A Parent’s Response to Jen Hatmaker

So, yesterday, Jen Hatmaker (an awesome writer, an awesome person and one of my “friends I’ve never met”) wrote this article on her blog – http://jenhatmaker.com/blog/2014/05/30/on-parenting-teens-that-struggle.

In it, she raises some questions (near the bottom of her article but please read the whole thing.).  Questions that she, with relatively normal teens, can’t answer about teens that struggle.

In my personal life (my own family), my friends (adoptive friends literally scattered all over the world and my interactions with people involved with troubled kids professionally (social workers etc. – and yes, I’m talking about you, Billy, Jill, Sarah and Christine), I feel like I can take a pretty good effort at answering her questions.

So Jen, here goes…… (Jen’s questions are in bold)

How can we come along side you? 
That is a hard one because to truly come alongside a parent of a struggling teen, you have to have some knowledge of what it is like.   And unless you’ve been there, that’s hard to do.   But a couple of ideas:  

  • Don’t ask the glib, “How are you?” question unless you’re prepared to actually care and actually talk to us about how we are.   Instead, use a different greeting –  “Hi! Good to see you!”  
  • Especially if you are a youth group leader, teacher, grand parent, aunt, uncle or good friend, ask what would be appropriate.   Don’t assume you know what the needs of this teenager are because your teenager needed “that.”
  • Don’t offer glib, trite and easy Bible verse efforts to encourage us.   We know that God has a plan for everything and everyone, but we’re in the middle of a battle and that’s not the time to tell us that

Talk truthfully to us
If you want the parents of troubled teenagers to talk truthfully, then you need to  be ready with open arms and open ears to hear the truth.   Because the truth isn’t pretty.   The truth about struggles, the truth about the hole in the wall, the truth about the reason that we have or haven’t done this or that.    It’s not easy and it often runs totally opposite the thinking that many parents raised their children with.    As a dad of three biological children and two adopted children, I can tell you that many of the things that we have to do to parent troubled teens is 180 degrees.    As Jack Nicholson said in the movie, “A Few Good Men,”  “You want the truth?   You can’t handle the truth!”

If you want to  truly support the struggling parents in your midst, you need to be able to, you need to learn to handle the truth and to respond in a Christ like and supportive manner.

Ask for help
I’ve often said that the 1st World church does a wonderful job reaching out to those who need help when it’s a need you can see.   Hurricane relief, cancer treatments, grief over the death of a loved one, illness, we know how to help with that.

We, as the first world church, don’t know how help people who “look” normal.    We don’t know how to help those who struggle with trauma, with attachment, with social issues, with mental illness.   People who look normal from a distance but the struggle is all inside.

So if we, as parents, are going to ask for help, then we, as the church, need to know and understand how to help, how to support and how to respond in ways that are truly helpful.

Tell us how we can help.
That’s hard.   Sometimes, we don’t have the energy to tell you.    Some times we feel like no matter how hard we try, you wouldn’t understand.  

Sometimes we don’t know how you can help, because we’re hanging on to the knot on the end of the rope and all we have the energy for is to keep hanging on.

But, no matter what we tell you, no matter what happens, don’t judge, don’t look down on us for decisions we make.   An example of that – I’m an elder at my church.   My church has services both in the morning and at night.   When our older kids were at home, we went both morning and night religiously (pun intended).   Now with our adopted kids, we rarely attend the night service.   Why?    Because social interactions are hard for one of our kids in particular and because the added stress of a highly structured situation like a church service adds stress that we would pay for over the next few days.   Frankly, the added benefit of the evening service was outweighed by the stress it added to the first part of our week.

And the sad part is,  there are some Elders in our church who totally understand and totally get that.   And there are other of the fellow spiritual leaders of the church who,  through their comments, through remarks made in conversations at Elder’s meetings, are not happy with the fact that one of “them” is not attending both morning and evening services.   That type of judging is hurtful, unproductive and totally opposed to what Jesus would have them do.

Prayer – we need prayer, lots of it.   And tell us that we’re being prayed for.   My brother’s mother in law Facebooks me on a regular basis and just says something along the lines of “Tom, just wanted to know I love you  and your family and I’m praying for you as you deal with the turbulence that is going on.”

Do you have a friend who is struggling with their teens?  If you don’t have their mobile number, get it and every time you pray for them, text them a quick note that says,  “Hey, just wanted to let you know that I just talked to God about you and your struggles, hang in there.”  By the way,  my mobile number is (616) 292-7559.   Smile

Reach out in unexpected ways – but always ask first, “Does your family like pizza?  What night next week can I have pizza delivered to your house as a treat?”   “Can I take _______ out for ice cream some time next week?”   There are many days where even a 20 minute break is a huge thing.

Teach us to love well in the midst of the struggle.

I have told a couple of my kids, “I may not always like you, but I will always love you.”   

Make sure that your friends who are struggling with a troubled teen know that even if you don’t understand, even if you don’t know what to do, you love your friends and support them in their efforts.    The last thing a parent who is struggling needs is someone who doesn’t understand but then judges them for their decisions.

Receive grace

We all need that.   Large amounts of it.

Thank you, Jen, for bringing the subject to the forefront.  I love what you are and what you  do.    Keep on changing the world.


Shaken Phone Syndrome?

It started already Tuesday night. Actually I think it was within an hour of finding out about it.

The phone calls started. The panicked, nervous and very distraught adoptive parents whose children were still down at GLA were obviously very upset about the news and very concerned about what had happened to GLA and to the kids.

Fortunately, John Bickel was able to get in touch with Jean in our Colorado office and let her know that they were all outside and badly shaken but no one on the premises was hurt. So, right away, we could start reassuring parents that their children were safe.

But what did the future hold? How bad was it? What happened to the paperwork? How badly would this delay things? What did it really mean?

And why God, why did you allow this to happen?

During the first 10 days, my e-mail was buzzing so fast it was smoking and my voice mail on my cell phone was always full. Normally, my bluetooth headset for my phone lasted an entire day before it needed charging. Then I was going through it three times during the course of one day. Purely nuts and everyone was alternating between altered states of consciousness – between being very relieved that their children were safe and extremely stressed and upset that they were living with so many uncertainties (their kids were). I was getting e-mails from people saying, “Tom, I tried to call you but your voice mail is full.” To which I e-mailed back and said, “Yep, I’ve been on the phone virtually non-stop since 7:30 this morning (when I dropped the kids off at school) and it’s currently 9:00 at night…….

But little by little, the dust, both proverbial and physical, was settling. There started to be talk of Humanitarian parole (more on that later) and talk of water trucks, supply runs, charter airplanes and peace keepers. The very limited reports of looting in Port Au Prince helped too.

As time moved on, adoptive parents became more and more hopeful that their kids would actually get to go home early. There were a number of governmental and adoption agencies who were working with both the US government and the Haitian government. More on that later – there were so many other things happening at the same time…….

P.S. Within 2 months after this, I had to replace my phone because the vibrate function on it died.   I think it literally shook itself to death after the earthquake.

Bury it?

Ann Voskamp recently said something (one of many) that has resonated with me:

“You have to bury your fear in faith.   Otherwise you bury your talents.”

There is a lot in those two sentences – let’s “unpack” them for a few minutes:

“You have to…..”    Not you should, or you can or you might want to.   You have to.  That means that if you don’t, there will be consequences.

“Bury your fear.”   Not, if you have fear or if your fear is getting in the way, but a solid acknowledgement of the fact that fear is part of life.

“in faith.”   Not in alcohol, not in pleasure seeking opportunities, not in working to the point of exhaustion.   In faith.   The only way we can bury our fear is by saying, “God, I don’t know what’s happening and it scares me.”    Or “God, I know what’s happening and it scares me.”   Bring your fears to Jesus – He can handle them.

“Otherwise……”   If you don’t bring your fears to Jesus, you’ll face consequences.    What sort of consequences?

There are many possibilities, but the one that Ann brings up here is, “you bury your talents.”    Otherwise you’ll not live up to the potential that God has for you.   Otherwise you’ll live a life that doesn’t use the talents God has given you.  

The devil has made us all afraid.   He has planted the seed of doubt.   Moses doubted he was the right man for the job.   King David doubted, Peter denied Jesus because he was afraid.   We all have fears and it’s important to realize that but then also realize that God is way bigger than anything we’re afraid of.

God has big plans for all of us.    Probably way bigger plans than any of us ever thought or planned.   Bury your fears in faith in Him and watch what God can use your talents to accomplish.

Twitter in a Disaster–aka Tom Vanderwell & Ann Curry?

Twitter was truly a remarkable and I’d say life saving “tool” that night. There were people who were able to connect with family, there were others who could route rescuers to someone who was tweeting while trapped in rubble.

There were also a boat load of journalists on twitter trolling to find out what’s happening. Like all of us, they were both physically but also proverbially in the dark about how bad it really was.

Keep in mind while we were all back here in the states in our warm houses, the GLA staff was attempting to get 90 kids to sleep on the driveway. And down in Port Au Prince, there were people who were quite literally thrust into a war zone without any preparation for it. One friend of mine who was down there when the earthquake happened described it this way, “It was like some of the worst parts of the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ without the bullets.”

So, Ann Curry posted on Twitter, “Looking to talk to any English speaking people in Port Au Prince” if they are available. I responded, “I’m not but I know people who are.” This kicked off a series of twitter conversations about it all and then an e-mail came through that said something I never thought I’d see:

“Tom Vanderwell, @anncurry is following you on Twitter.”

Additional discussions were had, phone numbers were exchanged and at 7:00 that Wednesday morning (the next day), Matt Lauer opened up the Today Show with an interview by phone with Dixie Bickel – the orphanage director in Haiti.

To this day, I’m one of the 1,013 people that Ann Curry still follows on Twitter. Oh and she has 1.4 million people who follow her on Twitter.

Twitter is a huge tool in disaster relief.

P.S. I’m @tvanderwell if you’d  like to follow me on Twitter

January 12, 2010–Part 2

It was four days later before we heard from all of our staff – they all survived, but many of them lost family members in the earthquake.

I spent quite a bit of time that night carrying on multiple conversations but one of them was with a volunteer who was sitting outside GLA’s main building but barely within range of the wireless network. She’d constantly lose signal and then it would come back in…….

Everyone was trying to grasp the enormity and the scope of what had happened. And especially since it was getting dark at that point, figuring it out was very hard to do.

One of the adoptive moms whose son was down at GLA and I began, that night, a very aggressive fund raising campaign because we knew that no matter what happened, no matter how bad it was, it was going to take a lot of additional funds to do what needed to be done. We actually kicked off that fundraising campaign at around 3:30 AM Wednesday morning. I finally fell into bed around 4:00. But that’s more than anyone in Haiti slept that night.

We all knew that when the sun came up the next day, what we’d see and hear would be total devastation and utter chaos.