and "That just happened to me because of something that happened at school today," or something that happened on Instagram. You know, whatever it is that prompts it.
Mark: Yes. Or don't be quick. If something new happens, don't be quick to insert your experience. Go, "Okay, help me understand what you mean by that," and so the curious questions with our kids.
You know right now, it's interesting, it's a fad right now to diagnose yourself on TikTok. And it's a fad to have a diagnosis now at school and have a therapist even, and so our kids are talking. They're like, "I'm so anxious," "I'm so depressed." And instead of jumping down their throats, "No you're not," you know, "la, la, la" "You're totally"— "What's"— you know, "Hey, help me understand. What do you mean by depressed? What do you mean by anxious?" And it's probably just sadness or worry. It's a desire to fit in.
You know we've actually swung the pendulum so far now that it's a fad to have these things versus the stigma. I mean it's like good grief, but not assume you know what they're talking about. And so that's why I love just being curious, even with my nine-year-old, like, "Okay, you're using these big words. I'm not sure you know what they mean so help me understand what you're thinking when you're talking about them." And then enter, that's another opportunity to enter into their world. But I've had to do my own work on my own stuff, my own reactions, and my own definitions, my own language, before I'm even ready to do that with her.
Ron: What's a safe place for adults to unpack their own emotions, their own journey? Because you know we all know what happens with our children erupts things within us, as you said earlier, that goes way back often. And so once that sort of comes to the surface and we're like, "Okay, I need to figure out what this is in me." Where should we do that?
Mark: I think there's a couple different options. I mean, the book The Path to Wholeness is designed to be able to use in a small group if you have a safe, trusting place that you can unpack these things with. But I always like the idea, Dr. Irvin Yalom, guru in group therapy that I, you know, in our classes always says it's good to have a paid friend sometimes. [Laughter] And so, you know, whether that be a spiritual director, whether that be a leadership or mental health emotional health coach or a therapist, it's sometimes good to have somebody that doesn't know you and your situation to kind of be that third party to help walk with you through those.
And here's the thing, if you're fairly well adjusted and you just know you've got some speed bumps, it's maybe seven or you know, six to eight sessions is all you need to kind of catapult you into this arena. Others of us that have had traumatic events in our lives, and we've never worked through those, it might be more time and effort put into it. But it's all good and it's all generational changing. That's why I love Deuteronomy 6. This idea that we get to actually do things and introduce things into our family's lives that have the ability to affect generations. And that's a beautiful picture.
Ron: Absolutely. It absolutely is. Okay, as we're landing the plane, let's pull back a little bit. Big picture. Parents are trying to help kids wrestle with loneliness in their world. They're more connected than ever before, but not emotionally connected, not feeling belonging and acceptance and all that. Parents are wrestling. What, what are some of the biblical, thoughts or ideas that you'd like parents to hold onto as they're navigating this space? What are the existential truths that God gives us that help us sort of wrestle with the hard spaces we find ourselves in about ourselves and with our children?
Mark: Well, I mean, I think if you haven't read Deuteronomy 6, have them go through and read the Shema and this idea of love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and obviously, the gospels He adds, love your neighbor as yourself.
And this idea of what does it look like to talk about these things when we are, when we awaken them around along the path and we tie them on our wrists and our foreheads and our door, like, it's something that needs to be culturally integrated into what we're doing. It's not this dive in and dive out or, you know swoop in and swoop out, but just that I've always seen this throughout the scripture; that God is faithful when we show up in responsibility and in truth, He's going to not allow these things to return void and so it's keeping that in perspective.
But also, I think that one of the big things that I've found as a parent, that if I'm not connected to God in His word in the way that I need to, if I'm not meditating on scripture, if I'm not spending time in prayer, I'm going to far more mess this up than I would if I wasn't. And to that end, one of my favorite things to do is to pray Scripture over my kids as they're asleep. And to speak truth over them in those moments just keeps me focused on who God is and His promises.
Ron: That's a good word. Mark, thanks for being with me today. Appreciate it.
Mark: Yes, I appreciate it, Ron. Thank you.
Ron: If you the listener want to know more about Mark and his work, you can look in the show notes. We'll get you connected to what he's doing. If you got a question, you can leave that for us as well. The show notes will tell you how you can get in touch with us. And if you haven't subscribed to this podcast yet, my goodness, we'd love to have you do that. Don't miss another episode, and as I said earlier, over a hundred episodes for you to browse, find subjects that are specifically relevant for your family.
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Well, next time, I'm going to be talking with Gayla Grace. We're going to be talking about the upcoming holidays. Yes, I know, it's never too early to start preparing for the holidays. That's next time on FamilyLife Blended.
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