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


  1. I don’t uusally respond – although I read and find everything you write very timely for my life (earily so) – but this hit so many excellent points and struck a memory I had to share. I remember having a 3 year old foster child placed with me who’s 2 year old sister had died- from what appeared to be abuse and neglect- I was left with preparing this little one to attend the viewing as that’s what family wanted and DSS felt I should bring her to and stay with her at funeral home. As if being uprooted from your family and being placed in foster care wasn’t enough- she had been with sister at hospital and had been taken into care from the ER. I was never so thankful as I was to have a fish from our tank die that same morning of the viewing. I used that opportunity as a way to play out what would happen and what she would experience at the viewing- created a coffin- pillow blanket and all- where bottom half of the fish was unseen and had a prayer service and burial talking about death and how the fish couldn’t get up and swim anymore etc. relating it to her sister. It was a heart wrenching experience but one I will never forget. Pretty much did all the things mentioned in post- and somehow we all got thru the day.

    Comment by Peggy | September 27, 2012 | Reply

    • I’m so glad you find it helpful. Sounds like you did a great job. She was lucky to have you walk her through that difficult time. Thank you for sharing.

      Comment by help4yourfamily | September 27, 2012 | Reply

  2. Thank you for great suggestions on what we can do while our children face difficult situations.

    Comment by 5kidswdisabilities | September 27, 2012 | Reply

  3. Thank you for the great suggestions!

    Comment by 5kidswdisabilities | September 27, 2012 | Reply

  4. […] As parents, we can always contribute in helping the get trough difficult times. An article written by Kate Oliver can help us on that. […]

    Pingback by Helping Your Children Get Through Difficult Times | October 2, 2012 | Reply

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