Since high school, Jessica Sinarski knew that she wanted to be a therapist. She found that empathy was a strength of hers and she wanted to lean into it. She originally didn’t want to work with kids but that all changed during an internship she had in graduate school at Boston College. She thought that she would work in the marriage and family counseling space or in premarital counseling but then everything shifted when she had a couple of kids in foster care on her caseload. Jessica recalls, “I found my calling.”
Jessica is a Licensed Professional Counselor of Mental Health (LPCMH) and a highly sought-after therapist, speaker, and instigator of hope. Her extensive post-graduate training and 15+ years as a clinician and educator led her to create the resource and training platform called BraveBrains which is “a resource and training platform for K-12 educators and beyond. Using innovative solutions rooted in brain science, we empower children and adults to reach their full potential.” In this podcast, Jessica discusses her academic and professional journey, how the mission and vision of BraveBrains has transformed over the years, and how she makes Social Emotional Learning (SEL) practical, available, and easy to understand for parents and professionals.
During her internship at Boston College, she was at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC). Jessica shares “there were several kids in foster care on my caseload, and it was just heartbreaking. Growing up’s hard enough. And then there not only was there instability at home, but these seemed to be the kids that got passed around professionally as well and that broke my heart.” Her first job out of graduate school was at a foster adoption child welfare support agency in the South Bronx in New York City “and it became very clear, very quickly that I didn’t know what I needed to know to be helpful” so she studied to become certified as an adoption therapist. She also learned about attachment in the brain and Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s work around The Whole-Brain Child and making brain science really accessible. Jessica worked alongside Jonathan Baylin who is ”just a brain nerd, he just loves neuroscience. He’s a clinical psychologist and the author, co-author of a couple books and we would, we would talk about this stuff.”
Jessica is the author of multiple books including Your Amazing Brain, the award-winning Riley the Brave series, and Light Up the Learning Brain. One of her newest books is Riley the Brave’s Big Feelings Activity Book: A Trauma-Informed Guide for Counselors, Educators, and Parents. She admits “it’s kind of funny to me that I’m a therapist who writes kids’ books now. I mean, I write other books too, but I didn’t like therapeutic kids’ books. I very rarely found one that I liked. There are more out now that are great, but I struggled to find things that kids could relate to and so, I guess, that’s part of my passion now is how do we make the tough stuff a little less tough?”
Jessica offers a multitude of advice to those interested in the field of psychology, social work, and especially those interested in opening their own practice or business. She points out “I haven’t seen a school yet that actually talks about or has a course on how do you open and run and maintain a business or a practice.” So, she says don’t be afraid to ask for help. She states, “You don’t have to have everything figured out” and remember “the value of collaborating and networking, especially if you’re going into private practice like solo private practice because it can be so lonely.”
What other advice does Jessica offer? Pay attention to what lights you up. She says, “Pay attention to your passion because you’re much more likely to be persistent with it if you are passionate about it, that’s grit 101, right?” In response to my question “what’s one of the most important things you’ve learned in your life thus far?”, Jessica responds “we can’t give what we don’t have and so doing the healing work ourselves is essential…I think it’s just essential that we know and heal ourselves if we’re trying to be people who know and offer healing presence to others.”
Interests and Specializations
Jessica Sinarski has extensive post-graduate training and over 15 years as a clinician and educator both, of which, have led her to create the resource and training platform called BraveBrains. Jessica makes social emotional learning practical, equipping parents, and professionals with deeply trauma-informed tools. Jessica was awarded the national Voice for Adoption Drenda Lakin Memorial Award in 2021 in recognition of her valuable post-placement support and services to families who have achieved permanence for children in the child welfare system.
Other Sources and Links of Interest
Welcome to the Master’s in Psychology Podcast, where psychology students can learn from psychologists, educators, and practitioners to better understand what they do, how they got there, and hear the advice they have for those interested in getting a graduate degree in psychology. I’m your host, Brad Schumacher, and today we welcome Jessica Sinarski to the show. Jessica is a licensed professional counselor of mental health, author, speaker, instigator of hope, and founder of BraveBrains. Weaving user-friendly brain science into everything she does, Jessica ignites both passion and know-how in audiences. She partners with school districts and child welfare agencies around the world to unlock resilience in children and adults alike. Today, we will learn more about her academic and professional journey, more about BraveBrains and her new book, as well as how to make brain science accessible and understandable for both parents and children. Jessica, welcome to our podcast.
Thanks for having me, Brad. I’m. Glad to be here.
Well, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us. I’m excited to talk about your journey. The first thing I want to ask you is can you tell us a little bit more about your journey and what led you to become a Licensed Professional Counselor in Mental Health (LPCMH)?
Sure. So, I am one of the rare people I feel like who didn’t change majors. I kind of knew from, from toward the end of high school that I wanted to be a therapist, that really appealed to me. I think as is true for many in the helping fields, my own trauma background probably played into it. And I had gotten some help as a kid. And found that, you know, empathy was a strength and so just was excited about leaning into that a bit. I think if I had to do it over again knowing I didn’t know that I wanted to work with kids necessarily. In fact, I thought I didn’t want to work with kids. And if I had known the path, I would end up on, I would have gone the licensed clinical social worker route. But we don’t know these things when we when we’re on our journey and it’s been fine.
And I don’t think, you know, where you ended up, whether or not you had one or the other, probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference.
No, I think the only reason I mentioned that is particularly in the child welfare field because and moving states a couple of times as I did as an adult, that the license as a as a master’s level mental health professional master’s level counselor is different from state to state whereas the clinical social work license is much more widely recognized and uniform. And I think that that sort of red tape hoopla would have been a smoother experience.
No, that’s a very good point, because what, what some states view as an LPCMH may view as a different certification as well as some other certification. So, let’s return to your academic journey. I did notice that you received your BA in psychology and Spanish from Taylor University. So, tell us a little bit more about your undergraduate experiences and when did you know that psychology was for you? Was it even before your undergrad?
It was. It was so in high school it really. This is like the little-known fact at one point I wanted to be an actor, singer-songwriter. As happens so but I’m also like super practical. So, I didn’t I decided I didn’t want the busy lifestyle that would be needed for that. I wanted a more flexible career and that was one of the things that appealed to me about being a therapist in particular is that sort of like, to some extent, make your own hours, and I knew I wanted a family, and so thinking ahead about what that could all look like factored in. So, then I went into undergraduate right out of high school with psychology and Spanish as majors. I have had, I had wanted to learn Spanish well since I was a kid, my best friend in kindergarten spoke Spanish and I you know little me just wanted to learn. I had a little notebook that I would write down words in, so I took Spanish in high school and then again in college and continued to in my adulthood, try to become fluent. I wouldn’t say so. I speak Spanish, you know, I get rusty when I’m out of practice for a while and all of that, but that was also important to me.
Yeah, it is true, especially with the languages use it or lose it…
…because if you don’t use it on an everyday basis. So, I understand what drew you to the, a career in psychology of the mental health field is the flexibility for your family. Anything else?
I think I liked the idea, so I. It’s funny, thinking about 18-year-old me, that was a very long time ago. I felt like a good listener. I felt like people had a tendency to tell me things and I, you know, in my more mature adulthood, looking back can see certainly the like gratification, the joy that comes from that. And I enjoyed that. I enjoyed being able to help. So that was that was appealing. I’m also super curious. So, I found the idea of understanding why we do what we do very intriguing. I think that has always been interesting to me. So that drew me. Yeah, I think those were in addition to the very practical, make your own hours situation, those were some of the things that I think appealed to me about the profession.
Well, you’re not alone. Many others in the mental health field, especially helping people, say almost the same thing as you and they get gratification knowing that they’re making a difference. And so, you continued that thought and that passion when you attended Boston College for your Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology. Now the one thing that I should mention is you know, every different state has different schools, different areas, different ways of providing opportunities for those of you who want graduate degrees in psychology. So, in your case, there are many colleges in Massachusetts that offer graduate degrees in psychology. So, what specifically drew you to Boston College?
Well, you’re testing my memory, Brad. So, I think. I was looking actually all over the country, so I remember ASU was on my list, NYU. I was looking at some different programs and I’m trying to remember what I thought I was going into at the time because my passion shifted during my internship in Graduate School, so honestly, I don’t even remember. I don’t know if I still thought I was doing something in the marriage and family space or premarital counseling I know was something that appealed to me when I was in undergraduate, so I may have pursued programs that were sort of in that, you know, that seemed to have some expertise in that space. But then everything shifted when I had an internship with, there were a couple kids in foster care on my caseload, and I just found my calling.
And we’re going to talk about foster care a little bit later on as well, but let’s go. Let’s continue down the road here. And one question that I need to ask is any advice that you would give to aspiring students who want to become an LPCMH professional or those who are considering starting their own mental health related venture or practice?
Ah, two big questions. So, for the for the like pursuing maybe LPCMH or thinking about sort of master’s level work somewhere in this field, I would say get all the experience you can, really get out there. I was. I was listening to another episode and hearing Roxy talk about the same thing that you know; you don’t know what you don’t know. And so, I had grown up kind of all over the country a bit, but I’m a white, you know, I was a white young woman and I really needed to get immersed in lots of different places to understand my blind spots and find where I could come alongside in a healthy way. So maybe it’s maybe it’s internships, maybe it’s volunteering. I also I had a mentee a couple of years ago who, you know, thought she knew what she wanted to, you know, she thought she was on this path and then got into it for a minute and was like, nope, this is not for me. It’s better to figure that out in an internship or a one month something than to, you know, devote your whole career to something that you end up finding out you don’t enjoy.
Exactly right. And you know, the other thing that I always say is don’t be afraid to try new opportunities and it’s don’t think about it as. Ohh my gosh, I wasted a month, and I didn’t like it. No, don’t think about it that way. Think about it as I figured it out in less than a month that I didn’t want that career path. So that’s just another way of looking at it so.
So true. That’s so true.
Are there any other certifications that you consider getting or any other experiences. I know that many of my guests talk about. Hey, I got certified in this. I got certified in this because I apply it in my clinical practice. Now we’re going to talk about BraveBrains in a second. So, yours is a little different. It’s not really a clinical practice. It’s actually focused on other areas, training and that sort of stuff. But are there any other certifications that you considered getting and, if so, why?
So yeah, I did and I did get I am a lifelong learner. I just think there’s just so much value in staying curious in in digging into what you don’t know, I think the thing I didn’t hear as much as I wish I had in Graduate School was the value of sort of bottom-up approaches and treatment with the brain and body in mind. And so, my additional training post postgraduate school was in adoption therapy specifically and then also in a lot of things to understand, the brain and body. So, in neurofeedback in I haven’t gotten certified in EMDR but, you know, things related to trauma. The safe and sound protocol, like some of those things that we know, can reach the nervous system where CBT is not going to reach the nervous system in the same way, cognitive behavioral therapy, not knocking CBT, but it’s just not the end all be all. So the other thing that I found about 10-12 years ago now is I am super intrigued by the senses and the world of sensory processing, so I think, you know, if I had an extra year or two of life to live I would probably go down some sort of occupational therapy path because I think understanding, again, understanding our body just plays into understanding why we do what we do and how our body functions and how our eight senses are taking in information and. So, it is. I am at a funny place in my career where it was last October that I decided to step back from private practice. I still do a little bit of clinical supervision, but it just became too much to juggle on top of, you know, parenting 3 boys and trying to keep all the balls in the air. And so, I made the difficult, but correct in the moment for myself, decision aligned is how it kept feeling. It felt very aligned with where I was and what needed to happen to leave private practice.
Well, I should mention that for years and years, those in the mental health field were among the top ten in the burnout, you know, rate. And so, it’s no wonder some people in the mental health field and especially clinical psychology get burned out and you have to take care of yourself. So, I applaud you for recognizing that and moving on to the next stage in your career. The other thing I’ll say about the senses, you and I talked before we started recording and I talked to you about my history and my experience in education. One of the things that I really loved is. I found out that the more senses that you use while you’re studying while you’re trying to memorize stuff, the better recall you have because you have more buckets from which to pull that information. And so, it also creates more neural pathways in your brain when you use more senses. And so yeah, so it’s.
That’s right. That’s exactly right.
It’s fun to incorporate the brain in all sorts of different areas. So based on my research, I did see that you have over 15 years as a clinician and educator that eventually led you to create the resource and training platform called BraveBrains. As the founder of BraveBrains, could you share with us the mission and maybe the vision behind the organization?
Yeah. And what’s interesting is it has transformed a little bit in the three or four years since I founded it. When I first started, I was really focused on trauma and equipping and empowering educators in helping them have what they needed to be able to reach kids who I was seeing slip through the cracks. Uhm, kids who were ending up in detention, ending up left behind and really so much of it was coming from miscommunication that these kids had learned some adaptive ways to survive that weren’t working out very well in the classroom setting, and I felt like I had a way to talk about that that was really resonating with folks. What I have realized since is that while the way that I talk about the brain and body and sort of intervening in those spaces is. I think. I don’t want. Essential for trauma like we really have to think about the brain and body if we’re going to, if we’re going to be trauma sensitive, it’s also just human sensitive. It’s understanding like everyone is going to benefit from understanding our own nervous system state a little bit better. From understanding that when you go to, when you’re trying to get the best out of a student, there are certain things that you can do that will help that in milliseconds. You know from an amygdala like brain-to-brain connection standpoint. And there are a lot of things that will hurt that and so well-intentioned, you know, teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors are in these school settings with all these little humans or big humans and I felt like I was just seeing everyone struggle unnecessarily like guys, guys, let’s put on these brain goggles and then it all becomes so much more clear. So, the vision for BraveBrains has shifted to really help all educators light up the learning brain that that is my goal. With the resources I’m creating with the writing with the training is to is to help people put on those brain goggles and then know what to do with that. OK, so if I know. That this is how, you know, Jack’s brain is going to respond, then then what do I do with that knowing that I also have a lesson to teach and these other kids who are doing this and you know all of these other pieces. And that has been again really rewarding because I just see these light bulb moments that, you know, I feel sometimes like I. So there’s an old Friends episode where Joey is on an infomercial and you know he’s struggling with the milk carton and you know, uh, these things are so fling and flangen hard to use and there’s got to be a better way as the milk spills everywhere, like that’s what’s happening in education and I’m the infomercial guy on the side going and there is Kevin, right? Like there is a better way. We don’t have to be frustrated and miserable and at odds with each other non-stop in, you know, in these situations so.
Well, I like that analogy. The other thing that I’d point out is in addition to all the resources that you have on BraveBrains, you have a learning opportunity and professional development opportunity that you were kind of referencing earlier as being able to, you know, you go out as a keynote speaker and conduct these interactive workshops and help those who are helping others. And so you provide that platform for them to learn more about not only the psychology of it and how people learn, but bring in the neuroscience because I have to admit, the research that I’ve done and after talking to so many of my guests, you know, there could be one therapy that is better suited for a given condition and or now we include how people learn and how people can actually become better and deal with that trauma and deal with, you know, whatever they’re dealing with. And so, it’s, it’s definitely interesting looking at all of this. So, we will definitely share your website as well as your personal. And since I’m sharing the screen, I’ll go to your personal website. I like this website because it gives you a high overview of everything that you’re doing. It talks about you, your history, your journey, a little bit, and then it goes into hey, here are some resources. So not only are you providing resources on your BraveBrains website, but you’re also providing some nice resources on your personal website. So, tell us a little bit more about what is the goal of your personal website here and what do you want us to get out of it, all of the people who visit your website?
So, my mission, I’ve actually been doing a lot of work on this. Like what is my purpose? What, what am I trying to do now that I now that I feel like I’m in this sort of help the helpers stage of my career, my mission really is to help you restore hope in broken places. So, I think a lot of what I hear is about feeling broken or one you know, broken relationships and my take is what I feel like I’ve learned through a lot of years and years of doing my own work. As well as learning professionally is, you’re not broken, your kid is not broken. This you know there, there is hope. And so, what I’m trying to do is sort of reveal what’s underneath what’s really going on. So, a lot of times people parents will reach out because of big behavior. You know, kids are struggling with obeying or getting chores done, or having outbursts or meltdowns or anxiety or whatever it is, and I think one of the ways that I almost always start with parents is understanding what’s going on in body and brain. Their own as well as their kids. And because I worked a lot with trauma, that usually started with some work on trauma and the brain specifically, and how that, how that impacts how we’re wired. But what I saw in the resources that were available was it felt it. I struggled to find things that were really strengths based and practical and kid friendly, so it’s kind of funny to me that I’m a therapist who writes kids’ books now. I mean, I write other books too, but I didn’t like therapeutic kids’ books. I very rarely found one that I liked. There are more out now that are great, but I struggled to find things that kids could relate to and so, I guess, that’s part of my passion now is how do we make the tough stuff a little less tough? How can how can I support parents in having difficult conversations? And honestly, I mean the vulnerable thing I will share is I’m still trying to figure that out. There’s a lot of noise out there. And when you’re an author there’s a lot of pressure to be on social media and be doing all the things all the time. And so, it has taken some concentrated energy over the last year or so to start to figure out along with my I have a director of operations. We’re a very small team at BraveBrains at this point and along with Melanie to figure out what. What is reasonable? What can we do? How do we help restore hope in broken places? So, I have all of these resources. I have courses. I, you know, I have things that are free that I because I just feel like I have magic beans that I want everybody to have access to. And we live in an age of information overload, so if you go to the website even as this podcast airs you, it might look a little different. You know, if you go to it a year from now, it might look a little different because I’m always trying to figure out how to reach someone who’s hurting. How to not overwhelm. How to provide you just what you need. And so that has been an evolving process.
And it’s difficult to anticipate what your listeners, visitors, clients need because those needs may change and so, similar to our website and our podcast, we get feedback on hey, I’d love to hear more about a sports psychologist. Love to hear about neuropsychology, whatever, but it’s those that we don’t hear that we try to anticipate helping as well. And so let me return back to, you know, starting the business and the business aspect of it. And you know what are some of the crucial business skills or knowledge that you had to develop to establish and grow BraveBrains?
So, I’ll. I think. There’s several. One is not being afraid to ask for help. You don’t have to have everything figured out. You’re if you’re a psychologist, you’re a psychologist, and you’re, you know, maybe you’re also owning this small business. And so, it’s OK that you need help figuring out how to own your small business. That’s. That’s all right. I think second, we do have to. Like I have reluctantly gotten on board with, I have to figure out messaging and I don’t love it. I don’t speak in sound bites. I much prefer this hour-long conversation than the, you know, 30 second Instagram real. I want to. I want to dig in. Let’s talk. Let’s flesh it out. Is nuanced and so. If you are, especially I think if you are trying to expand your business or you’re trying to reach you know more people, you do have to think about messaging and what your marketing looks like. Knowing that there are lots of scam artists out there trying to lure you in to, you know, all you have to do is this or pay us $3000 and magically this will happen and so. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so really paying attention to what’s in it for the listener, the reader, the website visitor, the client, you know what is going to make them want to come to this this website? I think that has been an important thing to pay attention to. That is very top of mind, especially because of all of the business changes that we’ve been making over the last couple of years. What else?
Maybe the other thing I’ll jump in here is you know billing; you know if you are more of a clinical oriented practice you have to deal with insurance and billing. Now that you’re doing a little bit different, you don’t have to focus on that as much, but you still have the billing aspect of it, the accounting.
That’s right. That’s right.
And then the social media like you just mentioned, is a big challenge. If you don’t like it, that becomes even more challenging. So hopefully other people on your team can help out or it sounds like you, you reached out and tried to find another outside company to help you with that. But to your point, how do you know if they’re legit? If they’re effective, if they have a guarantee, if they have anything out there that but it’s all these things that you don’t learn while you’re going through school, let alone undergrad or Graduate School. They give you the tools and they help you lead you up to get your degree and/or licensure. But I haven’t seen a school yet that actually talks about or has a course on how do you open and run and maintain a business or a practice.
And it would be nice if professors would incorporate that into their programs and bring in live examples of people that have done that from square one to, you know, right now. So that’s one of the things that we’re trying to do on the website is bring in some of that information for…
Psychology students, if they are interested in opening up in their own field, can you think of any other skills or knowledge that students may need to acquire if they are thinking about going down this career path?
I think you’re spot on with the like accounting and business side of it and to not be afraid to not just ask for help, but the value of collaborating and networking, especially if you’re going into private practice like solo private practice because it can be so lonely. So, I’ve had various. I think I’ve been part of almost every version of private practice, you know, with a group that had a biller sort of on my own on my own but with, with some camaraderie and sort of group feel. And for me, being all on my own was not a good fit. I needed the, especially my cases tended to be really intense, complicated cases. And so having a team was important to me. So, I think, having some humility to flesh that out and figure that out is really important, even while you’re figuring out all of the accounting and you know the those the business side of it.
So, the other thing I kind of went quickly through your website for BraveBrains and I mentioned, you know, of course you have all these resources available in professional development opportunities, what are you now focused on? Are you focused more on the latter, more than the clinical side? I know that you kind of walked away from that or stepped away because you wanted to have a change in your career. Tell us a little bit more about what is the primary goal or helpful resources and/or opportunities on BraveBrains.
So, I am super excited about what’s coming for BraveBrains, not only so in in two main ways. One is, I’ve been training on this stuff for a while, but I didn’t have a book that sort of put the pieces together and I have spent the last year actually creating two books that will flesh that out for the world of education in really practical, empowering ways. You won’t find them anywhere on the website yet, because they’re still, they’re still in production, but that that has taken a that’s actually part of why I stepped away from private practice, because writing those along with all of the training and the other pieces of what I was doing became just became a lot. So, my hope is. What I’ve seen happen is, you know, I’ll do a training. But I’m not a big fan of, like drive bye training that there’s no follow up. There’s no like, put this on and wear it. Let’s dig in. For longer, I think there will be more opportunities for that. I’m seeing that open up with several districts and some different organizations around the country and not only that, but any, you know, school counselor in Missoula, MT will be able to grab this book and get some of the magic beans, get some of how this can be helpful for their students, for their staff. And then what we hope to grow over the next several years is sort of scaffolding that, so maybe you just get the book and that’s what you need and you’re a self-starter and you’re going to go and run with it. Or maybe it’s helpful to have the book and a series of five-minute, you know, videos that that help you flesh this out or maybe it’s also having a slide deck where you can then teach your staff because a lot of school. Counselor, a lot of the people that I talk to are in the position where they’re trying to support staff to make some changes and so having this kind of language has been really helpful for them. And maybe it’s a it’s a district or a school. I was just at an elementary school in Kentucky that is ready to do this. So, we had a full day of training. We really dug in, you know, from really intense, heady stuff all the way down to how we hold our faces matters like my eyebrows matter in how you’re perceiving me and let’s get practical about that when we’re thinking about kids who are dysregulated and. So. So that’s what I feel like I’m finally getting the structure in place where I’ve been building the ship as I sail it, but there will be, there will be a clearer path forward for a school or district or a single educator who wants to light up the learning brain to really put this in practice.
I like that summary and I like that analogy of you are while you’re sailing, you are figuring it out while you’re doing it as well. And the challenge I would imagine, I don’t want to speak for you, is every single client in this case, you know, students, faculty, educators, schools, the districts, whoever your client is, are going to be somewhat different in what they want to emphasize. And so being able to be flexible with what you can present, and basically customize it for their needs is crucial.
It is and it I think I was just talking about this this weekend with my husband that the, it’s part of what makes me really good at what I do because I do speak to the audience right in front of me. It’s also part of what can make it exhausting because I don’t have a canned keynote that I just deliver exactly like this every time because my audience is a little bit different every time and I want to make sure that we are connecting and that that I’m showing up in a way that is meaningful for you, the person in in front of me, whether that’s virtually or in person. So, it’s good. It’s hard, it’s really, it’s really important, I think, if we want to be effective in our work.
And speaking of meaningful, many students face uncertainty about choosing a specialization or a branch of psychology. So, what advice would you give to students who are exploring various career paths within the field of psychology or mental health? I’m sharing a screen right now, and these are just a handful of the major branches or fields of psychology, so a double-barreled question for you. How did you decide on the career path that you chose and any advice that you’d give to students to help them decide how they’re going to specialize in which area of psychology they’re going to specialize in?
I think my advice would be pay attention to what lights you up. Pay attention to your passion because you’re much more likely to be persistent with it if you are passionate about it, that’s grit 101, right? So, I think, you know, notice that. For me, looking at that list, I get all excited looking at neuropsychology. Like I wish I again. I wish I had a few extra years. To go and get a, get a doctorate in educational psychology. Super interesting. Maybe you love the lab stuff. I like learning about the research, but I don’t like the data crunching like I it became very clear pretty early on that that was not the direction I was going to go. Pay attention, yeah, pay attention to what lights you up.
OK, very good advice. I know other people on the podcast have said almost the same thing. What’s your passion? What do you want to do 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now and plan for that? And so that will help direct you. And then if you’re interested in neuropsychology, go ahead and be, you know, participate or volunteer in the lab, do some work there, and if you find out like we talked about earlier, if you find out quickly that it’s not for you, we’ll then go on and move on to something else as well so.
Yeah, reach out. You know Google that, that career path and talk to somebody who’s 20 years in and see, is that something that I want to be doing or, you know, do I have this vision in my head of what that is? And it doesn’t really track.
Right. Exactly. Now I you mentioned about adoption before, you became a certified adoption therapist in 2008, you were awarded the National Voice for Adoption Drenda Lakin Memorial Award in 2021 in recognition of your valuable post placement support and services to families who have achieved permanence for children in the child welfare system. Tell us more about your inspiration to become certified as an adoption therapist.
I mentioned before that my internship during my internship at Boston College, I was at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It’s a mouthful, MSPCC, and there were several kids in foster care on my caseload, and it was just heartbreaking. Growing up’s hard enough. And then there not only was there instability at home, but these seemed to be the kids that got passed around professionally as well and that broke my heart. And so, my first job right out of Graduate School was at a foster adoption child welfare support agency in the South Bronx in New York City. And it became very clear, very quickly that I didn’t know what I needed to know to be helpful. That I had. I had a lot to learn and so that sparked a number of things. I sought some quality supervision. I really tried to bring that into the agency. Like, what are we doing to support clinicians? And when this opportunity came up for the Postgraduate certificate program, I thought yes, like I need to, I need to understand this world better. I think in hindsight, the world of adoption, foster care, kinship care, there’s an appeal to it, to me personally from growing up with two moms who lived in different places, I it was a biological mom stepmom situation. But all of the complications that go even with that, even with still having my biology around me, but still but those complications played into having some empathy for all of the moving parts involved in these in these families and it just it was heartbreaking and I feel like our systems are failing kids and I felt a little bit lost in it for several years of like, where is my role to come alongside. And as I started learning about, particularly attachment in the brain, that was the sort of light bulb moment for me so. And Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s work around like The Whole-Brain Child, just sort of making brain science really accessible. That was helpful. And then I also got to work alongside Jonathan Baylin, who is just a, just a brain nerd, he just loves neuroscience. He’s a clinical psychologist and the author, co-author of a couple books and we would, we would talk about this stuff. We also LED some study groups together and it was it was conversations around that big conference table that sort of led to, OK, the science is saying this I was I was putting these things in practice with my clients and seeing really wonderful things happening. But everybody needs to know this. It can’t just be a secret that we keep to ourselves. How do we help it be something that everyone can access and so that, that was, that was I was thinking about that around 2016-2017 and that sort of sparked this journey into writing and resources and this wild ride that I’m on right now.
Well, you’re still on the wild ride and we’re trying to help you with getting a little bit more information about your website and then the BraveBrains as well. When you mentioned something about the adoption, what’s sad for me is to know that the younger years young kids, that’s the that’s the critical, most critical time for child development, let alone neurological development and to have that feeling of being pushed around from one adoption agency to another or from different families has got to be a negative experience to say the least. And you don’t build that trust factor that you have. And so, I applaud you for becoming a certified adoption therapist because I would imagine, correct me if I’m wrong, but you have a good understanding of how the system works and you can thoroughly explain it to them in simple terms and then they could rely on you and help increase that trust factor with them instead of feeling just being pushed around, like I said.
Yeah, we need. We need safety. And you hit the magic word. It comes back to trust. And so many of the kids that I’ve worked with, trust was not adaptive. It didn’t make sense to trust from a neurological perspective, right? Like they spent time in the cycle of mistrust. Instead of this trust building cycle. And that has a lasting impact on brain and body that often gets talked about in negative ways. Well, they’re damaged, or that leads to bad behavior. And well, they’re just they’re broken. They feel broken. Parents feel like they’re broken, right? Like it’s just a hot mess everywhere. And I think the. The perspective that certainly shifted in me and that I try to bring forth in my work is that all behavior makes sense on some level and for most of our kids who are struggling, there’s some. I mean, for all of our kids who are struggling, there there’s something behind that. No one comes in the world wanting to be a bad kid, you know, no one wants to be addicted to drugs by the time they’re 12 years old or to be whatever it is like. But it’s hard when you’re in the thick of it as a parent to hold compassion because kids don’t say, gee, I’m having a hard time or my brain has adapted to be really defensive or, you know, this, this angry outburst really means that I’m grieving my birth mom. They. They their actions are big and sometimes scary, and that sends adults into our self-protective defense brains. And then again, we just end up with everybody miscommunicating and feeling hurt and heartbroken and. And that’s what I, what I’m really hoping to mitigate.
People need to protect themselves. I don’t care what age you are. You get into that maladaptive behavior, and it just feeds on each other and then it exacerbates and doesn’t help at all. It’s tough to do that self-reflection. And for kids, it’s even more difficult than even some adults to recognize what am I actually feeling and why am I doing this? And so. I want to share that you are the author of many books, including Your Amazing Brain, the award-winning Riley the Brave series, and Light Up the Learning Brain. Your newest book is called Riley the Brave’s Big Feelings Activity Book: A Trauma-Informed Guide for Counselors, Educators, and Parents. And so, I’ll go there. Here is the newest one. And so, I tell us a little bit more about this newer book and more about the Riley the Brave series.
Yes, so this is a book that can serve a lot of audiences, but I think one of the places that it works the best is for counselors, psychologists, mental health, social work types who are trying to come alongside families. So, a lot of parents are so exhausted when they’re parenting a kid who has big feelings that they need some support. And so, my goal with this book is to give you language, tools, tips, strategies. Not just a whole bunch of worksheets. That’s not what it is. It’s really. It’s a way to bring the magic that I saw in my counseling room to you, so it’s divided in in sections from a brain building perspective that there’s a getting to know you section. There’s some stuff about feelings, what they even are because they think we don’t even know sometimes about the brain and how the brain plays into this and some of the protective ways our brain kicks into gear, what you might think of as maladaptive behaviors, but maybe they were adaptive at some point. And then it goes through the big four feelings. So, there’s a chapter on happy and sad and mad and scared with lots of adaptations throughout to have it be to let you put your flair on it. If you use sand tray, if you if you tend to be active in your sessions, if you have a kid who does not want to right to save their life, but loves playing in the in with the, the Playhouse or whatever. But there’s lots of ways for you to take this and run with it and resources that you can send home with parents and caregivers. So, there’s quite a few pages that are downloadable so that they can take the lesson with them into their week and have some reminders about, you know, feeling safe to feel sad or how they when sad looks like mad or you know some of those things. What’s my upstairs brain action plan? Like if I have a lot of tiger moments, a lot of those big angry outbursts. Not just from a cognitive behavioral perspective, but digging into like what’s really happening in my body and what are some of the supports that are going to set me up for success that maybe I can do on my own or that maybe I need to ask for help with and then we’re coming back to that trust building that so many kids who struggle with big feelings either missed or, uhm, it’s a little off kilter in one way or another.
I noticed when I looked at all of your books that you try to, and I think this is on purpose, include many different types of individuals, people, examples, scenarios, situations. So, my question is, why is it important for children’s books to be inclusive for all types of families?
So, I’ll answer that two ways. One is just from a simple brain perspective. So, for our for us to put ourselves in a story. We have to have some something that we feel like we relate to, you know, you need to relate to the main character. There has to be something redeeming or especially when we’re talking about children’s books. If a kid. You know. What I would see happen is I would lose my the kids I was working with their interest in it because suddenly they were jumping through mental hoops to try to put themselves in the story because it was talking about mom and dad or it was talking about, you know, auntie so and so. And that wasn’t their situation. So, Riley the Brave specifically is very much a blank canvas for that reason. The other reason I think it’s so important that children’s books are inclusive, and representative of a wide variety of abilities and races and you know all of the all of the ways that we are diverse is that we as humans function best when we feel safe, when we feel seen and when we feel valued. And if you look at your bookshelf, that might tell you a little bit about who, who feels safe and who feels seen and who feels valued. And so, as I have written, particularly writing with human characters, I’ve been really, what’s the word I’m looking for, intentional about not just representing what I think needs represented, but asking questions, connecting with my community to make sure that I’m representing things well and appropriately from people with lived experience and making sure I’m not promoting any stereotypes and being just super-duper careful. But that being careful doesn’t have to mean I’m just only going to write this little thing that I know I’m going to do the hard work to learn the things I need to learn and pay attention and ask the questions so that many, many kids can feel safe and seen and valued.
You mentioned three elements that are very important and under the “seen” I would also guess that that probably incorporates feeling understood and heard, or I should say it almost backwards, feeling heard and the other, you know, step forward is feeling understood as well, because somebody a lot of times you can communicate, but you don’t feel understood or heard. And then if you don’t feel that, you almost draw yourself in and say, well, why am I going to take the time to share my vulnerability or share my emotions if they don’t validate? And I understand that they heard and understood what I’m saying as well, and what I’m feeling as well so.
That’s right, yeah.
One other thing and I bring that up because you make social emotional learning, or some people call it SEL, practical and easy to understand or easier to understand. And you equip parents and professionals with some of the deeply trauma informed tools that they could use to help with their own children, their students. What are some strategies for helping children identify their emotions and process them in a healthy way?
I think the first step is making sure we know how to identify our emotions and process them in a healthy way. We have to model, as adults, that we are feeling and dealing too. We’re not robots. We don’t have to hide all our feelings from kids. But we also need to own, you know, if you yelled at a kid that you need to own that you had a tiger moment or that you flipped your lid or, you know, Mommy yelled and I’m sorry. Uhm, hey, that wasn’t cool. That must have been scary. And then stop talking. Don’t immediately jump into. But you shouldn’t have. You know, I wouldn’t have if you, make me so angry. Like those kinds of statements are not, are not going to help us on our journey to help kids learn these things. So, it really does start with us as annoying as that is. Uhm, then I think the other thing that I that that comes up so much for me is understanding that feelings are a mix of sensations, thoughts, and memories, and sometimes those memories aren’t conscious. So really recognizing that, you know, people will talk about, like, well, your feelings lie to you, or you don’t have to do with just what your feeling says, and I think there are valuable lessons in that, but how we say it matters because maybe somebody’s fight flight response is really active because they needed it to be active at certain points, maybe even before they had words, right, maybe even in utero. Maybe it didn’t have it, and maybe they were born into safety, either in their birth family or in adoptive family and but they got that message in utero from chemicals not shaming and blaming Mom. I’ve been there. It’s a stressful thing having a baby in the best of circumstances and. And so, if we can, if we can hold compassion for these behaviors that come from big feelings having to do with memories, with, with thoughts. I think we spend a lot of time thinking about thoughts or words, but I think that memories and sensations piece gets missed a lot. We talked already about, you know, just how valuable I think it is to understand our senses. And that, you know, we might be getting a message. That little pang of hunger might send us immediately to fight our flight if we’ve or freeze or shut down if we’ve had experiences with hunger, even a long, long, long time ago, so much so that we might even not we might not even notice the hunger. We might only flip into panic or flip into rage. And so, I think normalizing that all of this is mixed up into what we feel can help us sort of name it and walk through it without shame and blame. I think that’s what I see as a difference in how I tend to talk about things and what I see in a lot of. I don’t know if it’s just older resources or maybe you know, curriculum sometimes doesn’t have this little bit of nuance that I think is helpful for all humans, but really, really important for kids with trauma.
I would also have one other thing and you kind of mentioned it already, but don’t be afraid to pause.
We live in a society where if you pause too long, it’s a bad thing or you know, my background is interpersonal communication, public speaking. And so, my students always felt like they always had to talk all the time during that discussion or during that presentation. Don’t be afraid to use that pause to let things sink in for your audience and for your in interpersonal communication for your other partner who you’re communicating with, but also utilize that pause to gather up your thoughts and come up with a better way of explaining why you yelled at them. You know, I’m very frustrated. I have had a long day and I want the best for you. And I yelled because I was frustrated because I want something better for you and then go into that. So don’t be afraid to pause. And this is applicable not only in your interpersonal communication with your children, your clients, your family members, but also during interviews. A lot of people want to talk, and if they feel like they’re not talking, then that’s the wrong thing to do. The interviewer would rather have you pause, collect your thoughts, and then respond accordingly in a succinct fashion. And so that’s the only other thing I do is don’t be afraid to pause.
Agreed. Agreed. There’s so much power in that pause.
Jessica, what do you love most about your job?
I think the aha moments, the feeling of it really can be better. It doesn’t. It doesn’t have to feel so heavy. That is, that is my favorite part.
That’s great. That’s great. And you’re kind of in a transition here. So, if I ask you that same question in another month or two or five months from now, you might answer a different way.
Yes, yes indeed.
What other personal or professional goals do you have or hope to achieve in your career?
That’s an interesting question. There’s been so much going on in the last five years, like such a transition happening. I think one of my goals is to get some better structure in place with, particularly with BraveBrains, but also with my other work with Jessica Sinarski, the entity that that will let. That there’s enough revenue coming in that I’m not having to do all the pieces myself. You know, it’s a I’ve chosen this profession because of wanting to do good in the world, I’m also working on figuring out how to, because of the society that we live in this is necessary, pay my bills, right? That it can’t just be because I want everybody to have the resources, but finding ways that it can be sustainable, I think is one of the one of the goals that I’m actively working toward.
And that’s challenging for anybody and everybody. Some people are in a job they don’t like simply because they get a paycheck and they don’t know how to turn their passion into a revenue stream. So I’ll I’ll summarize for everybody. So if you wanted to learn a little bit more about Jessica, you can go to her website, jessicasinarski.com. If you wanted to learn a little bit more about BraveBrains.com you can go there. And then we’ll also share your social media. So, here’s your Facebook page you also. Your X, I want to say X page, but it’s your Twitter page.
Yeah, I just saw that change happen and was like what?
Yes, I know. I just saw that happen yesterday, literally. So, here’s your Twitter page. I wonder if they’re going to change the actual URL for it. I’m not sure. They’re probably going to keep it, but you have that as well as Instagram and then LinkedIn. And I should mention that if you wanted to see some of Jessica’s videos, you do have a YouTube channel. And you can learn a little bit more about all of these things that we’ve been talking about as well. So, I will share all of that when we go live. If you’ve seen some of our podcasts, I think you already did take a look at one of them, you noticed at the end we have some fun questions for some of our guests. So, one question that I asked typically first is tell us something unique about yourself.
I, you gave me this question ahead of time and I should have had a better answer ready. So OK, I when I’m working on a book, I make this semi-circle of notes and papers and resources and references around me. I have tried to do things a different way but it I have to have my friend has dubbed it the semi-circle of action. So, I purposely got a desk that has a bit of a semicircle in it, and I work on the floor on my desk. My desk stands. I need my semicircle of action when I am in creating mode with a with a book.
I can totally relate just before we got started, I admitted to you that, hey, I have multiple screens. I actually have 5 screens in front of me and one on the side. So, I am similar to you in that when I am creating some content or coming up with something, I like having everything here instead of one screen, so trust me, listeners or video viewers, once you have more than one screen on the computer, you will never go back to one screen only.
It’s so true.
So, what is your favorite term, principle, or theory and why?
Hands down, upstairs, downstairs, brain. The. So, Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain, I use my hand to make it super simple, super easy to understand and just an essential gateway to which part, which part of your brain is running the show and that has been life changing for so many people that I’ve worked with.
We will include that as well and we’ll reference him and provide a link for that. Here’s a thought provoking outside of your career and your, you know, journey just in general about life. What’s one of the most important things you’ve learned in your life thus far?
I don’t think this is anything new necessarily, but I do feel. Like it was I don’t want to say hard earned. We can’t give what we don’t have and so doing the healing work ourselves is essential. And I think for me, one of my ways of surviving in life was doing more, being better, you know, trying, trying, trying, trying, succeeding, succeeding and that never, that will never satisfy completely. So, for me personally, it’s been understanding when that energy is coming from my downstairs brain or when I can settle into feeling safe, feeling seen, feeling valued for who I am, regardless of performance, so that my creative upstairs brain can run the show and that I’m not trying to prove myself or be enough or do enough to survive. Sort of a rambling way of saying I think it’s just essential that we know and heal ourselves if we’re trying to be people who know and offer healing presence to others.
I like it. I like it. Do you have any other, any other advice for those interested in the field of psychology?
Keep learning. Maybe it sounds trite, but I just think stay curious. There is. There’s so much out there. We’re learning new things every day, you know, go with an open mind. You don’t have to believe every Instagram meme, or you know, you don’t have to follow every trend, but stay curious because there’s, there’s really good stuff out there.
If you had the time and money to complete one project, or go on one trip, what would you do?
Is it an either or?
No, you can. You can say both, either, or again, if you had the time and money to complete one project or go on one trip, what would you do?
OK. So, trip, I would love to visit the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve never been to Australia, New Zealand, that part of the world. I would love to do that. And project I have had a book in mind for parents for about 5 years now, but I just have not had time to pull through because of other books that needed to happen for publishers first. So, I would just devote some time to that. It’s coming it. I really, truly believe it’s coming, but that that’s the project I would finish.
I like it. It sounds good. I look forward to that. Jessica, is there anything else that you would like to discuss or bring up on this podcast?
I just appreciate what you’re doing. I think that as a young professional or college student, these conversations are exactly the kind of thing I would like to hear. So so thanks.
Well, I appreciate you being on the podcast. Thanks again for sharing your journey and advice with us.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.