The following article was originally published by Beau Henderson in Authority Magazine on June 16, 2020. Click here to view the original article.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps That Each of Us Can Take to Proactively Help Heal Our Country’, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Nietert.
Michelle Nietert, MA, LPC–S is an author and speaker and Clinical Director of Community Counseling Associates in Dallas, TX. She’s a former educator and school counselor with over 20 years of experience in private practice treating individuals, couples, children and teens. She’s a sought-after leader by mental health professionals, churches, and school districts, and created a crisis intervention program for a large suburban school district intervening in the lives of thousands of students and their families. She lent her mental health and parenting expertise as co-author of Loved and Cherished, a devotional for tween girls releasing in September. Michelle recently appeared on Good Morning Texas (ABC-Dallas) encouraging parents on how to deal with their kids’ disappointment about cancellations due to COVID-19 and has been mentioned on Insider and Best Life as a mental health resource for children and teen issues.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Igrew up the oldest of four children. My family moved several times when I was young, so I learned very quickly to overcome the challenge of saying goodbye to close friends and making new ones. My family was far from perfect but full of love and chaos. I was an overachiever involved in all the extra-curricular activities available. My junior high and high school resume was over five pages single spaced earning me a full ride to college. As a top-ranked tennis player in high school, I was injured my senior year and experienced the disappointment of not being able to play in college. That actually turned out to be a gift setting me on the path to where I am today as I was able to focus on my academics. College sports demands a lot of time and energy, and I was able to use that time instead to grow spiritually and socially.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The first book that has had the most impact on me is the Bible. I use it to direct my everyday life and in it, I have found the ultimate source of love and fearlessness that comes to me from having God on my side.
I think right now the next book that has had a significant impact on my life is Atomic Habits by James Clear. I have really been working on improving my daily habits so that they truly become routines, leaving me with less decision fatigue while creating a life with more energy and impact.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“To love what you do and feel that it matters how could anything be more fun?” — Katharine Graham
My life’s work is something that I love doing. I am a mental health professional, a life coach for the past two decades, and a national parent consultant as a mental health expert. I love helping people as a professional counselor and impacting our culture at large as a professional speaker and writer. I have a lot of fun, especially with speaking, and feel like it really makes a difference. As an Enneagram 2, my career fits perfectly with my passion for people and life change. Networking and marketing come naturally, and often my job doesn’t even feel like work since I am doing what I love.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is living a life worth following and serving those that follow you. When it comes to servant leadership, I am more than willing to clean up a messy bathroom, straighten an office, or do anything that I would expect my staff members to do to keep our center running well to best serve our clients.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I would like to discuss the impact COVID-19 has had on the mental health of our children. They are managing so much disappointment every day as they spend less time interacting with peers and socializing with friends, while also missing out on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like graduation, and extracurricular activities, both in and out of school.
This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
As COVID-19 hit and we became physically isolated, our children have struggled as they learn how to cope with this socially. This issue has become an important part of the work of mental health professionals who are working with children and their families. We have been working hard to equip parents to understand the emotions that kids are experiencing during this crisis, whether they are exhibiting all of those emotions or not. In addition, we are helping parents to find ways to be patient, to talk to their kids, and to understand this crisis from their own perspective.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?
Professionally, my work intensified as soon as schools were shut down across our nation. I spend a lot of in-person time speaking to parent-teacher associations and church groups. That quickly transitioned to Zoom calls with parents to discuss how COVID-19 is affecting their family. I have been coaching parents on how to help their kids manage this season of life disappointments, finding new ways of socializing, and help themselves adjust to having their children at home trying to learn without professional educational instruction.
Now as we move toward summer, I discuss with many parents who are still working in or out of their home, how to continue adjusting their family dynamic without regular childcare options that summer camps provide for many children. Without summer camps and activities, their children are also missing out on developing their social, emotional, and life skills.
Our own profession has been drastically impacted. Most of us really enjoy the face-to-face interaction that counseling offers, and we miss our ability to manage our clients’ intense emotions within the structure of our offices. As we have moved inside our own homes, we have been delivering Telehealth services and continue to do so in addition to wearing masks if in front of our patients and ask them to do the same. So, we are also experiencing more fatigue. For example, this week I am attending a training on ethical issues regarding Telehealth because while this is not a new dimension for our profession, it certainly has never been utilized at this level nationwide.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
Step 1: Listening
I think the first step we can each take to heal is to listen. For example, if a child is struggling with some emotions, sometimes it takes a lot of listening to their chit chat before they go deeper. This is often true in our counseling offices. We can spend 30 minutes in a session and the child does not share a lot, even with probing questions. But as they feel safer and they warm up to talking, they often go beyond surface levels of communication and move towards the depth of their emotional struggles.
Step 2: Empathy
The next step our whole country needs in order to move towards healing is empathy. We must try our best to put on someone else’s glasses and view the world through their eyes. With children who’ve lost many opportunities, parents need to be aware that they have a lifelong perspective unlike their kids, and that this season is so different from what their kids have known before.
In addition to COVID-19, I think this is important as we look at the racial issues that have come up in our country recently. Empathy is vital not only to those who have been trained as professional counselors in multicultural counseling, but everyone should respect various ways of life and values of families and communities. It’s really important that we all work towards this as a country.
Step 3: Validating Emotions
The third step that is so important in this process of healing is to validate that someone else could feel this way. It changes the way that people interact with us when we give them and their emotions credibility. It may not be an emotion that we want them to hang on to forever, and even they may not want to hang on to that feeling forever. But it is still there and still part of their life experiences. And we bring truth, grace, and love in a unique type of healing when we are able to say, “I could see how you could be angry” or “I could see how you would be disappointed” or “I can understand your grief.” These are such important phrases that we need to learn to use as we remember to not minimize someone else’s experience or perspective, but instead to try to understand it.
Step 4: Not Rushing “Me Too”
I believe the questions “Is there anything else you would like to share with me?” or “Would you like to tell me more about that experience/feeling?” are ones we need to ask more frequently to help our country heal. Too often we hear someone share their experience and we immediately share either our own stories or we ask questions that can seem helpful to us, but in reality, challenges the information just shared with us. I think it is very important that we use questions like these and be curious about the person in front of us before we are quick to relate.
Honestly, this is a struggle for me. On the Strengthsfinder assessment, I am a “Woo,” which means I love to help people make connections — with others and with me. It’s a way of joining with someone. But I think if we start the “me too” process too soon, we will miss out on the deeper emotion that someone might be willing to share with us or even more information about who they are and what is going on in their minds and hearts. I believe a person cannot heal when things remain hidden. I believe in privacy, but I believe secrecy can be very, very detrimental to individuals, families, communities, and even our nation. This is because in secrecy there is no support or accountability.
Step 5: Gratitude
The fifth step is going to sound like a total 180 from where I started, but I think it is so important. The fifth step is that we continue to focus on gratitude where it is appropriate — that we can be grateful for some things in the midst of trials and tribulations that many people are experiencing right now. Additionally, we can begin to celebrate as an individual, a family, and a culture. I love seeing those examples in the news and throughout my own community. There have been senior parades, birthday parades, and other creative ways to celebrate major life events in the lives of our children and in our culture. I am so grateful that people have made an extra effort in that way. I hope we will continue in that spirit of thoughtfulness toward our neighbors.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality? What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen? Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?
I love the fact that our communities are allowing more and more in-person gatherings to happen, with social distancing. These gatherings give us opportunities to be physically present with one another. I am excited to see that continue in our culture because I think that is such a necessary part of living — to see people’s faces and interact with them in person. This also gives us the chance to practice the five healing steps above in person.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Yes, as a solution-focused therapist leading a team of 15 counselors, I always believe in the concept of hope. I think that hope is something we often bring to clients in our office who are struggling with depression, trauma, grief, or anxiety. While the lives of our clients are challenging right now, with no immediate cure, we get to be the ones to show them the “next step” tools to better their life. I believe that to be true for our children as well.
One thing I discuss a lot in public and in the news is that I truly believe that we have the potential to raise one of the most resilient generations that our country has seen in a long time. This generation has faced unusual situations where they did experience some helplessness initially, yet many of them have taken this time to create new purposes and good out of it. I’ve seen this in my own children who are learning to skateboard, write songs, work out, etc. I am seeing a lot of ways that our kids have learned not only how to rise up in difficult scenarios, but also how to have a greater appreciation for many, many things previous generations have taken for granted.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I work with young people every day in our counseling offices. As a previous crisis counselor, I am always encouraging young people to fully develop themselves and to take advantage of the freedom most of them have during their youth and college years before they enter the full-time work- married- family-filled life. They can make a huge impact on their culture!
So many of our kids have come up with creative ideas. For example, a girl in our community created and helped develop an entire special needs program for churches, while also meeting the needs of their families in church as part of her Girl Scout project. I would tell youth to let no one look down on you because you are young, and if you have a great idea and the energy to do it, look for friends and adults who will come alongside you and make it happen. You will be glad you did!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I think at this moment in my life the person I would love to have lunch with actually lives in my city and her name in Jennie Allen. The reason I have so much respect for her is because she and I were both involved in ministry and Christianity in a period where women were considered secondary and often assistants to male counterparts. Ultimately, she has led and trailblazed in an area where women have been subjugated. In her process of starting IF Ministries and IF: Lead, she has created an incredible organization and outreach for women throughout the country to connect to God and to others without having to leave their local church environment.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’d love to connect with your readers!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for having me, Beau!