Listening with Our Hearts: Helping Children Communicate

Leona Brown-Insley, MA, LLPC

grouch by greg westfall (via Flickr)

You pick your three-year-old up thirty minutes early from daycare to take her to a matinee as a special treat.  Normally your child loves to be picked up early (and, at times, even begs you do so), but today she immediately starts crying and runs the other way when she sees you.  Even as you explain that you are taking her to see the latest Disney movie that she has been wanting to see, she becomes defiant, refusing to put her coat on and screams that she doesn’t want to go.  As a parent you are confused, hurt, and possibly even a bit embarrassed at her reaction, especially because you are trying to do something fun and spend a special afternoon with your daughter.  Your gut reaction (or is it just mine?) might be to tell your child that she will not be going to the movie after all, but rather go straight home to take a nap!

As difficult as it may be for us in a moment of frustration such as this, it is important that we take a deep breath or two (maybe three or four depending on the level of frustration we are feeling!), and remember that our child is trying to tell us something.  She is communicating in the only way she can in her moment of overwhelming frustration.  After we calm our own frustration, it will be easier for us to help her (or us) figure out what she is upset about.  At this moment, we could take her hands in ours and do some deep breathing with her.  Reflect to her what we see (e.g., “I see that you are upset/angry/sad right now.”) and offer a suggestion as to what we guess may be the issue (e.g., Maybe you don’t want to go to the movie?”).

Your confusion will likely increase before the issue becomes clearer, as your child insists she does want to see the movie.  You give some encouragement, with “Great.  Let’s get your coat on so we can go.”  She again refuses and sits defiantly on the floor.  You ask the daycare worker standing nearby how your daughter’s day has been.  The worker, looking as confused as you feel, reports that your daughter has had a great day, and has just had a snack after finishing her hour long nap.  You ask your daughter if she is feeling sick or if she is hurt somewhere.  She shakes her head.  Your confusion grows, as tears continue to roll down your daughter’s cheeks.

Continuing to reflect your observations is important to help give your child language for what they are experiencing.  We can say things such as: “You have tears running down your cheeks, which tell me that you are upset and probably feeling sad.  When I feel sad my heart hurts, does your heart hurt?”  When our child nods, we can then say something such as, “I wonder what is making your heart hurt?”

As your child looks at you in confusion, you look up and see the lead teacher enter the classroom.  When the teacher sees your child’s tears, he comes over to the two of you, giving you the “how can I help?” look.  You explain that you came to get your daughter early to spend a fun day at the movies, but she seems upset by this.  The teacher bends down to your child’s level and asks, “Are you sad because you are afraid you will miss your turn to choose the story today?”  You breathe a sigh of relief when your child nods.  You suggest to your child that the two of you will wait until after story time before you go.  Your child smiles and goes to the shelf to choose the afternoon story.

It is unlikely that every parent has had this exact experience (or that our experiences can all be solved that easily), however, I am betting most of us have had similar experiences.  Our child  “acts out” for “no reason,” which can be frustrating, not only for us, but for them as well.  We must remember that children’s actions, whether positive or negative, are their way of communicating, often because they do not yet have the language to describe their experiences.  The child described above, with recurrent reflection of her feelings and experiences by caring adults, will learn to communicate with words given appropriate time and patience.  It is important for us, as adults, to remember that when we are feeling frustrated by our child’s behavior, likely our child is feeling the same, or even more so.  As parents, teachers, and caregivers we must learn to “listen” with our hearts and help give the child the language they need to recognize and communicate what they are experiencing in a way that is more readily understood by others.

Leona Brown-Insley, MA, LLPC serves children, adolescents and adults. She engages in person-centered therapy utilizing evidence based techniques such as TF-CBT, CBT, and DBT. Leona specializes in working with clients with anxiety and who have experienced trauma, helping them process their experiences and learn healthy coping methods such as mindfulness and expressive techniques.

Pack a bag, grab your person, and GO!

Alessandra Pye, MA, LPC

Over the past 17 years of my life, most mornings have had one consistent factor: a handsome, tall, sometimes too-hairy man is in my bed. I really want to keep it that way. He tells me he does too. Is that enough? Well, it depends. But if you have ever been in a long-term relationship outside of the one you currently have with a Nutella Jar, you know that already.

Couple! by Harsha K R (via Flickr)

Committing to long-term partnership is sacred work. Outside of parenting, I can’t think of any other act that is more courageous than making the conscious choice to share all of who we are with another person, day, after day, after day. When we are in partnership, we show up unabridged, raw, unmasked and vulnerable. One of my favorite movie scenes of all time happens in the film Frida during the wedding ceremony scene, as Frida and Diego Rivera’s friend, Tina Modotti, offers a toast:

‘I don’t believe in marriage. No, I really don’t. Let me be clear about that. I think at worst it’s a hostile political act, a way for small-minded men to keep women in the house and out of the way, wrapped up in the guise of tradition and conservative religious nonsense. At best, it’s a happy delusion – these two people who truly love each other and have no idea how truly miserable they’re about to make each other. But, but, when two people know that, and they decide with eyes wide open to face each other and get married anyway, then I don’t think it’s conservative or delusional. I think it’s radical and courageous and very romantic. To Diego and Frida.’

Countless sources claim to have long term partnerships all figured out, many of them making reasonable arguments that impact the way we approach life with our respective, blanket-hungry bedmates. Gary Chapman says it is all about learning one another’s love languages, Sue Johnson claims that a secure attachment must be formed, Esther Perel asserts that we expect too much out of marriage, David Schnarch teaches us to differentiate from our partners and the Gottmans, oh my goodness, the Gottmans (who will NEVER be able to divorce by the way), describe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as a central framework in predicting couple fulfillment.

If there is such a wealth of good information to help couples thrive, why aren’t all relationships flourishing? In spite of the resources available to us, and our good intentions regarding the longevity and success of our partnerships, many couples juggle outside forces that add varying degrees of stress to their daily interactions. Job demands, parenting challenges, financial struggles, health issues, cultural pressures, societal systems of oppression, political climate, and social unrest are just a few of the factors influencing our couple dynamic presently. In her research on the history of marriage, Stephanie Coontz confirms that the expectation of love is fairly new to marriages and partnerships; I truly believe that, in the years ahead, marriage will become even more of a diversified structure than it is today.

In light of all of these aspects impacting relationship satisfaction, I would like to make a case for silence, contemplation, and intentional time together. Eli Finkel, in his article for the NY Times titled, “The All or Nothing Marriage” (also the title of his book) states:

‘Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage, and can in fact, achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marriage quality – but only if they are willing to spend a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these expectations.’

There is a good body of evidence pointing in the direction of “couple time” as a pivotal contributor to partnership prosperity. The problem is, what does that mean? Does binge watching the Walking Dead count as couple time? What if after four episodes and two bowls of praline pecan ice cream, your partner is nodding with his mouth open and occasionally murmuring “stab the head, just stab the head” in his zombie-induced couch slumber? Nope. We need to do better.

This could (depending on the audience, of course) sound super new-agey with a hint of sage smoke and a touch of patchouli. Nevertheless – couples retreats held in natural settings (guided by a professional or arranged independently) can be a valuable tool when a couple is in need of recharging and prioritizing their relationship.  Quiet environments bring us to an almost instantaneous *basic-ness* that is so very refreshing, and its capacity to renew our commitment to a slow, more fulfilling life together is undeniable. As Lao Tzu teaches, we need to rid ourselves from the distractions of daily life so we can obtain clarity and perspective: “Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.”

Now you could be thinking… who has time and money for that? Can’t we just go on date nights? First of all, good point, it might take some serious commitment, including planning and budgeting to make a retreat possible in your life. Remember that this is about making it happen with your beloved- and that a retreat can take many shapes and it doesn’t have to cost a ton of money. For example, here in our little corner of Michigan, the Gilchrist retreat center offers cozy cabins in a beautiful setting for $45 dollars a night. That’s about the cost of two movie tickets and a tiny bag of popcorn – except you get uninterrupted hours to relax, talk, hike, meditate, eat, drink, make love… What a deal, right? I am lucky to live in a part of the world that offers several affordable retreat spaces, and I frequently think about redirecting my life’s work to be able to provide these opportunities of solace and restoration for couples who lack the resources to do it on their own.

Don’t get me wrong; date nights are great. I for one can often be found around town with my beau going to shows, catching a movie, grabbing a couple of Manhattans, and that is all super fun and beneficial. However, I have found that when we are able to dedicate a day or two to experiencing nature and silence together, there is an opening and a deepening of experience that draws us closer and makes our couple roots stronger.

In summary, although relationship experts have given us a lot to work with, and the natural benefits of having a loving companion are evident, life stressors have a powerful impact on our ability to access known strategies and remind ourselves of the gift of partnership. Because stress is such a big part of modern life, we need to be intentional about the quality and yes, the quantity of time we spend with each other.

I hope this piece will spark in you a commitment to enjoying and loving your partner in an uninterrupted, fully present and engaged manner; away from to-do lists, chauffeur duties, and grocery lines, and closer to the body and soul of the human you choose to share this life with.

Alessandra Pye, MA, LPC serves couples, individuals, adolescents and children working with an integrative/experiential approach that is catered to your needs. Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Communication Training and Art based Interventions constitute the basis of her practice.

Embracing Your Human-ness: Balancing the Work, Home, and Motherhood Gig

Heather Lettow, MA, LPC, LMFT

Sound familiar? Whether you are a stay at home mom, work part or full time out of the house, you are working. The amount of hours in the day are never enough, there’s always dishes to be done, laundry to be switched and folded and the never ending, ever growing list of to-do’s.

Ugh, I know that rumble very well at this stage in my personal life; a house, significant other, dog, two adorable little girls. What people don’t talk about is how much work it all is. SURE, you hear “it’s a lot of hard work” and then they finish the statement with something along the lines of “but it’s all worth it.” It so very much is, but being a mom, a professional, and a wife is really hard and we lose sight of ourselves. This brings me to why I am talking about this in a blog. The balancing of motherhood, work life (whatever work that may be) and home life is so delicate. I will admit I am NOT an expert in this. I struggle with this very real reality myself and often misplace my own personhood in the process; so yes, I stumble. I have read during the ages 0-5 parents are in the trenches. With a 2 year old and almost 1 year old in tow I’m very much in the trench area and learning. In this blog post I want to take off the “expert” or “therapist” hat and share what I do know and what I have found helpful. Let me embrace my humanness with you and share what I find as a human first.

Delegate tasks
When I think about this area I think about home chores. Write out a list of chores to be done for the week and ask your significant other “Could you please accomplish these things by Saturday afternoon?” Maybe one person in the house is in charge of the dishes, the other is in charge of bath time. Ask if a co-worker can pick up a part of a project. Delegate where you can.

Ask for help
Reach out. Grandparents or an aunt or uncle super excited to spend time with the little one? Great! Hand them over with a diaper bag, a couple bottles and maybe those adorable PJ’s you plan to put him or her in and go have a couple hours to yourself or with your partner. Hire someone to help with house work. Trade off with a fellow mom where one will watch the kids for a couple hours while the other goes grocery shopping and to a hair appointment and then return the favor.

Give yourself permission to not do everything
There is only so much time in the day. Set the timer on the microwave for 15 minutes and clean. When those 15 minutes are up be done for the night. You can do this during a nap time and again at the end of the day. You can do this as a family too. I’m sure it’s comical to watch my husband, my oldest and I rush around for 15 minutes picking up. But when that timer dings, I finish what I am doing and tell myself “this is good enough”.

Place boundaries with the office
I would love to say “leave work at work” but sometimes it’s not that easy. Deadlines are daunting. Do all that you can at the office and if you absolutely MUST, again ABSOLUTELY MUST do work at home, schedule that time in where it does not hurt time with family (which may be after the kids go to sleep for an hour). When at the office and fresh first thing make a note of all the tasks you need to accomplish… then break it down to what you can accomplish in that day. When you write it out it takes all the intangible stuff that you are thinking about and ruminating over and puts it into something tangible. You can see it. It’s concrete. It is more manageable. I can’t tell you how reinforcing it is to check off a task and when you check off the 5 or so items you’ve given yourself that day to accomplish, stop.

Spend time with your partner
Grab a pint of Oberon, a glass of local wine or cup of hot tea and sit outside on your deck or porch. Heck, even on the couch – use that time to talk. Even if it’s as long as it takes to savor that beverage of choice you are connecting. Date nights aren’t possible for everyone, so what do you do? Gym dates might be an option. Utilize your membership and the gym babysitting; you are working out, boosting feel good hormones and spending time with your love. A little “you time”, a little “we time” and utilizing one of the most underutilized anti-depressants – exercise. Love to play games? Pick out a board game to play after the kids go to bed. Chess, checkers, Uno, Dominion, Settlers or if AGE on the computer or Halo is your jam – FANTASTIC! Do that!

You time is important
Scheduling time in when you have a list a mile long and a bunch of responsibilities is challenging. Steal a couple minutes for you. Whether that’s standing in the kitchen with the first cup of coffee when it’s still hot, standing under the shower head for an extra moment just enjoying the water or a hot cup of tea with a chapter in a book. Steal moments, not just chunks of time. Perhaps a struggle with time is figuring out what to cook during the week – meal plan on Sundays or dust off that crock pot. Maybe Monday is “Brinner night” (you know… breakfast dinner), Tuesday is tacos, Wednesday is left overs, Thursday is crockpot… whatever makes your life simpler.

Lastly, slow down
This is something that I struggle with personally and professionally. I want to do it all. But the reality is I can’t do it all. I have spent many years over stretching myself and since having my second child I have realized the importance of slowing down, enjoying moments and not worrying about accomplishing every task or desire I have.

This is just a snippet of the things I am exploring as I balance home, work and this motherhood gig. I am not the expert mom and am learning from my friends and colleagues who are veterans in comparison. It’s challenging but doing less allows for so much more… and that is worth it.

Heather Lettow, MA, LPC, LMFT serves individuals (age 10+), couples and families. She focuses on identifying individual or family goals and strengthening self awareness to facilitate change and to meet the goals set; utilizing mindfulness, CBT and solution focused problem solving techniques.

Grief and Suicide Loss

Cindy Scovel, MA, LLPC

In honor of National Suicide Prevention Week and all people who are affected by suicide loss, Trestlewood Counseling Group is a sponsor of the 4th Annual Suicide Prevention Walk benefiting Gryphon Place.  If you’re walking, please stop by our table and say hello – we’d love to give you some encouragement.


If your desire is to support a fellow human in grief, you must create a “safe place” for people to embrace their feelings of profound loss… It is the open heart that allows you to be truly present to another human being’s intimate pain.

-Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers

Because of my work with Survivors of Suicide here in Kalamazoo, I was recently asked to contribute to a report on teen suicide. I was surprised and grateful for the opportunity – we tend to hear a lot about suicide awareness and prevention in the media, but the aspect of grief and loss following a suicide death is often overlooked. How can we – as friends, family, and community members – offer support to people who are grieving this type of loss?

The support that most survivors need is not really so different from what any grieving person needs – in short: non-judgmental listening and respect for their individual experience of grief. What sets suicide death apart is the stigma that we often attach to it.

Boulder Grief by Jared Hansen
Boulder Grief by Jared Hansen

My work as a grief counselor is necessary because we live in a grief avoidant society. We will all encounter death in our lives – our friends will die, our family members will die, and we, ourselves, will die. Notice how that statement sits with you. If you’re like most people, you want to get as far away from it as possible. Likewise, when one of our loved ones is suffering in grief, we want them to get as far away from it as possible. We don’t want them to hurt, and so we say things like, “he’s in a better place now”, “time heals all wounds”, “it’s time to move on”. Or worse, we avoid the topic altogether, working to distract our loved one from their pain.

With suicide loss, this avoidance is amplified. While we are slowly making progress in awareness and understanding of mental health issues, unfortunately, our society still places a stigma on mental illness and suicide. Our collective shame around this topic keeps us from talking about it – when talking about it is often what is most helpful.

The kindest gift we can give survivors is to listen without judgment. Don’t give advice. Don’t interject with your own history of loss. Don’t distract with platitudes. Listen. Let the mourner teach you about what grief is like for her. Allow her to cry, get angry, express feelings of guilt – don’t take those away from her. Bear witness. Hold space.

In order to heal and integrate loss, we must turn toward our grief.

Feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, shame, and relief are all normal reactions to losing a loved one to suicide. We hurt because we love – and sometimes we hurt for a long time. Again, trust the mourner’s innate ways of moving through grief. We each have our own timelines. Experiencing grief is part of our life’s journey. Tears and rage are part of that process of reconciling the loss of someone we hold dear.

Beyond listening and holding non-judgmental space for the mourner’s experience, we can also support healthy coping behaviors and encourage remembrance of the person who has died. Bereavement affects us mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Helping to provide healthy meals and encouraging extra rest are ways that we can nourish those who are hurting. Remembering the deceased is also important, especially at this time. Say their name. Express your own sorrow for the loss. “I really miss John, too. I remember the camping trips we used to take when we were kids,” or, “Mary was such a good storyteller. Do you remember when she had us laughing so hard about…?” Sharing memories and talking about the person who has died are the ways that we establish our relationships with them in death – no longer a physical relationship, but one of memory.

If you, yourself, are grieving a loss, turn toward the people in your life who can support your mourning process – and allow yourself some space from those who can’t. While people are generally well-meaning, encouraging you to move on or minimizing your feelings of grief are ways that they are coping, not ways of helping you. Find friends or family who can hold space, or seek out a counselor or support group where your process is honored.


If you are a Survivor of Suicide and are seeking support, there are resources available. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has a wealth of information online. In the Kalamazoo area, Gryphon Place hosts both open drop-in and closed session support groups. You may also consider contacting a grief counselor for individual support.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741. In Kalamazoo, Allegan, Van Buren, Berrien and Cass counties, you can also call 269-381-HELP (381-4357) to reach a local volunteer.


Cindy Scovel, MA, LLPC is a holistic psychotherapist who provides counseling and coaching for adults and adolescents. She specializes in supporting clients through life transitions and grief & loss, drawing from mindfulness-based, transpersonal, existential, and family systems therapies.

Embracing Your Human-ness: Vulnerability and Relationships

Heather Lettow, MA, LPC, LMFT

Heather Lettow, MA, LPC, LMFT serves individuals (age 10+), couples and families. She focuses on identifying individual or family goals and strengthening self awareness to facilitate change and to meet the goals set; utilizing mindfulness, CBT and solution focused problem solving techniques.

Compassion and Boundaries

Erin Arwady, LMSW

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.’ – Brene Brown, Rising Strong

When I read this quote a few months ago, it blew my mind. As a social worker and helping professional in the field for about 15 years, I’ve always discussed and understood the importance of boundaries on some level. But I certainly never thought of them as “compassionate.” The word boundary carries with it a certain connotation. I’ve always associated it with saying “NO” and with having some underlying meaning of guilt. My work is based on building relationships with my clients and their families, and to a degree, the success of therapy can hinge upon the depth and intimacy of those relationships. Thus, boundaries are incredibly important but also challenging to navigate. My ability to set boundaries, to be direct and ask for what I need for myself and my clients, and to mean with integrity when I say yes and no, are directly related to the quality of service I provide my clients and their families. At times setting those boundaries does not feel good or at all compassionate, and yet is incredibly vital to providing help for many people. So be compassionate today – say yes or no and mean it and ask for what you need.

Erin Arwady, LMSW is an experienced, creative therapist for individuals, children, and families. Utilizing an integration of wholistic techniques such as mindfulness and expressive arts and intentional evidence-based strategies such as CBT and DBT, Erin helps individuals and families identify their goals, express feelings and thoughts, and develop healthy coping skills.