Gratitude in the Midst of Suffering

Gratitude in the Midst of Suffering

Gratitude in the midst of suffering means looking deeper. It means peering into the deep of your wounded soul and finding the light.


the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness

November in America … It comes with turkey and stuffing, pumpkin and pecan pies, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, eager Christmas decorators, football, and family. In more ways than one, it is a month of consumption. Not only are we ingesting copious amounts of calories, but we are also taking in a feast with our eyes.

Everywhere we look there is some sort of “thankful, grateful, blessed” decor, glitter-covered pumpkins, and a refrigerator adorned with a little handprint turkey. And when we turn on screens, our social media is inundated with friends participating in a thankfulness challenge.

We see posts like this …

“Day one. Today, I am thankful for my amazing husband and the way he makes my coffee every morning no matter how tired he is. You’re the best, babe! #initforlife”

“Day seven. Today, I am thankful for the ability to travel to each of my kids’ lacrosse games. Can’t wait to see them bring home another victory! #lacrossemom4life”

“Day ten. Today, I am thankful for my mom and dad. Thank you for showing me how to love well and give generously. Thank you for always being there for us. I couldn’t have asked for two better people to raise me. #legacyoflove”

And it isn’t from one person’s account, the posts come from person after person. After all, it is the month of Thanksgiving. So, we give thanks again and again. We are reminded that we should be grateful for all that we have. And we are told to have an “attitude of gratitude.”

Who can argue with that? Who can successfully argue with someone who shares something as positive as being thankful? We inherently know that gratitude is a good thing.  Those social media posts are positive. They are spreading positivity

Sooo …

Why would anyone skip over them? Why would anyone snooze those accounts for thirty days? Why would you read sentimental posts about thankfulness and feel so very heavy?

Something in your heart is disrupted by so much gratitude. Something unsettles you. It leaves you with feelings that are anything but thankful or appreciative. You want those seemingly happy feelings to wash over you. You try again and again, but you cannot relate to all of the thankful-grateful-blessed-ish-ness surrounding you.

That’s okay.  

Meet Caroline. You’d probably like her. She’s a pretty positive person, easy-going, a gamer for most outdoor activities or board games. She adores her kids and has been faithfully married for twenty-three years. Caroline greets you with a smile and one of her warm hugs.

Last year, Caroline’s mother was diagnosed with dementia. She found her middle son on the bathroom floor, hugging his knees and shaking. He’d been scratching his hands until the back of every finger was raw. And it was somewhere around year ten of finding hidden bottles of her husband’s bourbon.

Her mother had softened a lot in the last twenty years, but she had reverted back to being belligerent—using the same hateful words she had when Caroline was a little girl. Her son was one of the most compassionate and brilliant people she knew, but after years of being shamed by his dad, his anxiety was manifesting physically in the form of panic attacks.

Yes, she is married. Her husband can be found on the couch or in his office dictating helpful orders to Caroline so she can manage their home better. He makes sure to follow each and every helpful instruction with a “thank you for doing that, babe” and never actually offers to help her carry the load.

Caroline has her pumpkins out. She planted her autumnal mums out front to add pops of color for the fall. Pumpkin-spice-scented soap is on her half-bath sink in the hallway. A candle that smells like burning leaves and toasted marshmallows is lit on the kitchen island. Her house smells like giving thanks as soon as you walk in.

Yesterday, she had to beg her son to get out of bed for school and sat in silent fear on the drive to school in an effort not to add to his anxiety. She would send a note into the school counselor explaining that he had missed school again because he was throwing up from his anxiety. When she was putting away the laundry, she found another nearly gone bottle of bourbon in her husband’s sock drawer. 

As she scrolls through Facebook during her afternoon coffee (yes, afternoon coffee because her days are just that long) she sees every post about gratitude. 

And what do you think Caroline felt? 

Caroline felt sad. She felt angry. She felt jealous. And she felt guilt and shame for having those feelings rather than feeling thankful.

Things in Caroline’s life are not going how she had imagined. She never thought she’d be living with her formerly abusive mother, praying over one of her son’s panic attacks, or married to a closet alcoholic who skips work and can’t be bothered to engage with her or their four children in any way.  Caroline is exhausted physically, emotionally, and mentally.


the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship

Caroline puts on a happy face for others, but the woman is suffering. Her hair is falling out from stress, so she keeps it in a ponytail or wears a hat to hide it. Coffee is her frenemy. And she has the school counselor on speed dial while feeling guilty for not paying as much attention to her three other kids, so she overcompensates by cleaning their rooms and doing all of their chores.

And yet, she desperately wants to feel gratitude. She wants to be the one with thankful sayings for thirty days. And she wants them to be genuine. 

She keeps thinking about those posts on social media … Can I say that I’m thankful for the pine trees? That my car starts every day? That my mother is still alive? I’m not going to say that I’ve had the best parents or that I have an adoring husband. I’m not going to lie about my life. 

Authenticity Has Power

You don’t have to lie about your life to anybody. You don’t have to pretend to be somebody that you’re not for all of your 372 Facebook friends. Don’t do that. 

Pretending is exhausting. 

Whether you’re pretending in your home, at your job, with your family, or online, it will absolutely wear you out. It’s a way to cope with the things in life that just feel hard or disappointing. Pretending is an understandable response. But it’s also destructive.

Authenticity, on the other hand, can feel pretty risky. Allowing others to see behind the curtain of your life? That could mean rejection. It could mean loss … loss of friends, loss of respect, loss of position. 

Or it could mean freedom. And if you have had to pretend to be okay, you are not free. Pretense keeps you in shackles. Pretense keeps you from intimacy with others and with yourselfLet’s start there. Let’s start with you. 

What would it look like to be completely authentic with yourself? To pause and let those feelings make their way home. You’ve been shoving them behind that heavy door in the corner of your heart for so long that you may not even know how to get it open. 

You don’t have to let all the thoughts and feelings in at the same time. You don’t need to overwhelm yourself with them. Just start with one. One feeling. One thought. One message that plays on repeat in the hidden places.

And guess what? You don’t have to tell anybody. Your first step is to allow it to the surface. 

Imagine you are sitting at a table. There are seats across from you. Give that feeling a name. Is it fear? Is it loneliness? Whatever it is, give that baby a seat at the table with you.

Now, imagine another person who adores you and would fight for you sitting with you at that table. Imagine Jesus sitting between you and that thought or feeling you’re facing. He’s holding your hand and telling you he’s got you. Nobody makes a better guest at your table than Jesus.

And he would never want you to suffer at that table alone. Not ever.

That feeling or thought staring at you across from the table? It’s valid. It’s real. And it has some sort of purpose in your life. Your loneliness indicates a desire to be known, to be valued, to be heard. Those are all really good things. Those are all healthy things. 

You want something good and right and healthy in your life. That is fantastic. Now you can say hello to a little piece of your heart that was locked away. 

And you know what? That is something to be thankful for. You can have genuine gratitude for finding a piece of yourself. You can have genuine gratitude for the courage it took for you to do it. 

Gratitude Looks Different When You’re Suffering

Genuine gratitude doesn’t need to look like a photo of your family taken in a wheat field wearing your best denim, rust, and cream with your hubby in a coordinating flannel while the sun sets in the background. 

Genuine gratitude doesn’t need to look like forced thankfulness for parents who divorced, worked too much, and couldn’t make it to your school play.

Gratitude doesn’t need to look like a life prepared to impress social media. Gratitude in the midst of suffering can look very different and still be called gratitude.  And it isn’t forced. 

Your suffering will not magically disappear with the addition of gratitude. You aren’t going to wake up after giving thanks for your loneliness and suddenly say, “Toodles to you, Suffering! I’m breaking up with you!”

Yeah, no. It won’t work like that. Don’t go from one kind of pretending to another.

Nobody gets to grade you on your gratitude. Nobody gets to give an A+ for someone being thankful that their spouse is brilliant and surprised them with a vacation or a D- for being thankful that someone remembered to put milk in their kid’s cereal.

Gratitude isn’t something others are allowed to measure for you. You wield the power over your own gratitude. 

Gratitude looks different in the midst of suffering. It is a labor of love. It is the work of loving yourself well. It is the work of facing your life’s circumstances knowing you are held fast in the grip of God’s grace.

Gratitude in the midst of suffering looks like standing in worship to sing, “All my life you have been faithful … All my life you have been so so good … And I have lived in the goodness of God,” as tears make their way down your cheeks because your life is hard, your marriage is falling apart, or your baby has cancer, and yet you stand in faith believing that God is still on the throne and He loves you. 

Gratitude in the midst of suffering looks like driving down the road sobbing because you lost your house, your kids keep asking where you’re going to live, and you cannot see a way out … then God whispers to you that others have suffered and are suffering just like this. So you choose to be thankful for him showing you one more need of single moms and their children. 

Gratitude means sitting at the table with Jesus, holding his hand, and asking him to have a little chat with your fears and failures.

Gratitude in the midst of suffering means looking deeper. It means peering into the deep of your wounded soul and finding the light. 

And gratitude in the midst of suffering is intensely personal and entirely necessary for your healing and growth. 

There Are Proven Benefits of Gratitude 

  1. Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. Not only does saying “thank you” constitute good manners, but showing appreciation can help you win new friends, according to a 2014 study published in Emotion
  2. Gratitude improves physical health. Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences.
  3. Gratitude improves psychological health. Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. 
  4. Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Grateful people are more likely to behave in a prosocial manner, even when others behave less kindly, according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. 
  5. Grateful people sleep better. Writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being
  6. Gratitude improves self-esteem. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athletes’ self-esteem, an essential component to optimal performance. 
  7. Gratitude increases mental strength. For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. 

Gratitude is good for you. And when you have been living in a state of suffering, you need all the good you can get. 

So be authentic with yourself. Be authentic with the One who has counted every one of your fallen tears. Sit at the table of your soul and invite him to sit with you in your mess. 

Be gentle with yourself. Look for the ways you’ve tried to protect your heart and choose to be grateful for the parts of you that are standing in the gap of a wounded, broken heart. 

Remind yourself that your gratitude isn’t dependent on anyone else, not their opinions, not their validation or recognition. 

Walking in gratitude while you are suffering means shuffling forward, crawling on your hands and knees, or being carried as you stare your truth in the face and refuse to let it stop you. 

Yes. Gratitude in the midst of suffering looks different. It means looking for beauty in the ashes of your life.

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”

Isaiah 61:1-3


Blog written by Shelby Rawson

Shelby is a local writer, ghostwriter, and editor by trade. She avidly supports the mission of The Refuge Center and its pursuit to intentionally care for the mental health of our community.

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The Hidden Faces of Domestic Abuse

The Hidden Faces of Domestic Abuse

Domestic abuse is sneaky, it’s crafty, and it is invisible to the untrained eye. It rears its ugly head in many forms. And let’s call it what it is. It is using psychological violence against another person as a way to manipulate and exert control. You don’t have to lay a finger on someone to abuse them.

When you see a woman with a black eye hiding behind sunglasses, you probably think she’s being beaten. When you see a woman cowering in fear in the presence of her spouse, something in your gut probably tells you she’s being abused. 

Watching a TV show or movie that shows a man pushing a woman up against a wall, shoving her across the room, or grabbing her arm until it’s bruised … well, it more than likely raises your hackles. 

These women are clearly suffering domestic abuse. They’re being hit, kicked, pushed, punched, and choked. The abuse is obvious. It’s undeniably written on their skin. 

And it is awful. It’s rotten and heinous … Abuse is so many terrible things. But that is just one ugly face of domestic abuse. 

Jenny was cheer captain in high school. She served on student council, sang in the choir, and served at vacation bible school during the summer. She was an A student who graduated at the top of her class and went to college on an academic scholarship. 

She was beautiful and vibrant. People were drawn to her strength and compassion. So when Matthew saw her at their church singles group, he made a beeline for her. He knew there was something about her that he wanted in his life. 

Matthew made her feel safe and seen. He spoke to the wounded spaces in her heart and filled her mind with his plans and ideas for the future. Being married to a man who was going to treat her like a queen and protect her fiercely sounded like an answer to years of prayer.

Shortly after their wedding, they moved into a tiny house. They’d only been married a few weeks when Jenny screwed up. She had done something he considered a major insult and act of disrespect. 

So when he called her a name and punched two holes in the wall, she somehow knew she deserved it. If she was being a good wife, this wouldn’t have happened. He wouldn’t have been so hurt and disappointed.

Jenny followed after him trying to fix things whenever she made him angry. She didn’t want the sun to go down on his anger, so she kept pursuing reconciliation. Having a solid marriage was very important to her, and she was determined to do whatever it took to make that happen. 

Besides, he was the one who knew more about marriage and family. It had to be her fault that they were struggling. Even though Jenny had asked Matthew repeatedly about seeing someone who might help them work through their problems, Matthew insisted that they were fine and everything was normal. 

Maybe Jenny was the only one who needed help … Matthew made it very clear that ninety percent of their struggles were her fault. 

A lot of things were her fault. She was too messy, too argumentative, too loud at parties, too insecure, too clingy, and too immature. He made sure she knew that she caused his unhappiness. He would stop raging at her if she would quit being a source of irritation for him. He would listen to her and take her on dates if she would just respect him enough to do what he asked.

Jenny went to therapy and begged the therapist to tell her what was wrong with her. She wanted to know why she was such a horrible wife, and she wanted to fix it. Matthew had been trying to help her fix what was wrong with her, but she couldn’t get it right. 

At this point in our story, you might feel a little sad for Jenny. You might even think she needs to just speak up, that she’s being a pushover. 

If you’re like most people, you’re thinking, I would never ever put up with that. I would … You have a whole plan forming in your mind to fix the situation. 

And you know what? You just might not understand gaslighting or closet narcissism. And you might not recognize the hidden faces of domestic abuse. 

The Hidden Faces of Domestic Abuse

Jenny’s story touches on one of the ways domestic abuse starts. Abusers use gaslighting to groom their victims. We tend to think of children when it comes to grooming. We imagine adults sexually abusing children, priests and altar boys, teachers and teenage students.

It is infuriating to picture these people gaining trust and drawing people in while convincing them that their behavior is normal and good. The very thought that an adult would purposely groom someone to do anything that they wouldn’t normally be comfortable with is sickening, right?

The abusers are adept at basically rewiring another person’s brain. It isn’t just a cult leader who knows how to brainwash. Imagine being in a relationship with David Koresh or Jim Jones. Hundreds of people followed them. 

Now imagine being married to one of them. Imagine being drawn in by all of the charm and promises. He gradually convinces you that his way is better than yours and overrides your thoughts with his own. You are brainwashed in your own home. 

After you’re committed to them, you start fighting the voices in your head that tell you something is wrong because you’re smart, you chose to be with them, and you know what you’re doing. And you certainly do not want to believe that you’ve fallen in love with someone who would ever hurt you.

So when he tells you that it’s protecting both of you to ask before spending money, you agree. And you don’t question him when he spends several hundred dollars because he’s wise and you don’t want to upset him. 

When he tells you that he’s not comfortable around your friends or family because they judge him, you avoid your friends and family. And when they ask you about hanging out, you make an excuse and you never ever mention him.

As you die on the inside, you reach for any crumbs of kindness and you learn that he has to be happy for there to be any sense of external calm. Because when it isn’t calm on the surface, there are consequences … and it’s your fault. 

That is the face of domestic abuse. Can you see it now?

Domestic abuse is sneaky, it’s crafty, and it is invisible to the untrained eye. It rears its ugly head in many forms. And let’s call it what it is. It is using psychological violence against another person as a way to manipulate and exert control. You don’t have to lay a finger on someone to abuse them. 

The U.S. Department of Justice defines domestic violence like this:

Physical Abuse: Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair pulling, etc. are types of physical abuse. This type of abuse also includes denying a partner medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use upon him or her.

Sexual Abuse: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to, marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence has occurred, or treating one in a sexually demeaning manner.

Emotional Abuse: Undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem is abusive. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.

Economic Abuse: Controlling or restraining a person’s ability to acquire, use, or maintain economic resources to which they are entitled.  This includes using coercion, fraud, or manipulation to restrict a person’s access to money, assets, credit, or financial information; unfairly using a person’s personal economic resources, including money, assets, and credit, or exerting undue influence over a person’s financial and economic behavior or decisions, including forcing default on joint or other financial obligations, exploiting powers of attorney, guardianship, or conservatorship, or failing or neglecting to act in the best interests of a person to whom one has a fiduciary duty.

Psychological Abuse: Elements of psychological abuse include  – but are not limited to – causing fear by intimidation; threatening physical harm to self, partner, children, or partner’s family or friends; destruction of pets and property; and forcing isolation from family, friends, or school and/or work.

Technological Abuse:  An act or pattern of behavior that is intended to harm, threaten, control, stalk, harass, impersonate, exploit, extort, or monitor another person that occurs using any form of technology, including but not limited to: internet-enabled devices, online spaces and platforms, computers, mobile devices, cameras and imaging programs, apps, location tracking devices, or communication technologies, or any other emerging technologies.

If we are only looking for battered wives, we are overlooking the countless hidden faces of domestic abuse. 

We have to look past the surface for the signs of psychological domestic violence. Men, women, and children are walking into classrooms, churches, Bible studies, and counseling offices with deep, dark secrets. Many of these victims have no idea that they are being abused. 

That’s right. They don’t even realize they are abuse victims

When someone is punching you, it’s easy to label it violence. If someone kicks you, pushes you, or grabs you by your hair, it’s obvious to you and others that you are a victim of violence. 

When someone screams at you in front of others, it’s clear that you’re being abused. When someone belittles you in public settings, there are witnesses to affirm that you are a victim of verbal abuse.

Those people often have witnesses to back them up, to reassure them that they are abuse victims. If the abuse is primarily psychological, it lurks in unseen places, behind closed doors, inside cars, on phone calls and texts, in bedrooms, and in bank accounts. Psychological abuse thrives and metastesizes in the spaces that no one outside the home is allowed to see.

Victims of psychological domestic abuse are gradually being brainwashed through gaslighting. Our culture likes to throw around the term gaslighting in a way that downplays its gravity. A person who has experienced gaslighting over a long period does not realize that it is growing more and more pervasive.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that 

Psychological Abuse includes: 

  • Humiliating the victim 
  • Controlling what the victim can or cannot do
  • Withholding information from the victim
  • Deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished or embarrassed  
  • Isolating the victim from friends and/or family
  • Denying the victim access to money or other basic resources
  • Stalking
  • Demeaning the victim in public or in private
  • Undermining the victim’s confidence and/or sense of self-worth
  • Convincing the victim (s)he is crazy

Abusers are champions of coercive control. Coercive control is an ongoing tactic that uses intimidation and oppression to instill fear in its victim. This fear is usually instilled gradually over time, and it is often preceded by charming behavior and offerings of love and affection. 

Abusers are excellent at gaining the trust of their victims. They are masters at getting their victims to believe that they are wiser, more discerning, and only want what’s best for their victims. They know how to infiltrate your mind to the point that you no longer recognize your own voice or original thoughts. 

Can you understand why a person who is experiencing this type of domestic abuse stays in the relationship? Can you understand why they don’t know they are being abused? 

Their thoughts are no longer their own. Having their own thoughts and ideas has become scary and they no longer trust themselves. Their abuser has made it so that they go to them for everything … and if they don’t, there will be a consequence.

People living in a home with this type of abuse frequently have high-functioning anxiety. They may be so used to the underlying anxiety that they don’t even know they have it. It feels normal to walk through life feeling like they might get in trouble at any given point if their abuser is “in a mood.”

These behaviors bleed over into their other relationships, as well. A victim becomes proficient in the art of pretending. Victims pretend everything is normal. They have to. They’re living in survival mode. 

Survival mode does a number on the body. Psychological abuse victims can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, struggle to trust people, fall into depression, have a low sense of self-worth, and may dwell on suicide. And if the psychological abuse is more elusive it causes more harm than obvious psychological abuse or straightforward aggression.

It’s important to note that there is a type of domestic abuse that many resources don’t consider because it’s not part of their world. Many people won’t even talk about it or consider it a form of abuse. But make no mistake, spiritual abuse is prevalent in our culture. 

Spiritual abuse is a way to prey on someone’s desire to follow God’s Word, grow in their faith, and be leaders in their church. All of those are good things. And all of them can be used as leverage by an abuser. The abuser uses scripture as a way to appear wise while also gaining control and shaming their victim.

In an effort to “be a good Christian,” women obey their husbands and children obey their parents—even when they are being asked to do something that crushes their souls. They agree to a lie because their abuser claims it’s the truth. The abuser always knows “the real truth.”

A woman submits to her husband in the bedroom no matter how he has behaved toward her because it is her “God-given duty.” Her abuser makes sure that she knows it’s her job as his helpmate to fulfill that need. It doesn’t matter that he raged at her just a few hours earlier, she must submit or pay the consequences. Not only is her mind no longer her own, but neither is her body. 

And this is all done under the banner of twisted scripture. You can use your imagination to determine the many ways a person could take Bible verses and use them to their advantage when manipulating their victims.

Churches must be aware of how often this happens within the home. And that it may be a symptom of something even uglier and crueler infecting the life of the entire family. This toxic family life destroys the victims from the inside, but they all know how to play the happy family in public.

So …

We must stop thinking that black and blue bruises are the only signs of domestic abuse. Yes, physical abuse is absolutely horrible. But the invisible marks? The bruises on the soul? They leave an imprint that does not fade and heal within a couple of weeks.  

Compassion and curiosity are critical tools in uncovering domestic abuse victims. Assuming the victims know they are being abused and that they can walk away is a major error in judgment. People suffering in psychologically abusive relationships are not ready to call it abuse. They don’t recognize it as abuse. 

You cannot assume that a victim knows they are a victim of abuse. You can’t assume they are ready for anybody to name the behavior “abuse.” Knowing that they have been abused feels like one more piece of shame for them to carry. The neural pathways in their brains have been well-trained to tell them the abuser is the victim of their behavior. 

The voices in their head will not shut up …

You’re the reason I’m so angry …

If you would have just listened to me, then …

Nobody else will ever put up with you like I do …

I was never angry until you …

Why can’t you just listen … 

I know you better than you know yourself …

It isn’t as simple as telling them they are being abused. Those warped neural pathways run deep. You can’t just walk up to someone like Jenny and get her to say she’s in an abusive relationship. First, she has to feel safe enough to share her experience. 

More than likely, she hasn’t told anybody about this dark secret. Just the act of talking about it to another person feels like a betrayal. And she knows there are consequences for betraying somebody like Matthew. 

The tangle of emotions an abuse victim feels when they are “betraying” the abuser is incredibly overwhelming and can emotionally and mentally paralyze the victim. This is why she must feel safe both mentally and physically. Her mind and body must relax just enough to begin to unhinge her tongue and untangle her thoughts.

It may take the victim weeks to begin to accept the idea that their relationship is abusive. And in some cases, many of the victims choose to stay—even though they are dying on the inside. The fear and control of their abuser is so pervasive that the fear of a consequence traps them in their invisible prison.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the face of domestic abuse. People like Jenny look like your best friend, the woman who sings with you in the church choir, the mom who never misses a football game, or even the dad who takes his kids to every single practice with a smile on his face.

Sometimes the ugly face of domestic abuse buries itself until no one can see it without the willingness to dig past the surface. We have to be a people who will excavate hearts and minds with gentle care and persistence. 

If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic abuse, please reach out to us at The Refuge Center. We are here to help heal and equip people to function in the fullness of who they are created to be.

Blog written by Shelby Rawson

Shelby is a local writer, ghostwriter, and editor by trade. She avidly supports the mission of The Refuge Center and its pursuit to intentionally care for the mental health of our community.

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The Tools we Need for the Child and Teen Mental Health Crisis

The Tools we Need for the Child and Teen Mental Health Crisis

If we want the children in our lives to thrive, we must be willing to do the work to make it happen. We must be willing to embrace the change they need.

If you imagine people who need to take care of their mental health, who comes to mind? Seriously. Chances are, you pictured adults in your life who are unstable or seem off in some way.

You’re right. We can all name at least one adult who needs to take care of their mental health, and we can include ourselves in the mix, too! Paying attention to our mental health is crucial for us to function positively in our relationships at work and at home. Who doesn’t appreciate a relationship with an emotionally healthy person?!

The truth is, we are in a mental health crisis. And the last few years have magnified the depth and reach of this crisis. Wounds that were tucked away beneath the surface refused to remain hidden. Fears reared their ugly head. And anxiety came roaring in with a vengeance. 

A mad, wretched, heartbreaking, overwhelming vengeance.

Alright, now think again about the people around you who need mental health care. How many of those people are interacting with children on a regular basis? How many of them have children?

Our children, your children, your students, your nieces, nephews, and neighbors are in pain. They are carrying the weight of an incredibly broken world on their young, never-equipped shoulders. And so much of this weight was placed there by adults who were meant to protect and support them. 

We must stand in the gap to care for these children. From toddlers to teens, it must be us.

And that is exactly why The Refuge Center held “Equip,” our Live Intentionally Speaker Series. We want to help adults gain the tools needed to address the child and teen mental health crisis. 

We had six amazing speakers share on several vital topics to enrich our understanding of the struggles that kids in our lives are battling every day. So, if you missed it, you’re in luck because we’re going to tell you what it was all about …

Recognizing Trauma in Children and Adolescents (Alice Stricklin, LMFT)

A lot of the trauma our kids are dealing with has occurred in the last three years. The effects of trauma don’t have to last a lifetime. It’s our responsibility to help children and teens heal from this trauma.

In order to understand trauma, we have to talk about the three main parts of the brain—primal, limbic, and cortical. The primal brain basically operates to keep us physically alive. The limbic brain is the control center for emotions and attachment, it’s basically our alarm center. Lastly, we have the cortical brain. This is where you can find impulse control, thinking, learning, and language. But guess what? Our cortical brain doesn’t fully develop until we are twenty-five. (This probably sheds some light on some of the uhh not-so-wise decisions made in your early twenties, huh?)

In light of that, think about what it must be like for a kid to experience trauma with a brain that is nowhere close to being mature enough to process it. When you watch a child having some major reactivity to a situation, you are witnessing their trauma response. 

Traumas can be put into three categories: big T, little T, and complex trauma. 

The big T traumas are the more obvious traumas that put your life in danger or the life of someone caring for you. Did you know that when a child watches someone like a parent being threatened, that child feels like they might die, too? They experience the harm even when they’re not directly harmed. 

Little t traumas are non-life-threatening experiences. This could be emotional neglect, humiliation, bullying, loss of a pet, or an injury. 

Complex traumas are made up of multiple life-altering incidents in a short time. This results in the child learning that they can’t trust people who should be caring for them. 

Kids respond to these traumas with a fight, flight, freeze, or collapse and submit (a.k.a. fawn) response. Fight response is going to be an obvious response because it will be strong. You can expect fighting, yelling, wailing, or belligerent behavior. The flight response looks like fleeing the situation. Freeze is another self-explanatory response. The child can’t move and they disconnect from the situation and their body. When a child collapses and submits, it’s as if they become smaller, a natural peace floods over them as they completely disconnect from what’s happening to them or around them. 

Nobody can process trauma when perceiving a threat. Our brains can process trauma when we’re in a safe space. Young kids typically freeze when they’re not in a safe space. Older kids tend to go to the fight or flight response.

How Can We Help?

We have to work within the brain’s natural processing. This means recognizing when it’s a trauma behavior or just a bad behavior and also seeking to understand rather than fixing by asking questions and validating. We can also help by removing parental stressors to create more peace within the home. Peace in the home gives the child a better sense of safety.

Warning Signs for Self-Harm & Suicidal Ideation (Amanda Fisher, LMSW)

When children self-harm, they are expressing internal feelings in an external way. Self-harm may manifest in cutting, burning, scratching, etc. These kids would tell you that they either feel numb or they feel too much. They may be using self-harm as a means of controlling or punishing.

If a child is experiencing suicidal ideation, it doesn’t include the actual follow-through of suicide. This happens when kids regularly think about the act of suicide. This can be slippery to catch because these kids may never talk about it out loud. They may be journaling, drawing, or watching shows revolving around suicide.

Unfortunately, there are a few myths floating around regarding suicide. It just isn’t true that people who want to do it can’t be stopped, that talking about it makes it worse, or that they don’t warn others. None of those things are truths.

There are warning signs for both self-harm and suicide.  Learn the physical symptoms and  behavioral patterns that indicate risk.

Warning Signs of Self-Harming

  • appear withdrawn, or more quiet or reserved than usual
  • stop participating in their regular activities
  • have rapid mood changes
  • get angry or upset easily
  • have had a significant event in their lives, e.g. a breakup with significant other
  • suffer poor academic/school performance when they usually do very well
  • exhibit unexplained bruises, cuts or scratches
  • wear clothes that are inappropriate for the weather, e.g. wearing long sleeves on hot days.

(Note: This list provides some examples but is not exhaustive and should not be used for diagnostic purposes.) Sources: Klonsky, E. , et al. (2011) 

Warning Signs of Suicide

  • Talking about suicide, death, and/or no reason to live
  • Preoccupation with death and dying
  • Withdrawal from friends and/or social activities
  • Experience of a recent severe loss (especially a relationship) or the threat of a significant loss
  • Experience or fear of a situation of humiliation of failure
  • Drastic changes in behavior
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, work, school, etc.
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Unnecessary risks; reckless and/or impulsive behavior
  • Loss of interest in personal appearance
  • Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs
  • General hopelessness
  • Recent experience humiliation or failure

(Note: This list provides some examples but is not exhaustive and should not be used for diagnostic purposes.)

The most helpful things you can do are to listen without shock, check-in and be available, offer zero judgment, give no lecture or debate, refrain from asking why, be direct, remove any means for committing the act, and seek professional help.

You can call the suicide/crisis hotline at 988 or text “hello” to 741741. You can also go online at Or you can personally go a step further and learn QPR suicide prevention training.

Emotional Intelligence for Young Athletes (Ben Zobrist, retired MLB player)

Stress and trauma extends beyond the walls of our homes and schools … and it bleeds all over the courts and fields that are meant for play and healthy competition. After thirty-three years on the field, Ben Zobrist has a wee bit of insight regarding the emotional intelligence of athletes.

Alrighty, raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself a tad emotional during a competition? Maybe even kicked out of a game? There is something about competitive sports that brings out our best … and our worst. The act of regulating our emotions seems to get checked at the door as soon as we arrive at the field.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, understand, and manage your emotions both for yourself and for those around you. Adults are often severely lacking in emotional intelligence. In light of that, think about being a child without a fully developed brain. It is very challenging for kids to practice emotional intelligence.

Here’s the thing. We think of competition as a source of fun and entertainment. But the reality is that money is involved. Whether we tell them or not, kids know that travel or club sports are not free. The equipment, travel, and game fees all add up. And the parents are not the only ones who feel it. Kids carry this weight on their shoulders much more than we realize. That’s a problem.

Speaking of problems, there are quite a few to be aware of if we want to do better. 

Problems in Youth Sports

  • Unhealthy expectations. Kids are expected to excel in school and sports. It’s too much too early. The pressure is too excessive for kids—whether they’re eight or eighteen. 
  • Unhealthy adult involvement. This looks like hyper-criticism on one side of the coin and hyper-esteem on the other. Tearing them down while driving in the car, or building them up and over-inflating their sense of self around sports.
  • Unhealthy coaches. Grown adults who have very low emotional intelligence are not required to divulge this before teaching our kids the proper batting stance or perfect follow through on a jump shot. These coaches can have a very detrimental effect on the hearts and minds of kids.
  • Unhealthy environments. The environment kids practice and play in should be supportive and encouraging. It should not be a source of toxic stress and pressure. 
  • Toxic teammates. Sometimes kids are sitting on the bench, playing on the field, and riding to games with teammates who bully them every time they are out of earshot from the coaches.
  • Toxic attachments to the game. When kids become obsessed with their sport and their performance, it can take up too much space in their head. Their lives are imbalanced.

Imagine being passionate about a sport that also gives you shame and anxiety. Imagine wanting to play so badly that you try to shove down all the anxiety you get from toxic bullying teammates and coaches. And imagine having a parent who is vicariously living through you every time you’re up to bat, stand at the freethrow line, or try to scramble in the pocket. 

Now imagine being a kid who’s trying to mentally and emotionally wade through all of that without somebody to co-regulate them or process all the thoughts and feelings.

What Young Athletes Need

  • Young athletes need a safe space to exist without fear of rejection or shame if they fail. 
  • They need the space to be human and have feelings about their performance. 
  • They need to be seen for who they are
  • Give them language to verbally express their feelings by using an emotion chart
  • Normalize and destigmatize having feelings
  • An adult who is there to co-regulate their emotions
  • A common understood mindset of growth over performance

      So … How Do We Help Our Young Athletes?

      • Do your own emotional work. We cannot teach what we don’t embody. We can’t teach kids to handle emotions when we don’t know how to handle our own. And we definitely won’t be able to co-regulate if we are not emotionally stable. 
      • We have to be sure we are showing interest in more than their sport(s)
      • Recognize the effort your athlete puts into the sport
      • Create healthy boundaries around their competition
      • Give your kids/players common language to express emotions
      • Ask self-awareness questions for before, during, and after the competition or practice
      • Be approachable
      • Show them that who they are is not what they do
      • Be empathetic about their failures. Allow them to sit in their feelings
      • Appropriate their competition over the rest of their life. In the grand scheme of things … What will truly matter?

      None of this will matter if we as caregivers and coaches don’t step up and commit to our own mental health so we can be fully present and pour positive things into the lives of young athletes. 

      Are Screens Destroying Your Family? (Stacey Jagger, LMFT)

      If you were sitting in a chair across from Stacey, her answer to that question might very well be a resounding YES, screens are absolutely taking a toll on your family

      Think about a favorite memory from childhood. In that memory, your senses are intimately involved. Our memories are about connection. And that connection makes us feel loved. 

      Kids today feel less connected because of social media. That means they fell less love. Screens are insulating us from connecting with others. In both their minds and bodies, kids get an adrenaline rush from screens. They are not developmentally capable of managing the adrenaline and sorting out the real from the virtual. This is a recipe for mental and emotional disaster.

      Convenience is ruling our lives.

      Approximately 20% of American kids enter school developmentally delayed. One out of six children have a diagnosis of mental illness with child aggression and unmanageable behavior, and it is increasingly becoming the norm. 

      Studies show that kids spend over seven hours a day in front of electronic media. There is a definite link between developmental and academic disorders to excessive screen time. As a result, children struggle to regulate their emotions, they can’t get to know themselves or process feelings, they are losing the ability to process emotions naturally, they are experiencing social anxiety in simple face to face interactions, and they are unable to maintain eye contact or focus for more than thirty seconds. 

      This is becoming a world-wide crisis. Kids need to interact with the outside world or they will continue to deal with nervous system deregulation. 

      The Solution: 30-Day Blackout

      Before you freak out and stop reading, take a deep breath and don’t panic. There are concessions for work and school projects, the bare-bones necessities.

      Should you take on this challenge, you can expect the first five days to be hellish. Days six and seven are what Stacey likes to lovingly call “The Door of Boredom” and “The Pit of Despair.” It’s at this point that kids are finally willing to do things they were unwilling to do before.

      When you do this, the brain and autonomic nervous system have a chance to reset. Their capacity for connection increases. Kids can actually believe you when you are talking to them. This part alone is reason enough to consider it, right?


      1. All gaming and social apps must be taken off of devices
      2. Work is to only be done during regular working hours
      3. Homework is done in a place like the kitchen
      4. From the evening until the morning is to be considered family time

      We must shift our mindset to regard screen time as the dessert rather than the main course. The main course should offer us opportunities for connection leading to emotional regulation, co-regulation, love, and security.

      Grief and Loss with Young People (Caitlin Coile, LPC-MHSP)

      The reaction to grief and loss can come in many forms, some of which are often unexpected. Anger, denial, acceptance, frustration, contentment … All of these can show up with grief and loss.

      As adults, we struggle to find our path through the trauma of grief and loss. For kids, this journey is completely chaotic, and they usually feel stuck in it. Huge thoughts and feelings are roaring around inside of them and they don’t have the maturity or tools to process all of it.

      So we have to watch them closely, keeping in mind that things may not look the same for kids as they do for adults. Watch how they are playing and interacting with others and be prepared for their grief to come in bursts. 

      Our Role Is to Be Present

      The adults in a grieving child’s life must act as their safe place, their soft place to land—whatever that looks like. We need to talk through their grief in a developmentally appropriate way. Depending on their age, they may not understand the permanency of the situation. When it comes to kids and loss, euphemisms are not the way to go because they add to their confusion. 

      So, we’ve got to provide opportunities to help kids  explore their grief. When we do this, it’s as if they have permission to build a life around their grief. Doing this doesn’t ignore their grief or loss, it makes room for it without letting it overwhelm their entire life. 


      There are ways to help our kids cope with this life trauma. You can create a tangible representation of their loss to help them cope. It honors the memories they have around their loss. This can look different for each kid. It could be a bracelet with a bead representing good memories. It could be writing or coloring. It could even be a collection of small stones. It just needs to be something that serves as a visible reminder.

      Kids often struggle to talk about what has happened. (And frankly, caregivers don’t always know what to say.) Reading books together is a great way to start a conversation and engage in a meaningful dialogue. 

      Reading Suggestions

      Ages 0-8: When Dinosaurs Die, I Miss You, The Invisible String

      Middle School: The Memory Box, One Wave at a Time, A Stone for Sasha

      High School: When a Friend Dies, The Grieving Teen, Grief Recovery for Teens

      You can find additional resources for helping kids deal with grief and loss at the Child Mind InstituteThe Dougy Center, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and, of course, The Refuge Center.

      The Refuge Center has a needs assessment that we offer for youth pastors. If you are interested, we will be hosting youth pastors and helping them learn ways to better support their young people on 10/27/22 from 1:00 to 2:30 and 11/10/22 from 10:00 to 11:30. 

      Adverse Childhood Experiences “ACEs” Scores (Dr. Thomas Cabell)  

      It is painfully clear that the last few years have thrown many of us back into our stories. We’ve become reacquainted with the things we carry deep inside.

      “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

      —William Faulkner

      There is a reason for this. Your limbic system never leaves you, and this is where our emotional core resides. And that emotional core is directly linked to the immune system, which lives mainly in our gut. So when you experience something awful, you might say you feel like you’ve been kicked in the gut, and wouldn’t you know it? There’s a reason for that, too.

      Our five senses are filtered through the limbic system. This is one reason why environment makes such a huge impact on how we experience trauma. To add to that, trauma is essentially like a separation from our body and emotions, a disconnection from ourselves. Trauma isn’t what happens to us but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness. 

      Stress in Relation to Trauma

      Stress comes in three main forms—positive, tolerable, and toxic. 

      • Positive stress is essential for a healthy environment.
      • Tolerable stress is stress that lasts for a longer amount of time but still has a time limit and is often met with adaptive coping skills
      • Toxic stress is strong, frequent, pro-longed adversity, such as: physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, etc. These stressors can continue for years.

      Prolonged activation of a stress response interrupts brain development and leaves a fingerprint on the physical structure of the brain. We cannot ignore stress! Its effects will make undeniable marks on us and even go so far as to shorten our lifespan and saddle us with long-term health problems. 

      Society tends to pay more attention to physical abuse—which is a special kind of hideous—but did you know that emotional abuse is more taxing to the body? And this includes when a child witnesses their parent being emotionally abused. Their bodies feel the threat.

      Kids need an adult buffer to combat this stress. For countless kids, emotional abuse has become a regular occurrence. So as scary and awful as it may be, it also feels like their norm. Having an adult who is present to process what is happening helps those children to not feel alone in their trauma. An emotionally healthy adult can help a child understand that emotional abuse is not okay.  

      When kids experience trauma after trauma, their immune systems never gets to shut off. The stress keeps their guts churning with anxiety. So, sometimes when a child is telling you their belly hurts but they have no other symptoms, it’s because their anxiety is in high gear. This may be especially prevalent at bedtime.

      What’s more, we now know that this heavy anxiety affects our hearts. The heart will actually give off signals to indicate that we need to pay attention to what is happening to our body. Toxic stress works its way from our gut, to our brains, and to our hearts. 

      In a nutshell …

      Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed health threat facing our nation today. 

      And the occurrence of these experiences has doubled in the last two years. 

      So, instead of asking the question, “What’s wrong with you?” we need to start asking, “What happened to you?”

      Ugly things are happening to our kids. We must do better. We must help the children around us. Their future depends on it.

      In the end …

      We need to take great care regarding the hearts of the children walking the halls of our homes and schools, playing on our ball fields, and showing up in our offices. We can teach kids how to navigate their feelings and communicate by giving them language to use and reassuring them not to fear any of their feelings. This is all part of being available co-regulators. 

      At The Refuge Center, we look at trauma like this: Trauma is not so much what happens to me, it’s what happened to me in the absence of an empathetic witness

      If we want the children in our lives to thrive, we must be willing to do the work to make it happen. We must be willing to embrace the change they need.

      By Shelby Rawson

      Shelby is a local writer, ghostwriter, and editor by trade. She avidly supports the mission of The Refuge Center and its pursuit to intentionally care for the mental health of our community.

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      Supporting Grieving Children

      Supporting Grieving Children

      Helping your child process their grief now will have a lasting impact on not only them but the people they have relationships with in the future. It can have a tremendous effect on how they handle stress, loss, and other life events in the future.

      Something about a new teacher, a loaded backpack, and crisp, white notebook paper signals a fresh start. But this isn’t true for all of our kids. The excitement of a new school year may be clouded by mixed emotions, especially still being on the heels of covid.

      Many of our children have experienced loss. They may have lost loved ones or their sense of safety. They may have lost the family unit because of divorce or years of social interaction because of isolation. It’s important to know how to support grieving children in each of their losses, even if they are only perceivedlosses.

      The grieving process varies by a child’s age, development, and personal experiences. Some children may seem unaffected by loss, while others openly express their feelings.

      You can have one family of five children whose parents separated and then divorced. Even though these kids have had the same parents and lived in the same house, the way each of them experienced that life can be vastly different.

      The older children may have seen it coming, may have wanted the fighting to stop, and feel a sense of relief. Those kiddos in the middle are watching the older siblings but can’t quite process what’s happening and feel pulled to take sides. Meanwhile, the youngest is still waiting for their mama and daddy to live together again.

      Their feelings are all over the spectrum … relief, anger, bitterness, confusion, sadness, hurt, grief, fear, loneliness, and even shame. And they bring that with them onto the school bus and through the doors of every classroom. 

      The following details will help you understand the difference between normal grief and traumatic grief and when to consider reaching out for help.

      What is grief?

      Grief is a natural, internal response to the loss of someone or something we care about. In children, grief can feel like a jumbled mix of emotions. They may feel sad and lonely as they miss their loved one and at the same time, angry and frustrated because they just don’t understand why or how something so awful could happen.

      Our children need support to cope with grief. Young children may not be able to put complex emotions into words, so those big feelings are stuck in their bodies and minds which can increase feelings of isolation. According to Caitlin Coile, LPC-MHSP, Director of Children and Teens Program at the Refuge Center, the internal experience of a child might include:

      • Emotions such as anger, guilt, relief, fear, and sadness
      • Thoughts of trying to understand and believe what happened
      • Physical responses such as sleeplessness, stomach aches, headaches, and loss of appetite
      • Spiritual questioning about life’s meaning and the nature of God

      What are the outward signs of grief in children?

      Outward signs of grief vary for each person. Common themes in children include expressing mixed feelings, having difficulty concentrating or sleeping, or experiencing outbursts of crying or anger. Additionalnoticeable signs may reveal themselves in these areas:

      • Academics – Declining grades, incomplete work, memory loss, overachievement, language errors, inattentiveness, daydreaming
      • Behavioral – Noisy outbursts, disruptive behavior, non-compliance, risk-taking, hyperactive-like behavior, isolation, or withdrawal, need for attention
      • Social – Withdrawal from friends or activities, drug use, changing relationships, sexually acting out, stealing, difficulty being in groups
      • Physical – Stomach aches, headaches, heartaches, accidents, sleep difficulties, loss of appetite, low energy, skin condition, nausea, increased illness, and rapid heartbeat

      You may only see kids display a few of these signs, experience signs at different times, or simply feel grief without any noticeable signs. Checking in with your child and looking out for signs of struggle will help you provide the support your child needs to begin healing. 

      Keep in mind that your kids may not always want to talk to their parents—this can be especially true for teens. They may be more open to sharing their hearts with a coach, teacher, aunt, or uncle. If your kids have a safe person to share with, have a conversation with that person. The point is to have an adult who is positively involved in the grieving process.  

      How can you support a grieving child?

      Parents may choose to talk openly about loss from an early age which helps children understand loss as a part of life. Still, significant loss in childhood can lead to confusion and sadness that lasts for months or even years. Grief support for a child may include:

      • Providing a safe environment for active listening
      • Trying to understand your child’s experience
      • Being available when he or she needs you to be close
      • Setting age-appropriate limits on information related to the loss
      • Avoiding false hope of replacing what was lost
      • Encouraging activities that still bring joy

      For children, loss can feel unexpected and intense. Whether they are four or fourteen, our kids may not know what to do with all that is swirling around inside them. There are books and online resources for caregivers to learn how to help children express and work through difficult or confusing emotions.

      You should also be aware that all grief is not the same. It’s important for parents to know the signs of traumatic grief.

      What is traumatic grief?

      Traumatic grief refers to the experience after a highly traumatic loss, such as the death of a parent. Imagine losing the person who has shown you safety, provision, encouragement, and love. Now imagine being a kid who is often too young to fully grasp what is happening.

      Bereavement can be traumatic in childhood for so many reasons.  Our children may experience more distress if someone close to them dies tragically rather than from natural causes. If significant distress occurs, the loss may lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Post-traumatic stress can play out in symptoms like these:

      • Lingering severe sadness and fear
      • Acting the event out when playing
      • Outbursts of anger and ongoing irritability
      • Trouble sleeping
      • Triggered by memories of the trauma
      • Continually negative feelings

      Children who experience collective trauma may also feel traumatic grief. Collective trauma refers to a traumatic event that affects a large number of people, such as a tragedy at school or a pandemic. Parents should watch for signs of difficulty coping, such as bedwetting, nightmares, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. 

      Since outward symptoms may not be present, it’s important to screen for traumatic grief by asking your child about feelings following a loss. If there are signs of traumatic or complicated grief, parents can assure their children that they are not alone and provide the support needed to heal.

      Is my child depressed?

      Although grief and depression have similarities, there are key differences. Grief is a natural reaction to a significant loss that usually lasts for about six months or longer if the person is unable to process the loss adequately. Depression is a disorder that causes significant problems with mood, energy, sleep, and appetite and can last for many years.

      When should you seek professional help?

      While grieving is a healthy response to loss, supporting someone through grief can be difficult. You may have no idea how to help your child on your own. Signs of complicated grief include:

      • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
      • Chronic physical symptoms without medical cause
      • Depression with impaired self-esteem
      • Persistent denial of the loss
      • Alcohol and/or drug use
      • Intense feelings of guilt or responsibility
      • Major and continued changes in sleeping or eating habits
      • Unsafe/harmful risk-taking behavior

           Helping your child process their grief now will have a lasting impact on not only them but the people they have relationships with in the future. It can have a tremendous effect on how they handle stress, loss, and other life events in the future. Learning how to untangle thoughts and feelings as a child teaches them not to fear overwhelming emotions and empowers our kids to communicate what is going on inside of them.  

      If you think your child is experiencing traumatic or complicated grief, you might consider seeking professional help. At the Refuge Center, we offer many resources to help adults and children walk toward healing.

      And don’t forget to register for Live Intentionally 2022.  The topic this year is EQUIP: The Tools You Need to Address the Teen and Mental Health Crisis.  Subject such a childhood grief and loss will be presented.




      Blog written by Masters Level Intern, Lindrel Moates and edited by Shelby Renee Rawson

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      The Church and Mental Health

      The Church and Mental Health

      The truth is, we all need a safe place to untangle our narratives, and therapy can be windshield wipers for the soul.

      What is Mental Health, really?

      “She has mental problems.” 

      How many times have you heard words like this being said about someone? Or how many times have yousaid something like that? We often say things like that without realizing what we’re actually perpetuating. 

      For decades, the topic of mental health has carried with it shame and stigma. People have thought someone with “mental health issues” is broken or having a breakdown. We have pictured someone we think of as crazy sitting in a “mental hospital.” And we fear what we don’t understand.

      We don’t know what we don’t know. 

      Mental health is actually how we think, feel, and act. It is how we handle relationships and stress. It’s the story we tell ourselves about how others feel about us. It is the little voice inside our heads that has been talking to us for as long as we can remember—whether that voice is good, bad, or somewhere in between.

      Have you ever had a business deal fall through and at 2 am lay awake thinking, Am I a failure? 

      Have you ever had a relationship fail and found yourself wrestling with the question, Was I not enough?

      Lost someone that mattered very much and wondered, How can I go on without them? 

      Had a teenager who was struggling with self-harm or an eating disorder and you felt at a loss to know how to help them? 

      These questions and the way we navigate them are our mental health. It’s not so much about what happens to us, as much as how we interpret what happens to us.  

      There is no person whose income is high enough, whose job is important enough, whose talent is great enough … to prevent them from coming to grips with these questions. There are also many things in our formative years that can impact our emotional well-being—addiction, abuse, neglect, etc. These issues do not discriminate. 

       Mental health is not about being broken. It’s not a niche issue. And it’s not something that only applies to some people. This is a topic that is applicable to 100% of humans. That means it applies to me, your best friend, your child, your pastor, your parents, and you.


      How did the pandemic impact our mental health?

      Through the pandemic, we have seen an increase in relational poverty, anxiety, depression, grief and loss, helplessness, loneliness, reminders of past trauma, toxic reactivity, substance abuse, eating disorders, suicidality, self-harm, and crisis in marriage. Every single one of those things directly affects our mental health.

      Globally, we’ve all just lived through 800 days of hard. We have experienced a shared traumatic reality, which means that our neighbors and friends likely had less capacity for empathy when we needed them. 

      It really is true that “the body keeps the score.” Our nervous systems have been impacted in significant ways. And for many people, the challenges exceeded their coping skills. “Grace tanks” ran very low.

      So from a data perspective … In 2021, Psychology Today reported that:

      • Anxiety disorders affect 40 million U.S. adults each year
      • Some 16.1 million Americans age 18 and up experience Major Depressive Disorder annually
      • Eight million adults live with PTSD in a given year


      Young people are feeling it, too.

      American adolescence is undergoing a drastic change. Three decades ago, the gravest public health threats to teenagers in the United States came from binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy, and smoking. But today, this isn’t the case. These have since fallen sharply, replaced by a new public health concern—soaring rates of mental health disorders.

      To this point, in two articles, The New York Times reported that:

      “In 2019, 13 percent of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode, a 60 percent increase from 2007. Emergency room visits by children and adolescents in that period also rose sharply for anxiety, mood disorders and self-harm … 

      And for people ages 10 to 24, suicide rates, stable from 2000 to 2007, leaped nearly 60 percent by 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

      The decline in mental health among teenagers was intensified by the Covid pandemic but predated it, spanning racial and ethnic groups, urban and rural areas and the socioeconomic divide.”

      The New York Times, ‘It’s Life or Death’: The Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teens

       In a rare public advisory, in December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General warned of a “devastating” mental health crisis among adolescents. Numerous hospital and doctor groups have called it a national emergency, citing rising levels of mental illness, a severe shortage of therapists and treatment options, and insufficient research to explain the trend.

      These “statistics” are our students, our nieces and nephews, our grandchildren, the kid bagging our groceries or making our iced coffee. These numbers are describing our children

      Of all of the painful stats, perhaps the most troubling, is that the suicide rate in Tennessee is climbing. Things are trending … in the wrong direction.

      When you get inside the most current suicide stats – you see that suicide is 4x more likely to impact men. In fact, if you are a white male in your 30s and 40s, you are at the highest risk by a long way.

      Life is consistently challenging us, and when we look at the latest data we’re seeing that life for many in our quasi-post-pandemic world can be almost unbearable.


      Why should the church care about this issue?

      Mental health is a human issue. We all have hurts, habits, and hang-ups. Every one of us will face hardship and suffering at some point in our lifetime. It’s unavoidable.

      Churches generally have impactful missions programs, focusing on the “least, the last, the lost.” 

      I would contend that our buildings and services are filled with people who look “fine” and seem “great” but are feeling like the “the least, the last, and the lost” on the INSIDE. 

      Marital crisis, anxiety and panic, addiction, loneliness, grief … These are issues every bit inside our church walls as they are outside our church walls. Even pastors are not exempt. Twenty-three percent of pastors have personally struggled with mental health conditions.

      The church community CAN act as a holy place of refuge for those who are suffering emotionally.

      The Bible is full of verses that tell us God is our hiding place. Psalm 27:5 says, “For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle; in the secret place of His tent He will hide me; He will lift me up on a rock.” THIS is who God is. 

      When you feel lost, when you feel less than or dead last, sometimes the only thing you want to do is hide away. And what better place to hide than in the shadow of the wings of the One who loves you and cares for you more than you could ever ask or imagine? He knows your every thought and no tear you shed goes unnoticed.

      The church should be a place where we feel seen.

      Being with Jesus—in relationship with him, in his presence—does not mean we won’t suffer. His own disciples struggled deeply with anxiety and self-doubt and one even took his own life. Abundant life in Christ is not about living without pain or having all the answers or cures. It is about trusting that God and all his provisions will be enough for us to not only survive but thrive.

      We can encourage those who suffer to seek the help they need from professionals who have the expertise to provide it. And by this we can declare the truth that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

       In the church, we need more real, open, honest conversations. This strengthens our emotional muscles. When we listen to others in their pain, it gives them dignity. Telling our story with safe people begins to give our pain purpose and meaning.


      How does the church know when to refer for professional counseling services?

       Counseling is a space to process the burdens, barriers, and the shame stories of our experiences. It’s meant to be a place to become free of bondage.

      “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) 

      Counseling is for people:

      • who have tried typical coping skills and are still “stuck” in habits, relational conflicts, shame, blind spots, etc.
      • who are struggling to cope (not eating, sleeping well, excessive anger, depression, panic attacks, etc.) or are in acute grief
      • who want to improve their relational skills by being proactive
      • and who feel alone in their suffering or who feel too much shame to tell their story with anyone else outside the parameters of confidentiality.

      The truth is, we all need a safe place to untangle our narratives, and therapy can be windshield wipers for the soul.

      If we don’t transform our pain we will transmit it.

      Counseling can help us achieve congruence where our “insides match our outsides,” where actions and values align. Without congruence, we lack peace.

      Counseling can also help people explore their spiritual brokenness. Psalm 139: 23-24 says,  “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” 

      Some people are terrified to think that God will “search” them. In the deepest places of their soul, they consider the choices they have made in their life and wonder, Does God like me? Will He be angry with me? Will he reject me? Is he too busy with someone else? Will I be able to hear him if I seek him?  

      Counseling can be a place to process these fears and any trauma that may stand in the way of a full and rich relationship with God. You are not alone in your questioning and doubting. Sitting with somebody who hears you and sees your hard, your hurt, your unspoken struggles can open your heart to healing in ways that you can’t do in solitude and isolation.


      In addition to scripture, what are the phrases Christians and church staff can offer to someone who is hurting?

      Being a safe place for hurting people looks like this: 

      • Tell me more about that …
      • You are important in my life.
      • I am so glad you are here
      • What is happening at home?
      • I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through, but I am here for you.
      • You matter.
      • If you want to talk about how you are feeling, I will listen—No matter how long it takes.
      • If you don’t want to talk, I am happy to sit here in silence with you, or just let you have a space to cry. I am so glad to be with you.
      • You are not a burden to me.
      • I don’t understand everything about how feelings work, but I know mine always seem to be changing.
      • It sounds like you are feeling hopeless. Would you mind if I carried hope for you for a while?
      • I am so sorry for your loss.
      • I wish I had the right words, just know that I care.


      What are some things the church can do about the mental health crisis?

       #1 Host and engage in QPR or Mental Health First Aid Trainings

      Most of us would know how to help if we saw someone having a heart attack—we’d start CPR, or at the very least, call 9-1-1. But too few of us would know how to respond if we saw someone having a panic attack or if we were concerned that someone might be showing signs of self-harm, or addiction. 

      QPR: Question, Persuade, Refer. What questions to ask if you are concerned someone may harm themselves or have suicidal thoughts, steps to encourage them to seek help, and referrals to get them the support they need. (You can do a 60 min training online or free.) 

      Mental Health First Aid: Mental Health First Aid teaches you how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. It takes the fear and hesitation out of starting conversations about mental health and substance use problems by improving understanding and providing an action plan that teaches people to safely and responsibly identify and address a potential mental illness or substance use disorder. 

      When more people are equipped with the tools they need to start a dialogue, more people can get the help they need. Mental Health First Aiders can even save lives. This is an eight-hour training and can be done in person or online.

      #2 Host Mental Health Talks/Q&A’s (trauma, depression, marriage, grief and loss, media, etc.) This can consist of live or recorded sessions.

      #3 Supporting the work and initiatives of local counseling groups. Providing funding for congregants to get mental health support, seeing counseling agencies as missional, etc.

      #4 Offering your space for local support groups (grief and loss, sexual trauma, men’s emotions, etc.)

      #5 Decreasing the stigma through shared or related resources in your own bulletins/social media accounts, etc. especially suicide hotlines (800) 273-8255)

      #6 Get the support YOU need. Every leader needs a safe place. DO YOUR OWN WORK! This is not intended to be another laundry list of things added to your plate. This is about living a life of freedom and spaciousness so you can offer love and care from a place of FULLNESS and overflow. Be the healthiest version of you that YOU can be (spiritually, emotionally, physically, etc.) 

      Be intentional about having leaders, professionals, and friends in your life who ask you hard questions, give you feedback about your blind spots, and who challenge and encourage you. These are your 24/7 “iron sharpens iron” people. (Psalm 27:17) This might be a counselor, spiritual director, pastor, small group leader, Life Coach, Enneagram teacher, Celebrate Recovery or AA, other men’s groups, a learner (reading, podcasts), or your daily practices (such as the Examen, Headspace, etc.) 

      Leaders must embrace and model this first. We can’t give what we don’t have. We can’t give help if we can’t ask for it. Fundamentally, we must first be a safe/secure place for ourselves before we can offer that to others.

      It’s time to shift the mental health mindset. 

      It’s time to bring what has been hidden in darkness into the light. 

      And it’s time to accept the beautiful hard truth about mental health. 

      We can do better.

      We can be better.

      Blog written by Co-Founder and Executive Director, Amy Alexander, LMFT and edited by Shelby Renee Rawson

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