This last weekend I was looking through some old photos that I had unearthed deep in a closet, long forgotten. This particular album just happened to cover my adolescents from early, “Look how cute I am! Keep taking pictures of me” childhood through the, “Stop looking at me, I want to be invisible!” preteens. As I sifted through the various pictures I came upon pictures of myself when I was my daughters' age. Staring at my younger face I felt something like a pierce through the heart and a flood of memories and emotions came back. I sat back, pictures strewn across my lap, and remembered how I felt during these times. My heartfelt raw and the negative thoughts, that used to play on a loop in my head, started to resurface. Words like fat, ugly, stupid, dirty, bad and unworthy (as in not worth knowing, not worth loving) started to swirl in my head as if I was 12 years old all over again. Words others labeled me with. Words that I readily adopted to describe myself. Words that, in my young mind, described a child who was covering up abuses and injuries that wouldn’t be discovered by others for many, many years until it was almost too late. I clung to these labels like they were my oxygen, my life source because without these who would I be?
As children, so many of us readily morph who we thought we were into what others have labeled us. Children are amazingly adept to figuring out what is their fault in a situation with their loved ones, whether its real or imagined. Children will put on this burden like a thick winter coat in the middle of August and swelter in it for years. Even when we are older we keep the coat on, while we sit resentful and angry. Taking the coat off is never easy. Sitting in my living room, pictures of myself balancing on my lap while the chaos of what my mind was at those times was overwhelming. “Stop it!” I wanted to shout at my younger self, “Your none of those things! You are so worth loving! I love you!” The pain I felt for myself in the photos was intense. I had to remind myself that that was me, not another child, and I was ok. I made it. SHE made it.
So much of what I was feeling at that time I have seen in other children I’ve worked with as well as my own child.I see the doubt, the insecurities, the boundary-pushing. “If I push you hard enough you will leave me. Everyone leaves me.” I can see on their faces and it breaks my heart. So much of teaching isn’t just academic, it’s seeing a need in a child and filling it. Whether they're in general education or special education, children are children and they all want to feel loved and accepted. We may not like the avenues they use to get there, but we need to learn how to help them navigate this to learn to love themselves. So much of childhood through young adulthood is about finding outside solutions to an inside problem. Most of us don’t figure that out until we are well into our 30’s & 40’s, usually when we are reliving this through our own children or students. When we see these kiddos, with some of the light lost from their eyes, do you ever wonder, “What can I do?” It may seem a daunting task, so let’s scale it back to small, bite-sized pieces, we can focus on.
What I’m asking you to do will take some work, maybe difficult, or maybe the most fun you’ve done this summer! Take out a picture of you from the past, can be anytime during your childhood. What was going on in your life at that time? What was important to you? What took up your time and focus that hours would pass and it only seemed like minutes? What scared you? Get immersed in those emotions and really sit in them. Who or what helped you through tough times? What did someone do or say to you that helped? What do you wish someone would have done or said to help? Open up to your vulnerability. Let the emotions come, rise, wash over you. Remember to be gentle with your younger self, sometimes it takes years for them to realize they are ok and safe. Sometimes our grown-up selves need only hold the safe space for our younger selves to heal. Give them a hug. Listen to their jokes. Listen to their troubles. Be the place they might not have had to feel safe and free.
We can be this for the children in our lives right now. Practice being the grown-up you imagined being when you were a kid. Practice being the grown-up you wish you had around when you were a kid. But never forget being a kid. Did you ever wish a grown-up would have just sat down with you and listened to your day, hear what your hopes for the future were, what your fears of the present were? We have the unique opportunity to be this for someone else! Taking just a fraction of your time to really be present with a child, to hold the space for their vulnerability. You may be the only one who has done this for them.