Create the family you want to have

10 Tips for Guiding Children Through Difficult or Unique Life Circumstances

Writer Lesley Lathrop (left), an adoptee, at r...

Writer Lesley Lathrop (left), an adoptee, at reunion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

Most families have gone through, or will go through some type of unique life circumstances at some point. Some families seem to have nothing but unique life circumstances! Whether your child is adopted, was born via a surrogate, has an absent parent, has a parent with a life-threatening illness or drug addiction, an ill or unique sibling, or something else, it is important for them to have a narrative (story) to explain their experiences.

While it may seem commonplace to us, as adults, we can forget that children do not have the knowledge we do about certain life experiences, and, in case you have not noticed, they can be pretty self-centered folks. What happens when those two characteristics combine are some pretty interesting situations, like the mother who brought her daughter to me because she had been acting rotten to her sister in a way that was completely out of character for her. Upon further exploration, I came to learn that this child’s younger sister had recently been diagnosed with ADHD and my client (9 years-old) thought she might catch ADHD. She was irritated with her sister for getting it and bringing it into the house. If you think about it, it makes sense. My client saw her sister taking medicine, just like you have to when you are sick, and had most likely been told it was because her sister had ADHD. Why would a 9 year-old believe that ADHD is any different than the flu? Similarly, a child with say a drug or alcohol addicted parent will come up with a compelling story about the why’s of the way things are and, typically, it has to do with them doing something wrong or being bad.

To avoid misunderstandings for children when there are difficult and/or unique life circumstances, it is important to give them a good narrative to explain what has happened. To guide you in this endeavor, here are some tips for you as you create your narrative:

1. Tell the truth. While it may feel easier to tell kids that mommy is sick and she is going to get all better, if you don’t really know she is going to get better, don’t include that in what you say. Just like if you were taking your child to the doctor to get a shot, you would not want to tell them it’s not going to hurt at all (then you would be a liar), you want to say, “It’s going to pinch for a minute but then you will be fine.” If your child cannot trust you to tell them the truth, who can they trust?

2. Know the developmental age of your child. You want to make sure you are speaking at their developmental level or you will just sound like the adults from a Charlie Brown cartoon. Think of the words that you use and whether they are words your child will understand.

3. Keep your story as simple and to the point as possible. I am thinking of one mom in particular who wanted to explain to her daughter about being adopted from China. She found an opportunity while her child was playing to use dolls, and one of her son’s toy planes. The mom said to her daughter, “One day a lady had you in her tummy. She couldn’t take care of you so you went to live at the orphanage with other kids in China. Mommy and Daddy wanted to have a daughter. We went to China in the plane to find a daughter. We met you and we were so happy! We brought you home on the plane to live with us forever.” The little girl re-told the story, and asked her mom to retell the story many, many times. As she has gotten older, her mother has added more details at her daughters request however, starting this as a simple story, and telling it at a time when her daughter was open and attentive to hearing it was key.

4. Tell the story when it is a good time for your child. You know your child. Some kids listen best in the car. Some only listen when they have asked the question rather than you bringing up the subject. Others want to talk at bedtime or in the morning when they are fresh. Pick a time that works for your child.

5. Watch your tone of voice! Think matter-of-fact, not gloom and doom when you are talking to your child. They will take their cues about how to feel about this story from you, and if your tone suggests it is a horrible story or circumstance, then that is what they will believe about it.

6. Avoid harsh, shaming words for any of the people in the story. To be more specific, I have heard adoptive parents describe a birth parent as a “druggie” and a “loser.” Keep in mind that the people in this narrative may be very important to your child, and they may identify strongly with them. So, for example, in this instance rather than saying “druggie and loser” you might say, “Your birth mom was addicted to drugs when you were young and she made a lot of poor choices because of that.”

7. Include any evidence that points to it not being the child’s fault that people are sick, parents got divorced, they were adopted, abused, etc. and be sure to include any evidence that shows they are loved and lovable. Examples of this could be, “When parents have an addiction, it is never a child’s fault. Usually, it is a problem they had since before their child was born.” or, “Even though your birth mom was not able to take care of it’s clear she loved you because she wanted you to have the best opportunity to have a good life.”

8. Check in with your child after you have told them the story to see what they heard. Many times children will nod along then, when you ask them if they understand, they will say yes. I would encourage you to gently ask something like, “Can you tell me what you just heard me say?” For some kids you will need to tell them they are not required to say your words back verbatim, they only need to give you a summary (like a quick report at school) of what you just said. This is an important thing to do for two reasons: 1. Sometimes kids didn’t get what you said, or interpreted what you said differently than you thought. You can only correct this if you know it happened. 2. Sometimes as we ask children what we just said, we can realize that we just used a ton of words and we may need to edit this story for simplicity.

9. Keep the lines of communication open with your child after you have introduced the narrative to them. The kinds of issues I am talking about in the post typically are issues that last a lifetime and as such will need to be revisited multiple times throughout a child’s life and, while they will start simple when a child is young, they will grow in complexity as a child ages.

10. If there is something a child can do to help be clear about that, however, be careful that your child does not then take on that duty as a life or death responsibility. For example, telling a child who has a mother who has cancer that it one way she can help mom is to make sure she is helping around the house makes perfect sense. Remember, however, that children, even adolescents can have some of what we call magical thinking, and, whereas you and I get that not doing your chores will not make mom sicker, should mom get sicker, you are going to want to make sure your daughter knows it is not because she stopped doing the dishes and sassed her mother last week.

What are some circumstances you have had to explain to your children? How did it go?

September 27, 2012 Posted by | child development, help for parents, Parenting | 5 Comments

Parent Affirmation Monday- Being a Learner 9/24/2012

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

Comfort Zone

Comfort Zone (Photo credit: Robin Hutton)

Sometimes as parents we can forget that our children have to experience things on a daily basis where they are challenged to learn and grow like exploring new school material as well as new people and places that feel foreign to them. Even teenagers must go to new classes and meet new teachers each school year. Just think if you had seven or more new bosses to meet and the bosses changed each year.

Children adopted at an older age, and/or traumatized children have it even harder. Not only are they challenged to stretch themselves at school, but home may also be a place where they are challenged to try to do new things that feel different to them. For children adopted at an older age, they may not be accustomed to a forever family that has rules and boundaries. I remember one child in particular who was perplexed at the rule her foster family had about not putting a hairbrush on the table. Even foods may seem different to these kids. Gregory Keck, rightly points out in his book, Parenting Adopted Adolescents*, that children who have been in multiple homes tend to gravitate toward pizza, chicken nuggets and mac and cheese because they taste the most consistent in different homes and children, like adults,often crave safe and familiar foods and activities.

As adults, we can forget that feeling of being pushed to try unfamiliar things. We can become complacent about going outside of our comfort zones and becoming learners again. While there may be tasks at work or home that we do not like doing, it is less often that we are pushed to learn something completely new. It is important as parents that we can connect to that place of being a learner, just outside of our comfort zone, so we can remember what it is like for our children and to model that it is okay and even good to be an ongoing learner in life.

Our affirmation this week is:

I am open to the many learning opportunities that cross my path. I learn and grow every day. 

Now, we get learning opportunities everyday, but this week, I want you to reach a little further. If you have a partner, think about having them teach you to do something they normally do like cook, or change the oil in the car. If that does not work for you, pick up a book about something you have always wanted to learn about but never gave yourself permission or time. Find out about how to use your finances wisely, give yourself a challenge to “go green,” or try a new kind of exercise class.

What will you do this week to expand your horizons?

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. S...

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. So if you’re feeling uncomfortable right now, know that the change taking place in your life is a beginning, not an ending. (Photo credit: deeplifequotes)

*see disclaimer page

September 24, 2012 Posted by | affirmations | 9 Comments

Teaching Children to Use Affirmations

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

Loving Siblings

Loving Siblings (Photo credit: BenSpark)

All my regular readers know I am a fan of affirmations. I use them for parents all the time. I also find them to be very useful with children, especially for children who have a history of trauma or neglect. For these kids, and other children, teaching them the use of affirmations is another tool in their coping skills tool kit and can teach children who may never have learned to regulate their emotions a new way to self-soothe.

An affirmation is something you say to yourself. Positive thoughts affirm positive feelings. Negative thoughts affirm negative feelings. Both are affirmations. The trick is to decide what it is that you choose to affirm.

When teaching children about affirmations, I typically go through the following process.

1. I pick something a child is talking to me about that bothers them, say a friend who is being mean to them, and have them practice two different types of  statements they might say to themselves about the friend while noticing how they feel after saying the statement a few times. For example, we might say, “She’s mad at me for no reason!” a few times. We talk about how the child’s body feels as she says that statement a few times. Then we try an alternate statement, “I have many friends who love me. I deserve loving friends.” We notice what happens in our bodies after saying this statement as well. I teach children that the statements we just learned are called affirmations.

2. I read children the book, “I Think, I Am!” by Louise Hayand Kristina Tracy to further introduce the concept of affirmations and show examples. I have never read this book to a child who did not love it and want their own copy.*

Cover of "I Think, I Am!: Teaching Kids t...

Cover via Amazon

3. We practice together with creating affirmations and pick one or two for kids to work on that week.

Do’s and Don’ts for helping children create affirmations

1. One major pitfall I see parents fall into when they help children create affirmations happens when they place an expectation on a child that might not be realistic or does not align with the child’s goals. “I can get an A on that Math test!” is a surefire way for a child struggling in math to feel like affirmation’s fail. A more general, “I am always learning and growing.” works much better since it is true and does not lead to the argument, “But I’ll never get an A in math!”

2. Be careful about believing there is only one positive way for things to turn out. It may be best for this friendship to end. Not making the team may open up a child to a new experience with a different sport they never would have tried otherwise. You can avoid this mistake by gearing affirmations toward a positive belief system ( I like Louise Hay’s, “Everything is always working toward my greater good.” or “The universe (God, spirit) has wonderful plans in store for me.”) rather than a specific outcome.

3. Allow children to come up with affirmations that work for them. Keep it simple. I remember my daughter telling her nose, “I’m ready to be healthy now.” when she was four. That was a message she wanted to give her body and she got better the next day. I do not mean to minimize any illness, but I do want to highlight that by telling our bodies what we want, we are programming them. Think of the difference between saying, “I’m fighting a cold.” and “I’m returning to health.” One tells your body to fight, the other tells your body to return to its natural, healthy state. If you do not believe that your body responds to your thoughts, I like Cheryl Richardson’s way of saying explaining this. She asks whether you have ever had a sexual fantasy and noticed a difference in your body. Hmmm? The more we research this, the more we learn about the connection between thoughts and physical health. Still don’t believe me? You might want to read this article from the Mayo Clinic.

4. Use affirmations yourself! When kids see you use them, they follow suit, it’s as simple as that. You know there are times when you hear your words come out of your children’s mouths. Sometimes it feels good to hear it, sometimes it’s not so good. Using affirmations yourself gives you more of the good ones.

5. Beware of glossing over negative feelings. Affirmations help us to see the positive in negative situations, but that does not mean that we pretend there are no negative feelings involved. It is important to still acknowledge the negative feelings i.e. “I’m disappointed I didn’t make the team!” but to then use affirmations to chose a way to self-soothe by choosing what you are going to believe about not making the team. “I’m disappointed I didn’t make the team, but I know I can still find other ways to have fun.”

Have you used affirmations with your children? What’s your favorite affirmation to use with your child?

*If you want your own copy, you can easily purchase this book by clicking on the Amazon widgets link at the top right on my webpage. Please see the disclaimer page before doing so.

September 20, 2012 Posted by | affirmations, child development, Parenting | 15 Comments

Parent Affirmation Monday- passion- 9/17/2012

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

English: Children dancing, International Peace...

English: Children dancing, International Peace Day 2009, Geneva. Français : Enfants dansant, Journée internationale de la Paix 2009, Genève. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How many of you work really hard to make sure your children find something they are interested in where they can focus some creative energy? As parents we find ourselves encouraging our children to write, dance, draw, paint, create, enjoy a sport! But, of those of us who have worked so hard to help our children, how many are there who have lost our own drive to be creative and/or to focus our own energy on something that is joyful to us? Think of something that brought you joy when you were younger. When was the last time you did it?

I know when I was younger I was a dancer. You name a type of dance: tap, jazz, ballet, modern, contemporary, ballroom, I’ve done them all. Around the time I was a teenager, I knew that I did not have a body that you typically saw back then in the dance world, even though now there have been some changes. I knew it would not be a profession for me but I kept at it anyway. It made me happy. When my children came along, I stopped dancing, except for our home dance parties we had several times a week. So many times over the years since, I have remarked how I miss having the kind of creative energy in my life that dance brought. I had so many excuses for not dancing. I’m too old. I will never do it professionally. My children are the ones that get to take classes now. My turn is over.

For a while now, I have had a budding theory about why so many young adults return home after college (more than can be accounted for by the downturn in the economy). One theory I have is that they do not look forward to growing up because it just doesn’t look like it’s any fun! What do adults do? We work. Many adults walk around groggy, tired, resentful, sarcastic, and annoyed much of the time. Let’s work on bringing some of the fun back into adulthood.

I recently started dancing again. I’m the oldest in the class (including the teacher). I am sure no one has muscles that feel more sore than mine the next day. I will still never do it as a profession. But still, I have no idea why I stayed away so long. I love it. It connects me to my soul.

This week, I want to plant the seed for each of you to remember something that you loved to do as a child. Was it drawing? Painting? Soccer? Basketball? Was there something you were not allowed to do but always wanted to try? I want to plant the seed in your mind to start thinking about dusting off that activity as a possibility in the back of your mind. Think of a step you can take toward making that thought a reality. One of my favorite poets is Mary Oliver (no relation that I know of), who asks in her poem The Summer Day, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

When you are thinking of what to do, think of what it will mean for your children to see you enjoying your life and giving yourself freedom to be healthy and creative. Think beyond the irritation or crying they may do about you going out for a bit to enjoy yourself and look at the larger picture of creating a model for them of an adulthood that includes joy and enthusiasm for life.

Our affirmation for this week is:

I find joy in life and take part in activities that feed my spirit.

So, please share with me, what is it that you plan to do? If it feels difficult to reach, just think of what you would like to do and feel free to share that. I would love to help you problem solve ways to reincorporate joy into your life.

September 17, 2012 Posted by | affirmations | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Quick Primer on Early Primary Relationships

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

As regular readers of my blog know, I recently joined the faculty of the Institute of Advanced Psychotherapy, Training and Education, Inc. (IAPTE), an organization that facilitates some of the best continuing education trainings for people in my field.

This week I had the honor of being asked to write a guest post for Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA. Lisa is the founder of  (IAPTE). She is also the author of the recently published book, Treating Self-Destructive Behaviors in Traumatized Clients: A Clinician’s Guide. If you are not in the Maryland, DC, Virginia area, there is an option to “bring the training to you.”

I invite you all to check out Lisa’s blog for IAPTE. Click here for the link to my article, A Quick Primer on Eary Primary Relationships. There you will also have the opportunity to learn more about Lisa and all the wonderful work she does.

September 12, 2012 Posted by | child development, Parenting | 1 Comment

Parent Affirmation Monday- sleep 9/10/2012

Written by, Kate Oliver, LCSW-C


peaceful (Photo credit: mikecpeck)

How often do we argue with our children about going to bed? Every night? We argue with them because we know that getting enough sleep each night is important so that they can have a healthy, productive day the next day. As parents we all go through a time of wonder as we watch children fight sleep at night and naps during the day while we are on the opposite end wishing we could take that nap, or thinking how much we would like to go to sleep at 8 pm! At the same time, we engage in some of the same battles internally about sleep.

How often do you find yourself sitting in front of the television or trying to get one more thing done while thinking you need to turn off the t.v., or put down the work and go to bed? I personally remember sitting up and either folding clothes, or watching television or both, while knowing I needed sleep more than anything else. I also remember when my kids were little, I would stay up later than I knew was good for me and I would say to myself, “This is the only time I get for me in a day! I’m going to get some “me time.” Meanwhile, my “me time,” that included staying up too late, cost me my patience, my positive attitude, and sometimes even my health. People who get enough sleep are happier, healthier and more productive at work, and at home. Did you know getting enough sleep is even tied to maintaining a healthier weight? It is because when your body is trying to please you by staying awake as you tell it you would like to, it requests foods (like carbohydrates and sugars) that will give it a little more pep.

So, this week, I would like us to do positive affirmations for sleep. I would also like to give you an exercise you can do for yourself and for your children. I learned this from Wayne Dyer. For the last five minutes before you drift off to sleep, instead of thinking of all the things you did not accomplish today that you meant to, and stressing out about all you have to do tomorrow that you are not looking forward to, pick something that is a goal for you. Lie in your bed and imagine that your goal has been achieved. Think about how it feels to have achieved your goal. This sets up your mind for a positive day the next day and helps you to have fewer anxiety dreams if that is a problem for you.

This weeks affirmation is:

I give myself the gift of getting as much sleep as my body needs. I teach my children positive sleep habits by modeling them.

I know some of you are out there saying that you would sleep better if your children did. If this is an issue for you, I would recommend the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, by Marc Weissbluth. My friends and I secretly call this book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Mommy. This book covers sleep issues at all ages and stages. While some people have stated that they think the book advocates allowing children to cry it out, a closer read will show that this is not what the author actually says. He advocates looking for your young children’s signs that they are sleepy, teaches you what those signs are, and gives you guidance in how to educate yourself and your children about sleep. You can find his book on Amazon by clicking the link titled Amazon Widgets at the top right of this page to go directly to amazon.

Sweet Dreams.

September 10, 2012 Posted by | affirmations | 5 Comments

Wall of Awesome Parenting Moments

Today I want to introduce a new page on the Help 4 Your Family website. Anyone who looks on Facebook can see that, for most parents, Facebook is where we celebrate the accomplishments of our children. But how often do we take a moment to celebrate our own successes, large and small, as parents?

Awards and Recognition
Awards and Recognition (Photo credit: B Tal)

I would like to start helping parents to acknowledge and celebrate our achievements more regularly. In that spirit, I would like to invite you to email me: to share some of your parenting successes.  I’m not necessarily talking about when you selflessly baked cookies for the entire preschool until one in the morning, although that could be something you are proud of.  I’m talking about the time your teenager said something nasty to you in front of her friends and you handled it in a way you were proud of. I’m talking about how you, like the mom at, caught the poo with your bare hands before it hit the water in the tub so you didn’t have to restart the entire bath. I want to hear how you figured out a quick new way to take care of yourself so you didn’t go ballistic when you had to tell your ten-year old for the 40th time not to leave her shoes in the middle of the kitchen floor. As you share these moments with me, I will start posting them. I want this site to become a place for sharing ideas, and small, or large triumphs as parents. Please join me. In your email, please include the name you would like me to use (screen name, first name and last initial, anonymous, etc.) and the achievement you are proud of.

September 6, 2012 Posted by | parent support/ self improvement | Leave a comment

Parent Affirmation Monday- self-care 9/3/2012

Reading a book

Reading a book (Photo credit: Ed Yourdon)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

If you are like most parents I see in my practice and you read the title and know this week is about self-care, you might be thinking about skipping this weeks affirmation. Don’t! It might be the most important affirmation of all. We have all heard the warning on the airplane where we are instructed that should the pressure drop and the air masks come down from the ceiling we need to put the masks on ourselves first. Have you ever thought why that might be the instruction? Well, think about it. If you, like most parents, would have the impulse to help your child first and put the mask on them, then you run out of time to put the mask on yourself, there you are passed out and unable to help your child. You are not able to make sure they keep the mask on, stay calm and exit should there be an emergency landing.  Your children end up taking care of you when you do not take care of yourself.

Let’s give an example on a more practical level, because really, how often are you going to need to put an air mask on your child in an airplane? Hopefully never. But what about this? Think about a time when your house was messy. I hope for you this is harder to do than it was for me. Are there days when you felt capable of cleaning your messy home, or at least part of it and you tackled the job? I bet there have also been days when you could not stand to look at it and the thought of cleaning it just made you feel overwhelmed and awful. What is the difference? Was your house messier on the bad day or was it just that your internal state was different? The same is true with our children. When we feel depleted we feel less able to tackle the issues with them as they come along. Rather than handling a bump in the road like forgotten homework or lost shoes or a ornery child the way we would like, we lose it and go into fight or flight mode, constantly reacting without giving real-time or attention to workable solutions that feel good to you and help your child.

Besides minimizing it’s importance, another thing that keeps parents from self-care is the faulty belief that it costs money or takes too much time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, if you can get a day at the spa or go play golf with your friends, that’s great but you do not have to spend a lot of time and money on self-care. The idea is to be aware that you are doing it when you are taking care of yourself and to enhance the moment with gratitude for how smart you were to fit it in.

Some quick and easy ideas for self-care: You know how you put a note in your child’s lunch sometimes just to be nice? Get a post-it note, write- “You are amazing” put it in your gym bag or your treadmill and get a smile the next time you open your bag to do something for yourself. You know how you get your kids a special snack at the grocery store? Grab yourself that lotion you wanted to try. Every night before bed, use it. By the way, I know several men who put lotion on their feet at night and sleep with socks on who have very happy significant others because there are no more scratchy feet. It takes less than one minute. You are worth 30 seconds right? Instead of grabbing a bag of chips or a cigarette, treat yourself to a few nice deep breaths. Put a poem or inspirational quote by your desk at work and say it to yourself.  You know how you think of things to entertain your kids when you take them places? Remember to put a book in the car for you to read- maybe one of those meditation a day books. I particularly enjoy Melody Beattie’s Language of Letting Go Meditation Series of books. You can sit in your car while you wait for the kids to get out of school, or for those few minutes your infant or toddler is sleeping in the car before you wake them up and read a page of inspiration and reflection. Poof! Self-care.

This weeks affirmation is:

I give myself permission to take care of me. I know that when I do, I am a better parent.

P.S.- It’s good to be back from vacation. I missed you all! Later this week, I’m going to send out a request that I think will help us all with self care.

September 3, 2012 Posted by | affirmations | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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