Supporting Youth

“You’re not depressed, you’re just selfish,” her father’s words sank into her bones. In an instant, the world became tinier than it already felt in her restless body. As a 16-year-old already feeling lost in her skin and seeking a way out through peers, self-harm, sex, and substances, she unleashed what she’d been hiding. “I think I need help,” the bravest words a human can muster, became another windowless room, rather than a way out of this burning home crumbling in on itself. Now she knew that she was alone; this was not a safe place to be brave. So she ventured deeper into the fire and prayed that her lungs would someday know the taste of fresh air.

Judgments by trusted adults come in many different forms. When people that girls look up to say, “it’s your fault,” “life is just hard,” “you’ll get over it,” even the well-intentioned, “you’re resilient,” she’s told that she’s alone in this journey. And that’s just not true. There are many spaces for young people to be seen and heard—and it is up to each of us to create more of them.

Each individual has something wonderful to offer youth; perhaps your words have been said before, but not in the way you can speak them. As mentors, parents, peers, teachers, neighbors, and leaders we all have a vital role to help young people through the vast challenges of our time. Being authentic, honoring silence, listening deeply, and asking for help may be a few keys to support our youth—and help heal the young person still within each of us.

Be yourself.

Although taking on important social roles like mentorship can be of immense value, being who you are is simply enough. You don’t need to do more, be more, or even be healed from your past to provide valuable support for others. Your trials become treasure when you serve others through the lens you now have—and if you’re not ready to share your journey yet, your honesty has the potential to speak volumes more than advice-giving can. You may be the first person to give someone else permission to be true, simply by being yourself.

Let silence speak.

Mentors don’t have to give advice. Mentors don’t have to have the perfect words. In especially trying times, mentors can let silence be a guiding force. When in conversation, many people feel a need to fill the silence. A “pregnant pause” allows for personal reflection, space to think, and as Jungian tradition suggests—this is especially important for introverts. In the extroverted, “just stay positive” culture in the U.S., holding silence to contemplate, imagine, and reflect from the inside out has lost its value.

Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David challenges this culture that prizes relentless positivity over emotional truth. When we avoid uncomfortable silence at all costs, what we are saying is, “my comfort is more important than your reality.” However, helping youth feel that they’re not alone is more valuable than fixing or filling the silence, especially when they are telling us something that is not easy to hear.

Support the person, not just the problem.

It’s easy to get tunnel-visioned by a problem—stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, disordered eating habits, and general risky behaviors—and get into the mindset of fixing, solving, and seeking solutions. The addiction counseling strategy called Motivational Interviewing describes this often automatic response as the “righting reflex.” It’s natural as empathetic beings to want to help solve a problem, however, young people aren’t a problem to be solved. Young people are humans needing to be seen and heard.

When we support youth as people—rather than a problem that needs to be fixed—the higher likelihood of them coming to their own conclusions. People will change when they are ready to change, and we can help get them get ready by listening, being curious about their experience, validating their emotions, and affirming their strengths for getting this far. Building an authentic relationship is one of the best ways we can provide sensitive, individualized, and consistent support to show young people they are not alone—and you’re not alone in this work either. 

It’s ok to ask for help.

In your pursuit of non-judgmentally supporting young people, how are you doing the same for the young person within you? There is still a child within who remembers those words her teacher told her, a teen who remembers the words their father spoke. Especially if you’ve had a challenging childhood or adolescence—which many have—this is often the most challenging part of mentorship. This work can bring up a lot that you didn’t expect, and it’s ok for you to ask for help too.

How you take care of yourself, how you heal, how you speak your truth—whatever that may look like on any given day—this is mentorship. When you give yourself permission to be human, you give those around you permission as well. 

For all people who feel like these days are too much to handle alone, please remember that there are free resources to help with whatever you are going through. You are not selfish, wrong, or weak for asking for help—you are strong, you have a story that only you can share, and there are so many others out there waiting to hear.

Resources: local and national hotline

  • 24/7 National Crisis Text Line 24-Hour Crisis Line: Text 741-741
  • 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 800-273-TALK OR 800-273-8255
  • 24/7 Bozeman Help Center Crisis Line: Call 406-586-3333
  • Montana Crisis Recovery Program (COVID-19 specific crisis call center): Call 877-503-0833 (Everyday of the week, 10:00 am – 10:00 pm)
  • Montana Warm Line / Non-Crisis Support Line: Call 877-688-3377 (Mon – Fri 4:00 pm – 10:00 pm & Sat – Sun 10:00 am – 10:00 pm)

Originally published in Girl Get After It #ggai

The aspen shivers. There are thousands of others just like her, but she overlooks the sanctuary that surrounds her. She only feels her frozen bones as her costume falls to decompose. She is naked and alone in the forest as the land cycles into winter.

In whatever ways grief has prepared you for this year’s wintertide, you’re not alone if you feel completely exposed to the elements.

As all of us learn at some point in our lives, wellness is continuous action—not a destination. Seasons of winter, loss, and uncertainty either awake or shake us.

Along this journey, we may arrive on a mountain peak of well-being for a moment and enjoy the beautiful view, remembering all that our bodies and minds are capable of feeling—one glimpse of the calm. And then we return, and not always to a safe place. We return to our conditioning, our obligations, our “shoulds,” and the misty valley below, obscuring our genuine vision. We stay on the run.

I take flight from the uncertainty in the valley. I fight the systems of oppression with these same oppressive rules driving my change. I freeze at death’s sting. It’s harder than ever to return to safety and calm with unlimited access to all that’s wrong in the world.

As Emily and Amelia Nagoski share in their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, “To be “well” is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.” There’s a time for everything under the sun.

The sympathetic (fight, flight, freeze) and parasympathetic (rest) systems are survival mechanisms. We need relaxation to restore and recover—but excitement and risk show us what we’re capable of; adventure and adversity strengthen us. The stress in our bodies is on purpose, but staying there can cause chronic dis-ease. Rumination keeps us stuck, and so does suppression. Ideally, we have a balance.

The individual members of a forest find this fluid balance by communicating below the surface, providing information through mycorrhizal networks: a symbiotic relationship when fungus attaches to hair-like tree roots to connect trees with others. Without the community I once required for my balance, I have so much that I haven’t said. I feel alone. My roots long for connection.

We are blessed in many ways that our roots aren’t physical. Whether it feels like a blessing or not, we’ve learned to connect without touch, and our roots are deeper for it. Like the forest that surrounds one lone aspen, we are profoundly united.

Like the earth, my body knows what she is doing. In every season, she knows. If I allow the stress and rest to move, my body will flow through another season—inside and outside. I give and receive under the surface of this frozen land.

When we speak our body’s language, she responds. Whether through worship’s windy chills, the fire of a run, the grounding of a walk, a wave of tears moving through me, I am clothed in peace.

One way the soft animal of our body may respond to hardship on the horizon, like plants in winter, is to dive into our roots—protecting, conserving, waiting for safety in the depths (Mary Oliver). We may fear that we are alone here and will be here forever, even though we know that this is the sabbath we need. A sanctuary now surrounds you.

Exercising the Balance:

When was the last time you felt a deeply rooted positive emotion such as connection, joy, laughter, wonder, enthusiasm, or curiosity? Write, draw, meditate on, or speak to a trusted person about—what you felt, how you know it was good, and where inside your body you felt it.

Consider what environments help you experience this sensation? (Perhaps it’s setting boundaries around news or social media, persistence in reaching out to a friend you long to connect with, or walking at the park even if you don’t feel like it.)

Make a plan to take one step to amplify the still, small voice of peace inside you.

Music & Movement Medicine Meditation

For more gentle medicine songs, including “fern’s song” please visit Leah’s SoundCloud.

“root to rise”

the depths of my being

dance into the earth

with strength and patience

these roots move me

as they grow under the surface

where I cannot see with eyes

but feel in my bloodstream

I fall deep into myself

I grow

slowly

slowly

down

until I rise

-Emma

Journaling Roots:

  • How have your roots been feeling recently? Your roots are the foundation of all your work on the surface.
  • Draw your current root system: What’s your soil made of? What do your roots look and feel like? What are you rooting into? If this current root system inside you is not helping you grow, what would you change?
  • Draw your new ideal, most wonderful root system. What is one step you can take today to nurture and nourish your depths?

Good Day: Strength for Your Morning

Meditate:

Energize:

Find something cool to energize your senses this morning (Ex. Icy water to splash on your face)

Write:

  • Draw a solar system with you as a planet orbiting a sun.
  • Think “what has been at the center of my life lately?”
  • Write “I choose my light, and I choose to orbit around _________ throughout my day today.”
  • Bonus: Morning Routine – What during your morning reflects the light you want to center around? If your morning doesn’t include anything yet, what can you begin doing that sets you in orbit?

Listen:

Good Night: Rest for Your Evening

Meditate:

Melt:

Find something warm to melt your senses this evening (Ex. A cup of tea)

Write:

  • Draw moon(s) around your earth-body in your solar system.
  • Think “Who did I pull into my orbit today?”
  • Write “I let go of _________, and embrace _________ surrounding me.”
  • Bonus: Evening Routine – What boundary (or boundaries) can you nurture (within 1-2 hours before sleep), so that you can release the day and rest well?

Listen:

In the depth of winter, it’s been difficult to imagine the lush growth of spring. I’m not sure if you’ve been experiencing this as well where you are, but in Montana, the weight of the snow and the deep dark is pressing in on us.

Through each outside season over the last year and a half, I’ve been working with teenagers in their last seasons as “kids.” Winter, is especially hard for them. It has been one of the greatest blessings to teach and to learn from these young people who are going through it. Life is so hard at that age—or really, any age. The past springs up when we’re least expecting it, hormonal imbalances reveal our fragility, “I should” seeps into the way we interact with the world and others, hindering us from actually becoming what we’re made for.

In this season in my work, I’ve been talking to the “kids” about self-care and their vision for the future. I’ve realized through these conversations, it is so hard to nurture yourself when doubt speaks louder than anything else. Instead of creating more “shoulds” throughout our day, I want to take a step back to the lessons I’ve taught and learned throughout this work.

Breath. Surrender. Forgiveness. Honesty. Opening my eyes and looking at my pain even when I want to keep them closed. This leads to the healing I seek. I need to practice what I preach. I need to share this story with you.

This past year has been one of the most challenging years I’ve made it through—even more challenging than high school. Within 12 months, I’ve had two lengthy spells of postpartum depression—without a child on the other side. I feel it in my throat, making it harder to speak my truth. I feel this past year in my chest, some days taking over my breath and sending me into a spiral of anxiety. I struggle to trust my body most days, even though I know in my mind that it contains all the wisdom I need to heal.

This life is the most beautiful and rare gift. That I am writing this—and you are reading it is a miracle. There is much more, especially including genetics, fighting against us than for us being here. But yet, despite all odds, we’re here. Please keep this in mind if you chose to practice this meditation. You are on purpose. And so am I. If for nothing else then to share our stories with one-another.

Music Album: “Nine” by Nadayana (2016)

-E

Anichka, a five-year-old, smiles sweetly and grabs my frozen hand, leading me toward a tiny house heated by a wood-fire. Before I open the small door, another child named Fafa hands me a soft broom and points to Anichka’s—and his own—dirt-and snow-caked clothes. My stiff hands grasp ahold of the broom and they both giggle as I brush the snow and dirt off of their snowsuits. A few mild tears spill out Anichka’s wide eyes as her face begins to thaw out from winter’s chill. We just spent the whole morning playing in the forest.

Other than for a warm lunch meal, naps, and an occasional local children’s theater performance, the students at Marianka Forest School in the southeastern Czech Republic spend their days playing and learning in the forest—year-round. As a weekly volunteer during the spring of 2016, they welcomed me into their world and taught me far more than I expected to learn from four-and five-year-olds who didn’t speak the same language as I did. My role as a volunteer was to come from 9-10 am on Tuesday mornings to open up conversations, songs, and games in the English language to the little ones. Each week, I stayed past lunchtime—during my short stay in the Czech Republic, this tiny community became like home.

In forest school—rain, snow, hail, or sunshine—the kiddos play outside, and they play hard. They run up big hills, climb around trees, and slide down frozen dirt chutes with a running start. They learn about navigation, they use their imaginations, they become students of life—and teachers. In a natural environment, children learn more about themselves and their bodies, their relationships with others, and life then in any school I’ve ever attended. Here are some of the lessons the forest school taught me:

If we give kids responsibilities, they can learn how to be responsible.

On my first day at forest school, I walked past zlatá brána—the “golden gate” that marks the entrance to the school—and saw three children playing as they cleared the snow from the little walkway with their mini shovels. They were happy and playful in their task to help make their place a little better. It was such a small task, but their smiles told of their big feelings of accomplishment.

These young people aren’t helpless—they’re full of help! Kids love to feel needed and appreciated. When we give them little tasks and the tools to do the tasks, they learn how to take care of themselves. Even though it takes some up-front work and supervision, delegating responsibility is the key to educating and empowering others.

There is a universal language.

Even though few teachers or students spoke English, we felt the same sun radiate through the forest trees, we felt the same dirt beneath our feet, we played the same games, and we all shared the fresh air. I did learn some Czech language and they learned some English words and songs, but mostly we communicated through smiles, snacks, and snowballs. Rather than focusing on all our differences, we focused on all the amazing human things we had in common.

When the sun comes out, sometimes you just need to run around in the forest with your buns out.

On the first warm day in a while, we all couldn’t get enough sunshine. Since trees weren’t yet in bloom, most of the group played as the sun radiated down through the branches. The three girls in the group wandered off toward a sunnier area. From a small distance away, I saw them taking off their snow-pants. Giggling, they ran between the trees and danced in the warmth.

When we stay present in our environment, we become more sensitive to all the changes happening. When we’ve been cold, we feel early-summer warmth deeper in our bones. When we’ve been present in sadness, we notice when joy returns. While most people can find something to complain about in any situation—these children are paying attention to their internal and outside environments and making the most out of any weather.

Small hills are as important as the mountains.

On a race up a small hill in April, four kids ran as fast as they could, all barely making it to the finish because of all the spring mud. The youngest child of the group kept sliding down to the start. She tried many times and became upset. She was very small and the task seemed too impossible. I walked behind her and encouraged her on. Determined and slow, she made it to the top by her strength.

The little victories teach us about our capabilities and help us discover the courage to do big things in life. Each struggle we face, no matter what size, can strengthen us.

Breaking some branches and picking flowers in nature is much less damaging to our environment than never experiencing it.

I’ve been too many places where I see a parent scolding their child for playing in dirt or picking a flower. Yes, a flower will continue to grow better if left with its roots, but what’s the harm in trying to capture a bit of beauty? If kids fear touching nature and getting dirty, the activities and things they will use to entertain themselves with will be far less enriching and potentially far more damaging to their lives and our natural environment.

Slow down.

One sunny winter day I saw a child named Honza staring deeply into the skeleton of a leaf. When he saw my curiosity, he quickly invited me over. This little explorer revealed the perfect similarities between the leaf and the palm of my hand by placing the leaf in it and tracing the lines in both. He showed me that we are all connected, and some unstructured time during our day gives us the freedom to explore the mystery of it all. We can discover all the little treasures surrounding us when we receive the gift of time and slow down.

Whether they’re examining a leaf or a bug, playing red-light-green-light, picking wildflowers, sliding down hills, drawing a map of our surroundings, gathering sticks for firewood, or managing a fight with a friend—these kids were connected to the gift of the present at each moment I was blessed to spend with them. Under the forest trees we grew from the dirt, together, as the seasons changed before our eyes.

-E

balance me on the tips of your fingers.
don’t let me fall.
follow my cries
so I don’t drown.

you’re beside me now,
but I can’t see you.
there’s nothing but darkness here.
when will the light return to your face?

find me.
swim through the clutter I left behind,
all those mountains I gathered to keep you
away.

the books I never read
gather dust.
my peaks crack and crumble
burying all that I have left.

I am surrounded
by the silence
of the fears I never shared.
the dreams I can’t remember.

I am lost inside,
but at least I am hidden.
from the doubts of my mind
trying to turn inside out.

I left a path
there.
just in case
I needed to find my way back.

I wasn’t looking
for you.
but when there’s nothing more to see,
I am still here longing for you.

I went.
and would have never returned
because there’s too much wrong
with me and everything.

you found me
and saw me
when I couldn’t see
even my own toes.

the sun shines on my face
and I remember
all that I need to remember.
wind breathes deep through my lungs.

past the shadows
I see.
I exist here.
and you are with me.

-E

Outside, the summer wind breathes through the lush and bursting forest, and inside, a cold breeze chills even safely-buried roots. Overgrown stinging nettle stings my legs with each step, stabs my tongue with each word. I am left speechless in my own skin.

What happened to the good stories? Life weaving braids of gratitude and adventure and optimism, fresh breath of air stories. Mountain summit other-side of addiction adolescence pain rivers roaring stories. Long lovely days Milky Way laughter warmth of fire passion ablaze. Legends now.

A sea swells within me. Falling, crashing, and ebbing. Roots entirely washed away by a swollen ocean. Bones both cleansed and battered as I let go. 

Mother-love growing roots expanding waves. Delicate baby girl waves. Teeny baby boy waves. Momma Mary watching Jesus Christ nails in the flesh over broken bones son of God almighty forsaken and limitless waves. Darkness covers my eyes falling deeper Frida Kahlo broken daughter bleeding artist lo que el agua me dio waves. Waves of woman sisters in the depths, crashing, crashing, cresting. Floating. Quiet floods that will never be painted in beautiful colors on the body for others to see. Writing, dear old friend, I give you my heart, howling with grief and dripping with blood. I shatter onto this page.

These days brighten and wane like whole seasons. Red raspberry wisdom, huckleberry finger stains, sunshine sweat and naps in the shade, cold river runoff dances around my toes, warmth of loved ones and chocolate chip cookie days—outside really is your best side kind of days. But every single one of these passing seasons earth rotations are part of the story. Can’t just tear out some pages or whole chapters and leave the lovely ones to enjoy with a grande cup of lukewarm coffee with extra room for “I’m fine.”

Honestly, alive feels so good, but it hurts too badly sometimes. For now I’m just growing through the cracks of being. Trying to embody the forgiven joys as fully as the guilt-aches. The rising tides crushed, and left shattered what’s true. I just need some time to pick up all the pieces. And then maybe someday, all these pages will dance in the wind like summer again.

–E

Once

hardened by hatred
weighed down by salt.
the splendor of stillness
once foreign to me
now runs through my veins.

words will cleanse
ink will detoxify what’s left
of lives lost to the doubts of having nothing to say.

out of fear of imperfection,
I didn’t write a word
not even a single letter.
these pages are messy now,
no longer blank.

this surface isn’t meant to be silent
out of fear of ruining it.
this must be colorful and real and messy and true.

have only a fear of never beginning.
enter the cracks on the surface
and burst through
all that tells you that you can’t
all who says that you have nothing to say.

the first letter
dances
barefoot on summer soil.

your mind is a lovely place,
your body filled with wisdom.
just once
tell your story true
no matter how messy it looks.

–E

mountains roar, rising and falling
snow melts and water flows through another revolution
the earth does not confine these rivers to the shape that soil desires
but with a great velocity, the waters shape their path

humans too must surrender to an uncommon course
carving away, releasing burdens too heavy
carrying life towards the sea
where pasts and futures collide

nature opens up its hungry jaws
as you do to the world in judgment
it spits you out, raw
leaving the flesh and blood behind and burying your bones

until you see the earth as a mirror
everything as a reflection of yourself
it is a terrifying and death-ridden place
with nowhere to hide but behind fear

that light that you’ve been protecting with all you have
it longs to dance with the wind
and will come back to you
more complete than before if you just allow it to soar

release your light and hold on to love
then let it go
and embrace it again
and then free it further

you are already whole
just let go of your precious heart, it is safe here
the fortress you’ve built around it only keeps it from healing
and becoming a full vessel, overflowing

darling, you contain all the love that exists
if you allow it to exist in you
nature longs to engrave not more pain on your heart,
but to embed purpose into this fractured world of men

let pass this melting into your path, don’t fight it
with great force, move, and take on your own shape
let the dark soil be your canvas
for new life

–E