From our Mental Health Counselor: Robin Bates
Hello, Charter school village! I feel so grateful and privileged to be able to serve this community as a Mental Health Specialist and look forward to an amazing year of collective self-discovery!
Identity: Who am I?
A few weeks ago, my son, who often throughout his childhood has had anxiety at night about different “monsters” under the bed, came into our room to say yet again that he was struggling with some fear. In the old days, he would come in with some creative stuff: a “shark between the wall and the bed”, a “giant wild feral cat scratching to get in his window” (which, by the way, was two stories above the ground), or some other wild scene that I would then offer him comfort. Later, the fears would become a little more concrete: a robber, a mountain lion or a strange new neighbor outside of his window.
So, I was reading a book in my bed after his bedtime and he quietly and sheepishly came in and sat next to me.
“Mom, I’m scared”. I waited for the rest of it. “Mom, this time it’s not anything outside. Tonight, well, (he paused a moment).....I am scared of myself”. This wasn’t the usual theme. Being a therapist, my curiosity perked up and I put my book down, inviting him to tell me more. “Mom, it’s just weird. Who am I REALLY? When I move my arm up and down, am I the one watching myself do this? Or am I the arm that is moving up and down or am I the one that decided to move the arm? This is really freaking me out! Now I don’t really even think I know who I am at all!” Without trying to explain to him what an existential crisis was, I just gave him time to explore this experience and listened with deep curiosity and compassion.
Our theme this year is: Identity. This covers a lot of ground (some would argue it covers ALL the ground), so we will have opportunities to learn about our identities through many different lenses.
Exploring our identity involves expanding our awareness and practicing being “the one watching the arm move and the one making the decision to make the arm move”. Any time we can stand back a moment and look at our reactions with curiosity and compassion, we are opened to new choices and deeper self-acceptance. We learn to take ownership of identity. And when we do this, we learn to have more compassion for the diversity of others.
As parents, it’s hard not to get overwhelmed or bewildered by our children and our most straight-forward instinct can sometimes be to help our children NOT do or accept whatever it is that they’re experiencing.
It can be helpful to approach children’s identity challenges with curiosity. “Tell me more about what you’re feeling/thinking?”. “I love the way you’re looking closely at this and really paying attention to the details of how you are feeling”. “If you could draw or color this experience, what would it look like? If you could hear sounds or music about this experience, what would it sound like?” These questions help us and our children practice “leaning in”. And when we lean in, often there’s a lot of great new discoveries in there!
Often times we need only focus on ourselves and watch our own identities at play. This morning I asked my son for the 1,013th time to stop pulling clumps of dirt out of this ledge on the side of the driveway before getting in the car - and to top it all off, we were close to being late to school. I got so frustrated! Did he seriously forget or not hear me for the 1,013th time?!! I was beyond disappointed. I was offended! I could feel my heart rate rising and my cheeks getting a bit flush. But at a certain point, I found myself just observing this reaction with curiosity. “Why am I really feeling this way? What does this remind me of? What am I feeling under this? How is this affecting parts of my own identity? Are there conflicts in my identity that are causing this upset”. I kept leaning in. My identity as a “good mother” was being directly challenged and I was in a fight with it. Time to cool off. And before too long, my experience shifted.
I invite all of you to learn more about the many moving parts of your identity - to lean in and be curious about all of the roles and ideas about self that we have without blaming, and having compassion without shaming.
This month, our focus will be on identity formation. Students will learn how our inside, outside, and stage of development all influence our expanding sense of who we are. Sometimes other people’s thoughts about us can help us discover who we are NOT, which can be difficult but also very useful. Other times we get to experience alignment with outside influence and inner knowing of identity. Understanding and normalizing all of it is the key towards the ultimate goal: acceptance and curiosity about who we are. I look forward to having some fun this month!
Here are some resources that could be useful for discussions and questions that could come up around discovering our identity:
Stella Luna, by Janell Cannon (I SO LOVE this one!)
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (an old classic but still so rich)
Shrek 1 (movie by Dreamworks) - perfect opportunity to talk about identity and how sometimes we are perceived differently on the outside than how we identify on the inside!
Genderspectrum.org - this is a great resource for learning about what it means to be transgender and resources for talking with kids and adults.
Books for teens about identity (a list I found on The Guardian website):
The Crew by Bali Rai
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
The Outsiders by S E Hinton