Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Inside "The Glass Castle," Parents Betray Their Children

"The Glass Castle," a newly released movie, is based on the best-selling memoir by Jeanette Walls.  It is painful and powerful. It is heartwarming and heartbreaking. Jeanette Walls, despite being raised in a chaotic and negligent environment, broke free from the bonds of family dysfunction and built a life for herself as an accomplished journalist. Today's blog is not a review of the movie nor is it a commentary on how Jeanette's story has touched the hearts and souls of its readers and viewers. After seeing the movie, although I was moved by Jeanette's triumph over tragedy, I was reminded that it came at a cost. The message which resonated for me was...

Inside "The Glass Castle," Parents Betray Their Children 

Over the past ten years, I have written and spoken about "betrayal." It is a topic I am comfortable with and passionate about. When we think of "betrayal," our minds typically turn to issues of infidelity or other relationships in which trust is broken.  It is indeed that. It is, however, so much more. In "Breaking Through Betrayal: And Recovering The Peace Within 2nd Edition," I explain betrayal in three ways:

An investment into someone or something met with rejection and/or abandonment. 

A profound trust in someone or something which is profoundly violated.

A belief which is shattered or a truth that becomes a lie. 

Although there is crossover among the explanations, each one also stands alone in its injurious impact on victims. I believe that all three definitions apply to Jeanette Walls and her siblings; however, the one which connected with their story the most was, "A profound trust in someone or something which is profoundly violated." 

In "Breaking Through Betrayal", I describe two kinds of trust:
1. Trust as an innate emotion
2. Trust as an extension of us

For the purpose of explaining betrayal in relationship to "The Glass Castle," we will examine trust as an innate emotion. This is the kind of trust which forms naturally within us. It is a preconceived bond, an almost supernatural current within us and/or between us.This is the mother-child trust. This is the father-child trust. And this is important. This is the trust which children innately feel for their parents, guardians, and caregivers because of  who they are and the roles they hold.

When mothers, fathers, step-parents, grandparents, etc.
 misuse, abuse, and betray the "reponsibility" of trust bestowed upon them,
 this parental violation has prolific and profound consequences on the children.

In addition to the violation of trust itself, there is another component which makes this kind of betrayal extremely damaging. All victims, especially children, carry around a great deal of shame, guilt, and a plethora of self-deprecating life messages because they feel the lack of parenting is somehow their fault. To compound the shame and guilt, when the standard of care falls into a pit of chaos and negligence where children are required to take on the parental roles, layers of confusion, worthlessness, and powerlessness also take hold within them. 

Jeanette Walls, her older sister, and her younger brother took on the parental roles of their household. However, the deeply entrenched inadequacies and extreme inconsistencies of their parents continued to betray them on multiple levels. Their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter were not met. Although it was evident that Jeanette's dad expressed his love for his children and his authority over them, other needs such safety, security, and sanitation were lacking. When children's needs take a back seat to the unhealthy behaviors of  parents, or when children's basic needs are not met, their internal dialogue plays out in life messages such as the following:

I am invisible.
I do not matter.
I am not enough.
I am on my own.
I don't belong here. 
Why did they have me?

These internal messages greatly damage a child's core being and erode a child's sense of worth and mattering. These painful life messages require a tremendous amount of recovering to repair, and it takes a committed process of healing in order to replace them with healthy life messages.  

There is one final factor about parental violation of trust which is paramount to understanding its depth of devastation. It is difficult  for anyone to stand up to one's betrayer.  For a child, adolescent, or teen to stand up to parent/s who are the betrayers - the violators of their trust - is extremely complex and complicated. Not only do internal loyalties wage war with one's psyche, but societal expectations, cultural norms, and familial traditions demand its silencing. Too often when victims find the courage to speak their truths, they are shamed by their parents (or caregivers), by their extended families, and by their communities. Often, victims default to their defense mechanisms, desperately trying to make sense out of the betrayers' actions. Others seek to diminish them. 

Well, they did their best.
I guess she did what she could.
I accept he didn't know anything else.
They were just repeating how they were raised.
Well, I know they loved us. They just didn't know how to show it.

These rationalizations further betray children 
by minimizing their truths and normalizing their suffering.

After moving to New York and establishing her career, Jeanette Walls did not disclose the truth about her past.  When she became engaged to a successful businessman, she and her fiance' concocted a story about her parents and her background. Understandably, Jeanette was fearful she would be judged and not accepted into the world she had built for herself. More importantly, she was not ready to do so. 

At the end of "The Glass Castle," Jeanette Walls, her older sister, younger brother (and his family), her younger sister, and Jeanette's mom arrived at Jeanette's home to celebrate Thanksgiving together. As they sat around the dinner table toasting their late father (and husband), the camera closed in on Jeanette's face. In her tears, I saw a mixture of promise and of pain.

After returning home from the movie, I googled Jeanette Walls. I came across an interview with her in "The New York Times Magazine" (May 24, 2013). Alex Witchel reported that "...she [Jeanette] seemed to make a clean break from her  mother, who was still living in an East Village squat. But when it was damaged by a fire, Walls, alone among her siblings took Rose Mary (mom) in.  Her brother, Brian, a retired policeman who lives in Brooklyn, finds it hard to be around her mother. Her younger sister, Maureen, stabbed Rose Mary in the back 20 years ago, before being given the diagnosis of schizophrenia; she now lives in California and claims she has  no mother. Lori remains close to Rose Mary...though she lives in Manhattan." After reflecting on the concluding scene once again and contrasting it with the article, I was reminded...

Parents who betray their children leave a legacy of brokenness. 

Every day, in this country and all over the world, children are living in "glass castles" with parents who betray them. They are afraid to speak up and share their truths. In 2005, Jeanette Walls wrote hers down.  By doing so, she took the first step towards healing the wounds of parental betrayal.  Her journey is not everyones'. In its various forms and different approaches, wellness awaits each of us. However, we must choose it and act upon it.

Our healing begins by speaking our truths.
Our suffering continues by not doing so. 

In order to provide you with a safe platform for speaking your truths and guide you on your journey from betrayal, I invite you to pick up a copy of "Breaking Through Betrayal."  I promise you...You will not feel judged. Your pain will not be minimized. It is a self-paced, compassionate companion for breaking free from the bonds of betrayal and recovering your peace within.

Before I leave you, I want to share a  future source of further hope and healing from betrayal. For the past two years, I have been interviewing daughters who were betrayed by their mothers and who chose wellness over victimhood.  One daughter's truth speaks for many of us.

"She probably did her best. For me, it was not enough."  
February 2018!!
"Daughters Betrayers By Their Mothers: Moving From Brokenness To Wholeness"

~ Believe and Be Well ~ 

For more support and resources, visit Holli Kenley - Recovering Process / Betrayal

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Detached Families, Disconnected Relationships, and Distracted Students: 4 Non-Negotiable Steps To Reclaim Them!

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to the staff of a comprehensive high school in Southern California about Screen Dependence. Because it is also a boarding school, I was able to connect with the academic faculty as well as the home-living staff. For three hours, we covered a lot of material: cyber bullying, screen dependence, and the growing health concerns within each. We also discussed several strategies and interventions for moving forward. Although I presented a research-based workshop, I was also mindful of involving the audience in several interactive exercises in order for the material to connect with them.  I was hoping they would welcome the participation. Wow!  I was warmed by their honesty and involvement, and I felt the heaviness in their voices as they described their experiences with....

Detached Families, Disconnected Relationships, and Distracted Students.

Alone together
Over the past decade, I have had the privilege to present to many incredible audiences. After asking attendees to silence their phones, almost everyone will.  However, many will also continue to text,read emails, play games or go to their social media sites, etc.  A few months ago, I watched a Simon Sinek talk on this very subject. So, I did the following.

At the beginning of the second part of the workshop on Screen Dependence, I put up a new slide on the power point.  It said:

* Please silence your cell phones.
* Please put your phones away (out of your vision) or....
* If you are willing, please place your phone in the basket. 

My husband walked up to the audience with a basket in his hands for folks who were willing to "check their phones" until the end of the workshop.  It was so interesting!  A few immediately stepped forward to put their phones in the basket. Then more did so.  Then more! Within a few  minutes, we had a large basket filled with phones! The audience laughed!  They enjoyed it!  

I spent a few minutes talking to them about how they felt about departing with their phones!? Some of their responses astounded me!

I'm glad to get rid of it.  I'm so tired of people not paying attention at meetings!
I didn't even bring mine. I keep mine locked up all day! 
It's a relief to let go of it! It's a distraction!

The other reason I did this exercise (besides wanting to establish a new norm) is because, as I shared with the audience, there are two important reminders for changing behavior:

1.  We want to experience what it is we will be asking of our students (or of family, staff, etc.)
2.  We MUST model the behavior we are going to ask them to change!

I must admit.  I had a little anxiety over doing this exercise, but I was pleased with how receptive everyone was.  More importantly, I had a good pulse on how the audience was connecting with the difficult information I was about to impart. 

I continued with the workshop and introduced another exercise. I asked them to do the following.  

1. Think about yourself and your family, friends, or students and how screen time has affected or impacted the relationship. 
2. Make two columns:  positives and negatives. 
3. Write down two examples for each one.
4. If you feel comfortable, please share your responses with the group when we are ready to do so.

During the workshop, folks shared the positives:  connecting with family in distant places; getting a hold of children at school, or for pick-ups, activities, etc.; being able to connect with someone at any time, especially if it was important; sending reminders to students for bus times, games, etc. 

Then, folks shared the negatives: feeling isolated from family members because of lack of involvement with technology;  children not wanting to pay attention or follow through with chores because of screen attachment;  both children and adults not listening to one another or communicating well; the constant battle in classrooms over the use of phones and the inability for students to put their phones away for even short periods of time; students staying up all night on their phones, exhausted and unable to stay awake during school let alone pay attention to their academics.

"Irresistible" by Adam Alter
Again, I so appreciated their honesty and openness. I listened. I told them I understood.  I've heard these concerns many times. After the workshop, several individuals wanted to talk with me more privately.  Their stories were serious: relationships within families not only detached but destroyed; parents frightened at their children's and grandchildren's addiction to their technology; and teachers on the brink of total frustration over the constant battle with cell phone usage as well as the battle for their attention.  Although the day was productive, my heart was heavy.

As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I know that change is hard.  And yes, it is a process. I typically work at presenting my material in an informative and restorative fashion. However, after yesterday, I realize it's time to get down to business. Children, families, and relationships are hurting.  My new book Power Down & Parent Up: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence and Raising Tech-Healthy Children was just released (July 2017).  I hope you will get a copy and start implementing the strategies within your family.  It is only about 50 pages.  There is a clear road map to reducing screen time and getting your family back in balance.  For now, I want to leave you with the following:

4 Non-Negotiable Steps To Reclaim Them!
Take a deep breath!

1. No screens whatsoever in bedrooms.  This includes adults. None!
   * This is a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics.  (2013)

2. All screens are shut off two hours before bedtime, for everyone!  If needed, collect phones, iPads, etc., and put them in a locked place.  Spend time with one another, face to face, really connecting. Your children need you! So do your spouse, partner, friends, and family!!

3. Take another deep breath.... Students should not have access to their phones in classrooms! There are a variety of ways this can be dealt with and there is research validating how excessive screen time is damaging students cognitive development and executive functioning. 
Although there needs to be consistency within an organization, a few exceptions may include:

* Students may need phones for calculations in science and math.
* Students may need phones for research.
* At the same time, teachers must be able to implement a "no use" policy in their classrooms.             

4. For families, this is important. Every family must have a Family Online Safety Agreement or your own family Internet agreement.  I have been talking about this for 10 years.  I explain it fully in Power Down & Parent Up. By implementing a family agreement, you will bypass years of arguments and confusion over tech usage.  More importantly, you will have safer and healthier children. It works!

I just came across a wonderful tool - Family Media Plan - sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics. You can customize a family plan for all your children given their different ages! It's super easy and allows you to add to their recommendations! 

I know this is a lot to take in.  I want you to know my  motivation is simple - I care about the health and well being of your children, your family, your relationships, and of you. And, I'm here to help.

For more information on how to raise healthy Screen Kids, take a listen to a recent podcast with educators and hosts Dan Kenley and Ed Berger. We discuss the different kinds of parenting and how to make those difficult shifts when everyone else is attached to their screens!

For  more information or to contact me for a workshop or presentation, please visit
 Holli Kenley.

Real power means being informed!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

How Do You Become Empowered? Your Glass Casing Awaits Your Response.

How Do We Become Empowered?

Empowered is a word we hear frequently.  It suggests strength.  Although its connotations are appealing, it often times feels out of reach.  It is like an exquisite diamond ring casting its sparkle through the glass casings of a high-priced jewelry boutique.  Its magnificence catches our eye, and for a moment, we wonder what it would feel like to try it on. How would it transform us? Who could we become? We pause, allowing ourselves time to think about it. We may even give ourselves permission to believe a transformation could happen. Then, just as the brilliant vision of a different way of being begins to descend upon us, it quickly dissipates.

Why is it that becoming empowered seems to elude us?
 Is it really out of reach or is it a question of knowing where to find it and how to try it on?

Is it really out of reach?
The word empowered begins with a very important prefix – em – which means within and through. Thus, becoming empowered is not something that we obtain from external sources nor is it something which can be bestowed upon us. Also, it is not a process which takes us on a never-ending quest for reaching an elusive state of being.  On the contrary, becoming empowered requires that we refrain from searching outside ourselves and remain still. It demands we turn inward where we will find our power, within and through us.

Over the years working with individuals who entered therapy because their pain and its accompanying manifestations were no longer tolerable, I witnessed how their sources of power were drained and depleted, or they were camouflaged by layers of injury and injustice.  And yes, I would provide therapeutic tools and empathic strategies for assessing and intervening with their brokenness. However, it was the clients who chose to turn inward, unearthing their truths and acknowledging their sources of power. For many, this was a belief in a higher power or a connection with Nature. For others, their source was embedded within the recollection of a meaningful passage or proverb. For some, it was in the replaying of soulful music or spirit-filled words. For some individuals, their power emanated from an innate gift, ability, talent, or passion they invested in or pursued. Regardless of its genesis, without exception, it was the process of claiming each source which brought to life the promise of becoming empowered.  Each time clients chose to trust in themselves and invest into their sources, their flames of resilience strengthened and took hold.  

Far from being out of reach, 
becoming empowered means courageously reaching for what lies within us.

How do we try it on?  
Trying on something new can be tricky.  Most of us are our own worst critics. Trying on something  unusual or unfamiliar adds another layer of uncertainty to the mix.  Trying on something we’ve never imagined seeing ourselves in or believed we deserved complicates matters even further. Becoming empowered is no different.  Thus, becoming empowered requires we try it on, step by step, embracing three truths.

First Truth
As we begin discovering and tapping into our power within, a shift starts to take place.  We feel stronger. We feel hopeful.  We feel energized. And, because the newness of it all feels a bit awkward, we begin to doubt ourselves. Old tapes enter our minds and play their messages.  “I’m not good enough.  I can’t do this.  I feel selfish.  I just need to be a better person.”  We continue to diminish our potential for empowerment and dash out the flame within us by caving into a formidable opponent - shame.  Our destructive tapes intensify. “Who am I kidding?  I don’t deserve this! I’m not a leader…just a follower. I’ll never amount to anything.” 

With negative thoughts dousing our potential for power, we have a choice. We can walk by the glass window showcasing the sparkling diamond, resenting its presence and releasing its promises. Or, we can pause and give ourselves permission to try on our first truth.  

Becoming empowered means believing we are worthy of it.

In my career as a middle and high school teacher, I had the pleasure of connecting with hundreds of students.  In the early 90’s, I was teaching English at a middle school in a challenging neighborhood where students struggled getting their basic needs met.  One female student, Violet, was extremely gifted in her writing; however, her image and worth were tied to her gang affiliation. After acknowledging her writing abilities on several assignments, I approached Violet, offering her mentoring sessions before school several mornings each week.  Although reluctant at first, Violet agreed to attend.  She didn’t miss a session, diligently honing and perfecting her gift. Over time, we entered several of her writing pieces into our school publication. As months passed and she continued progressing, Violet started to change in several ways. Her dark heavy clothing became a lighter, more feminine style. Her hair and make-up softened.  Her prior protective demeanor turned into a warm gentle aura. Believing she was worthy of it, Violet not only tried on her power, she claimed it for herself.

Second Truth
One of the mistakes we make when trying on something new is dismissing it too quickly when it feels uncomfortable or strange.  Our fear of failure or not being able to make it work also feeds our doubts and justifies our giving up. Again, we must refrain from playing negative tapes and patiently try on our next truth.

Becoming empowered means giving ourselves time to fit into it.

Just as was true for Violet, other students with whom I had the honor of teaching and who chose to begin believing in themselves and their worth were quite wary of difficult choices and changes which they would  need to confront.  Often times, many students quickly fell back into old patterns or caved in under pressure from others.  However, there were countless students, like Violet, who gave themselves time to try on their power, a little a time.  They grew with it and made adjustments along the way. Although it was quite dangerous, eventually Violet made the difficult decision to be “jumped out” of her gang. Following this life change, Violet found herself navigating through foreign territory; however, she kept her expectations realistic and learned how to move forward in healthy ways.  Most importantly, she gave herself the time to ease into her new power and to fit comfortably into it.  

Third Truth
Lastly, another misjudgment we make when trying on something new is that we often tether the legitimacy of its presence to external sources of validation. With our digital social world pressing us from every angle to produce, perform, and post at an ever-increasing rate, it feels like our power is measured solely by the traction it receives. If we are not displaying our power 24/7 in the cyber lanes and drowning out the voices of others, our power feels false and fleeting. However, authentic power need not reveal itself through a barrage of boasts.  Becoming empowered is not legitimized by artificial numbers or fake friends or followers. Therefore, after finding our source within and then giving ourselves time to fit into it, it is essential that we try on one more truth.

Becoming empowered means allowing its presence to speak for itself.

As the vortex of social networks pulls us outward and the noise of messaging reaches peak levels fighting for recognition, we must remain still. We must continue turning inward, formulating and fortifying our truths and renewing and refining our power.  We must give ourselves ample time to allow for our power’s authentic integration into our being - to take hold within us and through us.  If we do so, it will stand strong, with or without external support. If we do so, it will speak for itself.

At the end of 8th grade, Violet participated in the school’s Promotional Ceremony. Although there were a number of students who received awards and honors, Violet quietly sat in attendance. When her name was called, Violet walked confidently across the stage to receive her Certificate. Aside from a soft cheer from a single mom proud of her daughter for being the first in the family to graduate 8th grade, the room was quiet. Violet shook the principal’s hand and descended the stairs.  Returning to her assigned seat, Violet looked up and our eyes met. Bearing witness to the strength behind them, I knew her self-respect and self-worth were rooted firmly within her and running fully through her. Violet’s beaming smile showcased their sparkling authenticity. Her empowered presence spoke for itself.

How do you become empowered?
Your glass casing awaits your response.

For more resources visit Holli Kenley!
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For tween to teens - check out Another Way - a novel

"Until you know, understand, and trust your worth, 
your choices will never truly belong to you."
Discover, Define, and Determine Your Worth!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Screen Time: Is it a harmonious passion or an obsessive passion? Take the quiz!

Because I am interested in the issue of screen dependence and internet addiction, I read almost everything that comes across my desk.  A few months ago, I devoured Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (2017) by New York Times bestselling author Adam Alter.  An expert in the field of addiction, Alter offers his readers a short quiz to assess their online(screen) usage. For today's blog, I invite you to take the quiz!

 Although it is sometimes a bit uncomfortable to assess our own behavior or that of our loved ones, it is important to know whether our screen-time falls into the category of....

a harmonious passion or an obsessive passion.

Here we go. Let's take the quiz!

Internet Addiction Test (Alter, p. 27)
Select the response that best represents the frequency of each behavior listed using the scale below.
0 = Not applicable
1 = Rarely
2 = Occasionally
3 = Frequently
4 = Often
5 = Always

1.  How often do you find that you stay online (or on any screen or games) longer than you intended?   _____
2.  How often do others in your life complain to you about the amount of time you spend online (or on any screen or game)? _____
3. How often do you check your email, social networks, texts, etc. before you do something else that you need to do?  _____
4.  How often do you lose sleep because of late nighttime log-ins or screen-time or gaming?_____
5.  How often do you find yourself saying "just a few minutes" when online, playing games, or on any screen? _____

As I do with all my writings, it is important not only to inform you but to offer up support which will restore you. I'll give you the scores later in the blog along with some resources for moving forward in healthy ways.

I want you to know I understand how the words addiction and dependence can be worrisome; in fact, often times, they are very unsettling. However, becoming familiar with terms associated with behavior helps us to acknowledge our own levels of usage and their effects on our well-being as well as on our relationships. If we are ever going to make healthy changes, we first must acknowledge there is a need to do so.

Alter defines several terms associated with behavioral addiction while clarifying their important distinctions (Alter, pp. 20-21). 
  • Addiction: with addictive behavior, the reward the behavior brings initially eventually carries with it damaging consequences; a deep attachment to an experience that is harmful and difficult to do without 
  • Obsessions (thoughts)  and compulsions (behaviors):  thoughts and/or behaviors which are intensely unpleasant to "not" pursue; they promise relief (known as negative reinforcement)) but not the appealing rewards of consummated addiction 
  • Harmonious passions: healthy activities that people chose to do without strings attached; the activity occupies a significant but not an overwhelming space in the person's identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person's life
  • Obsessive passions: behaviors which are unhealthy and sometimes dangerous; passions which are driven by a need that goes beyond simple enjoyment; they are likely to produce behavioral addictions; the passion controls the person; it eventually takes disproportionate space in the person's identity and causes conflict with other activities in the person's life 
Now, for your scores!

> 7 or below: no signs of addiction or dependence; a harmonious passion

> 8-12: suggests mild dependence but generally you are in control of your usage; a harmonious passion

> 13-20: indicates moderate addiction/dependence with usage causing occasional or frequent    problems; moving into an obsessive passion

> 21-25:suggests addiction or dependence and implies that the obsessive passion is causing "significant problems in your life" (Alter, p.27)

Because we live in a digital age where everyone is on their technology 24/7, it's hard to differentiate between what is a harmonious passion or what is an obsessive one. So, given the above definitions and the results from your quiz, you are the best judge! And, you are the one who decides to what degree you and your loved ones want to balance out your screen time with your face-to-face time!

Remember, it's not about banning technology.  It's about balancing it!

In 2010, when Steve Jobs was asked what his children thought of the new iPad, he responded,

"They haven't used it. We limit how much technology our children use at home."
(Kardaras, 2016, p.31)

In my work as a Marriage and Family therapist, I am most concerned about our "digital natives" and how best parents/guardians can navigate our tech-driven world. I have authored a new book which was just released! If you are looking for help - for your children, for you, and for your family - it's here!  It's concise and easy to implement!

Real Power Comes In Being Informed!

For additional support, check out a recent blog! Other amazing experts are here to help!

How To Tech-Protect Our Kids: Four Must Reads and an  APP

I also authored an empowering novel for tweens - teens with the purpose of helping them to discover their REAL POWER - their REAL WORTH!

      Another Way - a novel

Discover, Define, and Determine Your Real Worth!          

For more resources, please visit Holli Kenley, M.A., MFT
Like us on FB AuthorHolliKenley
Follow us on Twitter


Alter, Adam. (2017) Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked. New York, New York: Penguin Press.

Kardaras, N. PhD. (2016). Glow kids: How screen addiction is hijacking our kids - and how to break the trance. (First ed.). New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

13 Reasons Why: "Shaming" No More

Over the past few weeks, there has been quite a bit of buzz regarding the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why. Because of my interest in youth, my background in cyber bullying, and my years of advocating for victims of all kinds, I wanted to watch it. I did. Today's blog is not about the controversies surrounding the series or the pros or cons of it. It is about one behavior - shaming - which permeated the entire story-line. Many of our kids are navigating environments of shaming, both in their real lives and their on-line lives. It is our duty as parents, guardians, educators, health care professionals and anyone who cares about our kids' well-being to ensure..."shaming is no  more."

When most of us were growing up,we saw kids being made fun of. We "put down" other kids or played jokes on them. Or, we were the ones who were teased and taunted. At the same time, most of us were able to establish friendships and we learned about trust, loyalty, and mutual support. We cared for one another and wanted the best for each other. As I watched 13 Reasons Why, I was reminded how shaming, a type of bullying and cyber bullyinghas become a normative behavior. Our kids are exposed to it day in and day out. In fact, shaming is so prevalent, most kids don't recognize it as an abusive behavior. However, what makes shaming so damaging and dangerous are its insidious egregious effects. Incessant or re-occurring indirect or face-to-face shaming cuts at the core of an individual's sense of worth and value. Shaming  disgraces, dishonors, discredits, degrades, and defames another person. Shaming is humiliating and embarrassing. This is important -

Shaming is internalized as self-doubt and self-hatred. 
Chronic and on-going shaming can and will lead to a complete sense of 
worthlessness, powerlessness, and hopelessness.

Several students in the film appeared to be conditioned to and unaffected by the toxic ringers which were constantly thrown at one another. However, most of the kids, at one time or another, expressed their hurt in a variety of unhealthy ways. Some retaliated. Others buried their shame. Many students chose or continued to engage in unsafe behaviors to prove their worth even at the risk of further shaming. The main character in the film, Hannah, was shamed by her best friends, by some who called themselves friends, and  by anyone who felt like it because it was 'no big deal'.

And what I found so tragic was that Hannah didn't appear to know that she had every right to feel embarrassed, humiliated, and degraded. 

She didn't grasp that no one, including adults, can tolerate that kind of on-going trauma and emotional torture and feel good about themselves. 

We must understand that when no one steps up and calls out what is going on, victims will blame themselves. They will see it as a defect of self - not the fault of someone else.

As young people navigate through the stages of adolescent and teen years, their identities and egos are developing.They are vulnerable and they are fragile. They may put up a strong front so as not to appear to be weak or afraid, but  no young person can develop a strong sense of self or worth in the face of constant adversity, especially when it comes from their peers. In addition, with  24/7 online exposure to physical, social, racial, spiritual, ethnic and political  (etc.) shaming, our children are learning that it is an acceptable/normal behavior. For young people to think that shaming is just a part of everyday life  and that something is wrong with them if they can't 'toughen-up' is an indictment on our culture and on those of us entrusted with their well-being.

How can we help our kids? It starts with each one of us.

Parents, Guardians, and Youth

1. Whenever we see shaming, hear it, or become of aware it is going on, call it out. Say what it is is and explain how it harms another person. Do not remain quiet. By doing so, we are condoning the behavior.

2. Whenever possible, if  you are a bystander to shaming, step in and help.  Stand by the target. Stand up and support the individual in any way which is helpful. If nothing else, escort the individual from the situation. Stay with him or her until you are in a safe place.

3. Reach out to individuals who you know have been targeted. Even if shaming is not happening "in the moment", show this person what kindness looks like.  You  might be the only person that day who shows any concern or care for the individual.

Parents, Educators, Counselors, Youth Group Leaders and Advocates

4. Address shaming in your homes, curriculum, and in your practices. Discuss the word "shaming" and draw from examples in real life and on-line interactions.  Talk about how shaming "feels" and ways to work through it. (See resources below)

5.  If you choose to view 13 Reasons Why, do so first without your children. I believe the series can be utilized for teaching our children  about the harmful effects of shaming and helping them with a number of social behaviors and dangerous situations. Talk about the characters, their choices, and what could and should have been done differently.  Talk about the adults, including the teachers, counselor, coaches, and others and how their actions or lack of contributed to the culture of shaming. Talk about what they could have done differently.

These five protective steps are a start in the right direction! However, just as with any kind of cyber bullying or bullying, shaming  is not a cause. Shaming is a behavioral manifestation of a serious underlying issue. This is important.

Shaming is a symptom of the inability to feel empathy for another person.  

How can we help our  kids?  
We begin by teaching them kindness, empathy, compassion, and respect. 
We begin by modeling it.

Yes, we need to teach them and model the behaviors. We must address the root of the problem in order to change it. And this cannot be a "one and done" hour long meeting or assembly. This must be an ongoing curriculum and discussion. I'm going to leave you with some valuable resources which can be easily implemented into any advisory, homeroom, after-school club, counseling group, or church group or organization. These materials are free! I have read and studied each program thoroughly. As a former teacher, I highly recommend each one! Complete and thorough lessons plan are included within each. This is a teacher or leader's dream come true!

  • "Our K-12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum"                            Common  Sense Education - Howard Gardner,  Harvard School of Education   
  • "Words Wound: Delete Cyber Bullying and Make Kindness Go Viral"    Cyber Bullying Research Center - Justin Patchin  and Sameer Hinduja  (Best suited for intermediate and middle school levels). There is a cost for the book, but not the Leader's Guide.
  • "Don't Laugh At Me" (K-12) Social Emotional Learning   Operation Respect - Peter Yarrow  This program is suited for all children, especially those who connect well with music, art, theater, and other creative venues.  
  • Another Way - a novel Tween to Teens by Holli Kenley  Another Way empowers young people through a process of helping them to discover and respect what is right and true for themselves AND what is right and true for others. Included in the book are discussion guide questions and tools for parents and youth. There is more information on my website.         

From Chapter 8 - Each One of You Matters 

Tyrell (High School Senior)  turned toward Rick (Youth Leader). "But what I think you're sayin' Rick is we cannot separate ourselves from our behaviors - we've got to remember that how we treat others can and does reflect on us. We can't control what other people do, but we can choose Another Way in how we treat other individuals as well."

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Shaming falsely elevates a broken character. 
Showing kindness further enhances a beautiful one.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

How To Tech-Protect Our Kids: 4 Must-Reads and an APP!

Parents and Guardians, every generation has it challenges. We certainly had ours and our children have theirs! However, there is something very uniquely problematic about raising children in this digital age. The emerging and ever-present scientific advancements which offer 24/7 communication and social interaction and supposedly are "connecting" us to one another more rapidly and efficiently are the same technological tools which are changing who we are and cultivating a "disconnect" with one another.

Although research is  mounting in support of "tech-effects" on our children, 
we also know that adults are not immune to many of the psychological, relational, 
physical,and behavioral consequences of passive and interactive time spent on screens.

Why is this so hard to believe? 
Why do we want to turn away from what is going on? 

This is important.  I think the first reason is because we - as parents - do not want to think we might be doing something which is contributing to the harm of our children! What responsible parent would do that? Of course, we wouldn't.  I want you to know that you are not responsible for changing what you don't know! And, most parents have no idea about the dangers of  passive and interactive screen-time on their children. So, don't beat yourself up. Don't become immobilized in your guilt. Don't bury yourself in denial because your friends aren't changing their ways. At the conclusion of this blog, I am going to show you... How To Tech-Protect Our Kids with 4 Must-Read books and an amazing APP! 

Get ready to get informed. And then, get ready to make healthy changes! 

When I was growing up in the 50's, it seemed like almost all adults smoked!  It was a social thing. My dad smoked, my parents' friends smoked, and many relatives smoked, especially at parties and celebrations. Although I remember my dad smoking mostly outside on our patio, there came a time when he wanted to quit. He talked about how it wasn't good for his health or for his children's. I remember how over the years, the cigarette commercials started disappearing off the TV. Then, the bill-boards came down. Eventually, health warnings appeared on the cigarette packs. Slowly, people's minds began to change as they became more informed. And, as more years went by, laws began to change protecting folks who didn't smoke from the smoke of those who did. I believe neither my parents nor the parents of millions of other children wanted to endanger their kids' health (or their own). They just didn't know any differently. Today, with health concerns mounting around our children's degree of access and exposure to electronic screens, we have no excuses.

 We just need to be willing to become informed.
We don't need to panic or  move from a place of fear.
We have solid information and seasoned experts to guide our paths.

The second reason why I think we want to avoid addressing screen-time usage is because we - as adults - are enjoying our screens as much as our children! Look around. Parents are connected to their devices as well! Also, every day there are new gadgets, faster phones, three-dimensional apparatus, more intriguing, seductive games, and so on. Our friends have the newest versions and we want them too! And so, this too is important. This too is hard. We - as adults - must face on own issues of tech dependence, social comparison (keeping up with Jones family) and other tech-related problematic behaviors. We must be willing to acknowledge them, change them, and model healthy face-to-face relationships with our children and with one another.

 No matter what the enticement might be, we must remember...
"Too much of a good thing is not always a healthy thing."

Are you old enough to remember when there were no fast food chains? Ok, there may have been an A and W Drive-In or a favorite hang-out burger joint! But, it wasn't until the emergence of McDonalds, Burger King, Jack-in-the-Box, and countless others that we experienced a huge shift in our diets, our routines, and even in our health.  Raising my daughter in the 80's and 90's,  I remember when health concerns first started surfacing about ingredients in fast-foods as well as in processed foods. As more information was released, I made necessary adjustments.  As a working mom, it was not always easy to make a home-cooked meal, but I made it a priority to make sure my daughter had healthful meals. I did not eliminate fast-food altogether. However, I was much more mindful as to how often we would get those yummy Big Macs and delicious fries! Over the years, many of the chains have chosen to make changes in their ingredients and to offer healthier alternatives to their menus! They have acted responsibly to the evidence supporting unhealthy practices and to the growing concerns of their consumers. As the consequences of over-exposure to screens continue to show up in our children's lives and our own, we - as parents - must to do same.

Becoming informed does not mean the eradication of popular practices.
It means becoming empowered to make the best decisions regarding their impact on our lives.

Protection means being informed.
Parents and Guardians, let's get started. Let's get informed! 

All of these resources are amazing! I've read each one thoroughly. Choose ONE to get started. Choose one which best suits your needs right now. Don't get over-whelmed with too much information at once. These are in no particular order - they are all great!

1.   "Disconnected: How To Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids" by Thomas Kersting

I love this book because it was written from  a father's perspective!  Tom is also a psychotherapist, a high school counselor, and a coach on his son's team! With a compassionate and convincing voice, this amazing father offers a concise yet powerful approach for parents/guardians to reclaim the health and well-being of their children.  I HIGHLY recommend "Disconnected"! (92 pages)

2.   "Screens and Teens: Connecting with Our Kids in a Wireless World" by Kathy Koch, PhD.

This is an extraordinary book because Kathy addresses the problematic "life-messages" our children are learning about themselves and the world around them as a consequence of their time spent interacting with technology. "Screens and Teens" is a faith-based family-friendly approach.  Kathy provides plenty of exercises to implement with our children as well discussion guides for families to reconnect in healthy ways. (237 pages)

3.  "Reset Your Child's Brain: A Four-Week Plan To End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Syndrome" by Victoria L. Dunkley, M.D.

If you are a parent who is raising a child who is overly anxious, irritable, hyper-stimulated, inattentive, and unfocused (and who spends time on screens) or  a counselor, educator, therapist, doctor (pediatrician) who is seeing a rise or dramatic increase in  ADD, ADHD, anxiety disorders, and depressive symptoms in your child or the children you work with, PLEASE read this book. These children "may" be medicated unnecessarily. These children "may" be misdiagnosed and suffering instead from "Electronic Screen Syndrome". "Reset" is a research-based clinically detailed analysis of the effects on children's overall well-being as the result of screen-time. Victoria, a mom herself, offers a ground-breaking "reset" program which is family friendly, providing a step-by-step process for restoring your child's health. I believe EVERY clinician or individual who is assessing children's health should read this book.  (317 pages)

4.  "Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids - And How To Break The Trance" by Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D.

I know the word "addiction" is a scary word. Don't let that deter you from choosing this book. If you, or your children, or other loved ones are spending a great deal of time "gaming" (video games) and are finding it problematic to stop or cut back are not alone. Nicholas Kardaras describes how and why video games are designed to become "addictive" (as are other screen interactive behaviors) and he provides a myriad of proven strategies for recovering from screen addiction or reducing screen problematic behaviors. Having experienced gaming addiction personally, Dr. Kardaras speaks with a compassionate and caring voice. You will not feel judged! (246 pages)

Lastly, but just as importantly, I want to share with you a new APP - BOSCO - which is being launched as we speak!

What is BOSCO?  BOSCO is purely an awareness tool - not a control tool - and will only alert parents when its algorithm has shown that the parents' attention is needed.  This APP provides a fresh approach to digital parenting!

Because of my interest in cyber bullying and its impact on the well-being of our children and because of how vulnerable our children are to on-line predators and other dangers, I think this is a extremely valuable tool.  In the words of Enon Landenberg, Co-Founder of Bosco and father of three, "We imagined an alternative that would help us keep our kids safe without infringing on their independence." I highly encourage you to check this out!

In closing, I want you to know that these folks and countless others (as do I) care deeply about the well-being of our children. It is why we do what we do. There is no other motivation. If you have questions or concerns, please reach out to them or to  me.  We are here to help and support you. I ask one thing of you...

Be brave....take a deep breath...and begin reading. 
This high-tech generation needs our best parenting...they deserve no less.

Please, don't hesitate to reach out ~
Join us on FB  Author Holli Kenley
Follow on Twitter Holli Kenley

For more empowering reads...

Real Power Comes in Being Informed!

Tweens - Teens - Discover, Define and Determine Your Real Worth!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

~ Helen ~ Grateful for My Sister and for the Gift of Healing Together

October 2015

“Hello. You’ve reached the Enchantment Resort and Spa.  How may I direct your call?”

“Yes, could you please connect me with Chi Ah Chi Restaurant?”

“It would be my pleasure. Please hold just a moment.”

As I waited for the transfer, my excitement grew thinking about the day of celebration being planned for my sister. I had carefully selected a perfect place – and as it states on their website, “A place curated exclusively for you.” What could be better? Strategically nestled among giant rock formations patterned with rings of chocolate lightly ensconced into the earth’s rich rust layers is one of Sedona’s most elegant places of indulgence – The Enchantment Resort and Spa. I wanted my sister’s 60th birthday to be special.  I wanted her to feel special. 

A warm inviting voice broke my momentary trance. “Good afternoon, Chi Ah Chi Restaurant. How may we help you?”

 “I would like to make a reservation, please, for brunch on Sunday, October 18th. There will be four people and I’d like to make it for 11:00 am?” Knowing how popular the resort is, I crossed my fingers hoping my two week advance request could be accommodated.

“Yes, we have a few tables available.  Would you prefer to be seated next to a window? And what is the name for the reservation?”

Calming my excitement, I requested a window seat and relayed my name. The hostess was just about to confirm with a reachable contact number when I jumped in with one more request. “This brunch is going to be a 60th birthday celebration for my sister.  I see you have some lovely deserts on your menu, but I was wondering if the chef could make something special…something chocolate and sort of decadent? You see…she loves chocolate.” 

With enthusiasm, the hostess responded, “Of course, Mrs. Kenley.  I will make a note to the chef to create a chocolate surprise for your sister! It will ready for you on the 18th. Just let your server know when you are seated.”

“Thank you so much!  I really appreciate it!” After confirming my contact information, we concluded our call. I was pleased with the beautiful birthday plans.  And although we would be celebrating almost a month after my sister’s actual birthday, I was confident she would feel no less loved or cherished.  

During the ensuing two weeks, I spent a lot of time thinking about my sister Helen.  It was still so strange to pick up the phone and call her, knowing she was just a few miles away.  We had lived apart for the bulk of our adult years – she and her husband Keith remaining in our central valley home town of Stockton, California, while my husband Dan and I lived most of our adult married life in the mountains of Southern California. After Dan and I relocated to Prescott, Arizona in 2011, Helen and Keith visited several times over the years, falling in love with Prescott’s mountainous beauty and her rustic charm.  Retirement for both Helen and Keith in June 2015 gave them the freedom to move away from Stockton.

In October 2015, they began a new chapter in their lives.

In October 2015, a new chapter began to unfold for Helen and me. 

Little did I know how grateful I would be for my sister and for the gift of healing together.


Helen is one of my two younger sisters. She is the third of four sisters and she is four years younger than me.  When I think back to our childhood growing up together, I have only warm loving memories of her and our relationship.  I remember when she was born. She was a good baby and she reminded me of a pretty doll.  Helen had big green eyes and sandy blonde hair.  She didn’t resemble anyone else in our family, and I secretly wished I looked like her!

Two years after Helen’s birth, another younger sister was born into our family.  Although I was only six at the time, I remember taking care of Helen along with help from my older sister. Because our family was quite dysfunctional – an alcoholic system riddled with a constant flow of angry outbursts and unwarranted criticism, combined with an authoritarian parenting style which was rigid and restrictive – my older sister and I quickly fell into the roles of parentified children. Helen was always sweet, kind, even-tempered, and generous. She was easy “to mother”, unlike our youngest sister who suffered from emotional problems and physiological disorders. I remember worrying about Helen, wondering if she received much of our mother’s attention which was largely taken up by the incessant and increasing demands of our youngest sister.  I know I felt the loss of a motherly presence, and I wondered how deeply Helen felt our mother’s emotional absence in our lives.

Although there are hundreds of wonderful memories with Helen, the one significant shift in our sister relationship took place when I was entering high school and she was about to start junior high. With financial help from my grandparents, my parents were able to remodel our home expanding it from three bedrooms to four bedrooms, with an additional bathroom and a large den.  When the remodel was done, there was a natural hierarchy which dictated that the two “older” sisters would each have a bedroom of their own while the two “younger” sisters would share. Two weeks after moving into my bright yellow new bedroom, my sweet sister Helen came to my room. Her big green eyes were filled with sadness and sorrow. She looked desperate.

“Holli, could I possibly move into your bedroom with you?  I can’t stand it any longer sharing with Kelly (the name I will give our youngest sister). She is awful…she is so mean. She is constantly screaming and crying.  And she stays up all night …I can’t go to sleep…”

Without a moment’s hesitation, I replied, “Of course, you can.  There’s plenty of room! You can have the twin bed next to the window and the dresser is plenty big.  Get your things!”

Helen and I shared our bright yellow room for the next four years. We decorated it with our little trinkets and the few possessions we each held so dear. We were both neat and organized.  I loved that!  We never fought or argued. It was just easy…and we both loved the sense of safety and trust in our relationship. And even after I left for college, when I came home during breaks or vacation, Helen and I shared our room and our clothes, told one another about our crushes and romantic escapades, and giggled late into the night with our secrets and stories.

Every time I would leave to go back to college, I again worried about Helen. The angry outbursts and explosive episodes in our home had escalated significantly over the years. Our parents were detached from the needs of their children and absorbed into their own. I could tell Helen was strong and was dealing with it in her own way, but as my giving gentle sister Helen generously organized and packed all my clothes for a study abroad program in France for my junior year, I wondered how well she would survive. I would learn later how incredibly tumultuous it was for her during my time away.

I believe that one of Helen’s saving graces was meeting the love of her life during her high school years. Keith, who eventually became her husband, was a strong support for Helen as well as a devoted husband. Although Helen and Keith moved away for their college educations, they returned to Stockton to grow their careers and start their family.  After a few years of separation due to additional pursuits in education, I too returned to Stockton securing a teaching job there.

For several years, Helen’s family and mine shared loving memories together.  Dinners out.  Our children becoming best of friends – close cousins. Holidays together at each other’s houses.  In fact, for two years Dan and I lived about six houses down the street from Helen and Keith.  Just as it was before, our relationship was easy…comfortable…and safe. During this time, although we didn’t discuss the difficulty and dysfunction within our family, we supported one another in unspoken ways.  At the time, neither of us had the understanding or the words to identify all that was wrong. That would come much later.

In 1987, Dan and I moved five hundred miles away to Southern California. For the next twenty years, Helen and I remained close. However, we were both busy with children, careers, and a constant stream of demands which befalls young couples. I was so proud of Helen when she returned to school after her sons were a little older to finish her Bachelor’s Degree and obtain her teaching credential. Aside from being an amazing teacher and a dedicated wife and mother, Helen took over all holiday and celebration responsibilities for our family in Stockton. For thirty years, she prepared Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners. She always went out of her way to make Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and our parents’ birthdays special, cooking their favorite dishes to their exact specifications. Although I knew of Helen’s desire to be a loving daughter to our parents, I knew these tasks were not easy. Regardless of the time and effort she put into making a “perfect meal”, time after time celebrations were ruined by the same dysfunctional alcoholic family patterns of our past. I often wondered how much of toll it was taking on her.
Over the years, we visited one another and remained close. As I embraced my own recovering along with learning about the dynamics of alcoholic family systems, I began sharing my new-found knowledge a little at a time with both Helen and my older sister.  I remember giving them books on codependency and sharing what I had learned, hoping it would help them with understanding our past as well as our present. After attending AL-ANON for several years, I recall how encouraged I was when Helen began attending as well. After obtaining my Master’s in Psychology and becoming a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, I was mindful about not placing my expectations of wellness on my sisters, understanding and accepting that each of us has our own journey. I know there were times when I failed at remaining silent about about how our past and present unhealthy family dynamic had impacted each of us and about the importance of making healthy choices for ourselves and in our relationships with our parents. I remember feeling badly about it and wondered if my sisters felt judged by me or were made to feel less than – just as our parents had done to us.  Because I deeply cherished my friendship with Helen and the special bond which we had shared for so many years, I re-focused on my journey of recovering and worked hard at respecting hers.

Little did I know how our different paths would intersect and how we would heal in unison, leaning on the strengths and truths of one another.


Glancing up at my wall calendar, I see that there are just a three days before Helen’s birthday brunch. Feeling excited, I do what most sisters do. I call Helen to discuss what we will wear to this place which is “especially curated for us”!

Punching in her number, I think about how I have taken to calling Helen “Honey”.  “Honey” is actually a diminutive which my sisters and I have used with our children and they with us. And even in their adult relationships with one another, they continue using it! “Honey” is also a family name and was used by a relative of ours whose birth name was Helen. It feels so natural to call Helen “Honey”; it suits her perfectly.  And yet, I want to check in with her and make sure she feels respected by my usage of it.

“Hi, Honey.  Are you busy for minute?”

“No.” Her voice raised slightly in intonation.

“I wanted to ask what you were thinking of wearing to The Enchantment Resort.  Do you want to do dressy, or smart casual (a phrase we adopted from “cruise attire protocol”), or other? I think it is going to be a lovely warm day.”

Helen responded excitedly describing her options.  I too shared mine.  We determined that "smart casual" summer dresses were in order with light sweaters in case it turned cool. Of course, we had the shoe conversation and then confirmed our departure time and plans for the day.

Ending the call, I was determined to make Helen’s birthday a day of love, joy, and blessing. Most importantly, I wanted to keep the focus on her and not on our mutual pain. So, over the next couple of days, I worked hard placing the previous six months of family trauma and turmoil into their respective cognitive compartments. However, as it often did, my mind drifted to the horrific events of last spring and replayed them.


In the mid-morning of Wednesday, April 8th, 2015, I spoke with my elderly father by phone, something we did several times a week.  I knew he was failing.  At 86 years old, his health had been fragile for a couple of years and an open wound on his leg which had plagued him on and off for most of his adult life was beyond treatment. Sensing his depressive state, I offered up a few options, none of which he found viable.   We said our goodbyes with a commitment on my part to check into Hospice.

On the morning of Friday, April 10th, 2015, I called my older sister after not being able to reach my parents.  Although she lives two hours away from Stockton, I knew she would try to get a hold of them – either by phone or by driving to their home. Although Helen and Keith were both working, my sister notified them and they quickly intervened.

What felt like an eternity but within a relatively short period of time, first-responders arrived at our parents’ home along with Helen, Keith and their older son. What was discovered at the scene was horrifying. Both our mother and father had methodically planned, carried out, but had not completed a dual suicide. An overdose of medications had not granted them their last wish, but instead had cast the final layers of brokenness onto an already fractured family.  Both parents were still alive; however, our father was in very critical condition. Our mother, serious but stable. Both were taken to the hospital.

Although I remained in Prescott, I stayed in close contact with both of my sisters attempting to keep a pulse on the whirlwind of events and emotions. However, with the entrenched dysfunctional patterns of our family, the terror and trauma of the attempted suicides and their ensuing physiological and psychological impact on our parents’ lives and on ours created an even more chaotic and unstable dynamic than our pasts had previously prepared us. With the parental hierarchy shattered, so was the fragile homeostasis which hung by a thread.  The ensuing days were filled with episodic bouts of reactivity and rage, calamity and confusion. A family lay in ruins.

Within a week, our father was moved back to his home where he wanted to be and where he passed Thursday, April 16th, 2015, under Hospice care. Our mother was moved to a nursing/rehabilitation home where she proceeded to recover. During her time in recovery, I called her frequently. With emotions raw and tender, I worked hard at having honest and open conversations with her, something our family rarely did. However, our mother began accusing Helen and my older sister of unconscionable acts such as stealing money from bank accounts and material items from her home. In checking in with Helen by phone, she too was experiencing first-hand accusations and was trying to make sense out of the craziness.

By mid- May 2015, although our mother was physically stronger she was beyond trying to reason with.  In a desperate attempt to salvage some semblance of our family’s wreckage, I placed a phone call to my mother while she was still in the rehabilitation home. I asked her if we could speak, candidly and honestly. I asked her to listen. She agreed. And I agreed to listen to her as well. For the next two hours, I begged her to acknowledge the truth about aspects of our family history. I defended every accusation levied at my sisters (and at times myself), and I pleaded with her to restore some kind of relationship with us. Our mother denied responsibility for her actions (both past and present), continued to cast blame on my sisters, and chose to disown them and me.

The level of pain I remember feeling at the time was mirrored by one person only –
 my sister Helen. 

After the events of that spring and during the summer, she and Keith traveled to Prescott a couple of times planning and organizing the building of their future home. Although we were talking frequently by phone, it was her in-person presence which brought incredible comfort and solace. She and Keith typically stayed in a motel, but we ate our meals at our home and spent as much time together as possible. We talked for hours and hours, cautiously and carefully processing the events of April and grieving the multitude of betrayals and losses. We cried together. We held one another. We told each other how much we loved one another.  Our husbands, too, grieved with us. Our collective pain was palpable. It was like a heavy blanket wrapped around us holding us together, keeping us from falling apart.

In October 2015, Helen and Keith moved to Prescott settling into a comfortable rental with their house under construction. And just like it was when Helen moved into the bright yellow bedroom, the closeness was there. It was easy and natural. And yet I wondered, were we ready to tackle what was under the blanket of pain? Were we each willing to speak our truths and would we be able to navigate them respectfully? And although we shared many familial pieces and connections, given our different personas and life experiences, would we each be willing to be transparent about our past or present injuries and injustices from within our family and honor them accordingly? Could we find safe common ground to move forward?

I thought about the bright yellow bedroom once more. Being together had served us both well. 
I trusted it would again.


November 2016

While writing away at my desk on an unusually warm November afternoon, I received a text from Helen. I opened it.
“I wanted to check and see if you and Dan would like to come to dinner here Sunday for your birthday?” The words are followed by emojis of a wine glass, a piece of cake, and a celebration noise maker.

I waited for a bit until I reached a stopping point in my writing and then I called Helen.  I left a voice message saying how sweet and kind the invitation is.  And of course, we would love to come! I also asked if they were up to going to a movie later in the week. I then texted Helen that I left a voice message at her home phone.

As I look at our backlog of texts, they are all very similar.  Arranging for dinners out, especially at our favorite Mexican place. Dinners at each other’s houses. Movies together.  Attending one of many events around town or listening to a local group of musicians. Short trips out of town once in a while.  And of course, lots of lots of conversation!
Thinking over the past year, this fall is much different than last year. Although there is still some residual pain and perhaps there always will be, the time that Helen and I and our husbands spend together is much lighter. There is laughter! We are building new memories - individually, as couples, and as a family.  This has come with much hard work. This has come with a commitment on both our parts to do things differently than our family did growing up.  Although there are many facets to our journey, Helen and I have purposely navigated our tender territory embracing several key recovering principles.

First and foremost, Helen and I have committed to speaking the truth – the full truth. 
This means there will be no more secrets, half-truths, covering up or sweeping stuff under the rug.  It means being completely honest and open about issues within our family and/or our perceptions of the past. It means that each of us is transparent about our choices, and we each hold ourselves accountable for them, without deflecting blame elsewhere. This commitment also requires us to be vulnerable about how our family’s dysfunction affected and impacted us and how it continues to do so. This degree of truthfulness has established and continues to establish a solid foundation of trust between us. And although today, our disclosures are not as frequent as they once were, when something comes up we address it in a timely manner. As we often ask of one another, “I'm struggling a bit and I'm wondering if we could talk. Is it ok to check in?” An example from a year ago comes to mind.

I remember last November sitting in my living with Helen and Keith. After having a difficult day regarding a family issue which surfaced unexpectedly, I called and asked them to come over. They did so immediately. For the next five hours, I talked and they listened. They talked and I listened. Dan joined in the conversation later in the day. At times, we cried.  And we grieved more uncovered loss.  More secrets exposed and more betrayals revealed. As difficult as it has been confronting the chronic unhealthiness of our family, both Helen and I, along with our husbands, have found comfort in the joining together of our truths. As our bond of honesty continues to flourish, it serves us well, providing us with a strong healthy bridge from which to navigate the pain from our past and to nurture us on the healing road ahead.

The second extraordinary healing principle to our shared journey - honoring and respecting one another's  process - actually came about very naturally. 
I suppose it is because of our personalities and the relationship which Helen and I have shared all of our lives.  Although I am four years older, I have always felt we are equals. Even as a little girl, Helen was mature and wise. She was grounded in her thoughts. I knew she had to be. However, we never argued or fought. There was never a power or control issue between us. We never told each other what to do or what not to do.  And so, as Helen and I have opened up our hearts and shared our heartache with one another, we have also both been naturally mindful and respectful of what each needed to do in order take care of herself. We both have honored the space and time each has required to do so. The following example is just one of many.

Over the past year as other family dynamics have shifted, I have chosen to shore up boundaries and create spaces from unhealthy relationships. I have never asked Helen to do same, nor has she with me. Neither of us has ever spoken words such as “You need to….” or “You should….”. Neither one of us has positioned ourselves in a place of superior wellness or dictated the terms of it. Helen and I are committed to not placing expectations on one another or judging one another’s place of healing. We respect where each of us is.  We support one another unconditionally.

The third principle that Helen and I have blended into our journey requires an incredible commitment of  selfless hard work and it demands a high level of emotional regard for one another. 
After having worked with couples and families in therapy for many years, I learned that one of the most challenging pieces for two or more individuals healing together, especially within a family, is the integration of each individuals’ life experiences along with his/her interpretations of them into the process. When there are deeply entrenched dysfunctional patterns, it is very common for one or more family members to cast blame on other members and/or for one or more family members to feel his/her position is the “right one”.  Unhooking couples or individuals from unhealthy “scapegoating” or from rigid self-righteous mindsets requires a selfless suspension of one’s beliefs and needs in order to be fully present for another’s. When this is accomplished, healing takes hold.

And thus, every time I reflect upon our different paths and perceptions, I am humbled by the unconditional positive regard that Helen and I have held for one another. This has been and continues to be the integral part of our recovering together which distinguishes and separates it completely from the unhealthy patterns of our family. As we each have revealed the pain-filled pieces of injury and injustice from our past, each of us has served as a safe harbor for one another – a loving accepting sister filled with empathy and compassion. If our perceptions of events, relationships, or issues differ because of diverse life experiences or choices, each of us has deliberately and consciously chosen to suspend those beliefs and assumptions in order to be present and available for the other.  Although a vivid example of this happened many months ago, its healing legacy plays over and over in my mind.

Helen and Keith were over our house for dinner.  We were all standing in the kitchen gabbing away as usual.  Often Helen and I will revisit fun memories of time together sharing our room and of our teen years.  We laughed as Helen described how she always turned down my bed at night when I came home from a date. We chuckled even more as I described how my younger sister Helen “taught me some things about boys” after she started dating Keith.  Our conversation moved into the time where I was studying abroad in France and Helen shared how difficult and tumultuous that year was. With our  mother going through an undiagnosed depressive episode followed by a psychotic break and our father’s anger reaching new peaks, Helen was the recipient of repeated verbal attacks and assaults. As I listened intently to my sister, my heart swelled with empathy. I looked into her big green eyes and felt her hurt. I imagined her feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness over the chaos in our home and of the careless disregard for her being.  Although I had heard pieces of her narrative in earlier years, this time was different. With the magnitude of it all and with our mutual love for one another, I responded, “I am sorry…. I am so sorry you had to endure that….you deserved so much much more than that. I’m sorry…”  Our eyes connected with understanding and with unconditional regard. In that moment in time, Helen’s spirit entered into my port of empathy and docked safely there.  I held her there, just as she had done for me many times over the past eighteen months.

What makes this exchange incredibly meaningful is that although I had healed my relationship with our father many years earlier, it was imperative as we continued healing together that I meet Helen in her pain and join in with understanding. To do otherwise negates her truths and her voice. To do otherwise re-injures her.  For me, and I know for Helen, the mere thought of inviting a morsel of hurt into one another’s life is simply not an option.

What Helen and I have managed to accomplish has been purposeful and intentional. It has been based on truth. It has been hard work. Courageously embracing transparency with one another and trusting in that process is not easy. Being fully present for someone who has experienced tremendous injury is not easy. Being completely still with someone who is in pain, being able to let go of one’s own beliefs and expectations, and being an available and accepting safe harbor for someone else is not easy. 

What Helen and I have learned is that anything worthwhile rarely is. 
What Helen and I have come to know and trust is that we wouldn’t have it any other way.


Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away.  Although Dan and I are especially looking forward to spending a few days with our daughter and her husband in California prior to Thanksgiving, we will return in time to celebrate the actual day with Helen and Keith along with members of their family.  Helen and I have been planning our meals and divvying up the tasks. Although I am great at making the cranberry sauce, the yams, and l love making gravy, I am horrible at deserts! That is Helen’s expertise!  She makes a mean apple and pumpkin pie as well as to-die-for brownies! My mouth starts to water as I imagine biting into one of her chocolate delights. Unexpectedly, my mind flashes back to Helen’s birthday brunch over a year ago – and to her chocolate surprise.

“Excuse me for just a minute.” As Helen, Keith, and Dan finished up their delicious brunch entrees, I slipped away from the table to find our server.  Although they looked a little anxious about my rather quick departure, I was on a mission to see if Helen’s chocolate decadent birthday desert had been prepared by the chef.

Worried that they might see where I was headed, I looked back in the direction of our table before heading towards the kitchen.  Three sets of eyes were gazing out the massive windows taking in the majestic red bounty of beauty surrounding Chi Ah Chi Restaurant.

Within a few moments, I located our server who confirmed that Helen’s desert was prepared and awaiting its arrival.  I returned to our table, fielding questions about my sudden exit.

“Are you feeling ok?” Helen asked. 

I smiled and reassured her all was well. Shortly, our plates were cleared and our server arrived with a large chocolate treasure flowing in wavy shades of filling and smooth rich layers of cake. I think I remember a few small scoops of ice cream floating about the dish before a barrage of forks descended upon the magnificent creation!  We all laughed, devouring it as if no brunch had preceded it.  

I smile as I think about that memory. I remember how surprised Helen was and how something so small made her feel so special.  I think about all that has taken place since then. The talks. The truths. The transparency. The hard work. And…the empathic harbors where we both found a safe place to rest our weary hearts and release the heaviness within.

My eyes well with tears recalling the words Helen spoke to me after many long hours of processing our pain and reaching the other side of it. One evening after dinner as we tenderly said our “good-nights” and hugged each other tightly, she gently whispered,
 “Holli, you saved my life.”

Instantly, the image of the bright yellow bedroom - a cocoon of safety, trust, and love -  flooded my mind and swept through my soul.

To my sweet Helen, I want you to know,
 “I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.  
I am grateful for my sister and for the gift of healing together.”

Thank you, Helen and Keith, for allowing me to share our story publicly.
~ I Love You ~

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