Create the family you want to have

Parent Affirmation Monday- Accepting- 11/5/2012

An icon illustrating a parent and child

An icon illustrating a parent and child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

The third aspect of the PLACE parenting attitude, which I have been highlighting in our weekly affirmations is accepting. This element of PLACE parenting refers to the idea of accepting all feelings that your child has. This is important for all children but especially for traumatized or attachment disordered children. When used as part of parenting, it also significantly reduces the number of fruitless discussions we have with our children about whether they should feel that way or not. All parents get caught in these battles, often with good intentions, however the result is still the same in that children end up feeling as though they are not being validated. It goes like this:

Child: I hate my picture.

Parent: What do you mean? That picture looks great! I love it. I really like the colors you used.

Child: I hate it. It’s awful! (buries head down)

While arguing with a child about how great their picture is (and, let’s be honest, sometimes there is room for improvement), understandable because we want our children to feel good about themselves, there is an alternative. Here is what acceptance looks like:

Child: I hate my picture.

Parent: What is it that you don’t like about it?

Child: All of it. I don’t like the way it turned out. I think it’s horrible.

Parent (empathic): It’s tough when pictures don’t work out the way you want them to.

While there is nothing wrong with encouraging your child to take a second look at a picture to help them see the parts that can be good, often this is best done and most accepted by children after their feelings have been listened to. Just think about the last argument you had with a significant other to see if you felt the issue was resolved without them seeing your side of things, whether they agreed or not. Over time, what happens with children who feel as though they are constantly being talked out of their own feelings, and begin to question whether the things they think are true or not. Fast forward to adulthood and you see adults in relationships that in their hearts they know are not good or healthy but which they continue to maintain, etc. because not listening to their inner voices has become routine. Additionally, by accepting that you child is questioning whether perhaps they could improve their picture, you are encouraging them to try harder to be satisfied for themselves. This encourages internal motivation to do and be better, rather than encourages complacency.

All this is what makes the acceptance of a child’s feelings so, so important. And, just to make you feel better, here is the second part of the conversation that you get to have after acceptance:

Parent: I wonder if there are any parts of the picture you do like.

Child: Only the color I used.

Parent: Hey, that’s what I was thinking I liked. That is a good color. What do you think you want to do next?

This conversation can go in many different directions from here, but all of them are good, right?

Here is our affirmation for this week:

I accept all feelings that I or the people I love have. All feelings are valid.

I would love to start a conversation about some of the feelings we parents find it harder to accept about how to get to the point of acceptance.  Please feel free to share any struggles or achievements you have had with this issue.

Below, I have also linked to a post I read last week, “The Great Invalidator,” which speaks to the word “but” and the ways in which it invalidates a child’s feelings and thought processes, another article about acceptance, written in a different way.

November 5, 2012 Posted by | affirmations, child development, discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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

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

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

Taming the “Nasties” in Your Child- Part 2

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C


Child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In last’s week’s post, I wrote about the underlying causes of children behaving in a nasty way toward adults.  This week, I want to look at some ways I have found to address this behavior with children that can help them learn to change the way they speak to you and other adults.  As I stated in my previous post, in order to know how to resolve an issue, knowing the origin of the issue is incredibly helpful.  If, for example, the origin of your child’s nasty behavior has to do with being hungry or tired, then obviously, you get them some food (preferably one with protein, that regulates low blood sugar like a piece of fruit with plain greek yogurt, or veggies and dip), or make sure they get some rest.  But what about when it is not a case of being hungry or tired?  What if your child is in perfect health and they are just being rotten toward you?  For young children, there is always distraction.  Below are some other ideas to help you motivate your child to turn their behavior around.  You may find one or a combination of several of them to be helpful.  I cannot give you the answer because our children are not cookie cutter kids.  Each child is different.  Also, keep in mind that it is unrealistic to believe that you can always fix things for your child and sometimes, just like with adults, kids are just going to be in a bad mood, and the goal is not to put them into a good mood but to teach that when you are in a bad mood you want to do the least damage possible to relationships.

  1. Empathy.  Empathy is when you let your child know you get how they feel.  It’s when you remember a time you felt pretty rotten even if it didn’t make sense and you realize that if your child is feeling that way it is because they do not realize at that moment that they have another choice.  Empathy does not mean telling a long story about when you felt the same way (a short one might work).  It means having a moment where you genuinely connect with the way your child is feeling and express that you know they are having a hard time.
  2. Remind your child that they have a choice other than feeling spiteful and spreading the feeling out toward others.  I detailed this technique in this post.  Reminding your child they have another choice does not include lecturing them about how great they have it and how they should feel better than they do.  When someone is stuck on the idea of feeling nasty, that lecture will have the opposite effect.
  3.  If you believe there is a bigger, underlying issue that has them feeling mean, then later, when they have cooled down, try having a conversation about what happened and be curious about where the behavior came from.  Think of saying something closer to, “Wow, I was worried about you earlier today when you said you hated me.  You must have been so angry.  Where did that come from?”  A curious tone during this conversation will work better than a disciplinary one.  This is especially true for children with attachment and trauma issues but it really works for all children.  After all, if someone comes at you with a “what is your problem?” attitude, how likely are you to let them into your inner world where you may be feeling pretty vulnerable?  I’m guessing someone expressing concern over your behavior is more likely to get, and keep, you talking than someone speaking to you in a judgmental tone.  For this conversation, try questions or comments that start with, “I wonder what,” “I was confused by,” and “I’m curious about,” over questions that start with “Why did you.”   This is a great conversation to have in the car alone with your child.  Cars give children the ability to process with you while you are not looking directly at them.  You can always pull the car over if the conversation turns into one that might be better off face to face.
  4. Teach your children how to treat you by modeling how you want to be treated when the nasties strike you- let’s not pretend that they don’t okay?  Tell kids you need to walk away for a minute before you say something you are sorry about, apologize for poor behavior on your part, let children know your mood is not about them (if it is not), avoid blaming in the midst of anger.  After your child has had a case of the nasties and you have debriefed them, tell them how you felt when they said or did what they said or did.  Suggest things that could help you feel better, and allow children to make amends when you are ready- sometimes that won’t be right away.
  5. Be an active listener.  What is your child really trying to say?  Are they telling you that they need more time with you?  Are they telling you that something is scary for them?  State your belief to them, “I know you are so disappointed you can’t go to your friends party and you think I don’t understand how hard that is for you.”  You might be amazed at what just saying something that shows you are listening can do.  After all, if your child wants something and you ignored them, it would be a very rare occasion for them to just walk away without trying to repeat the request, usually at increasing volume until they feel heard.  The older children get, the more they really want to be heard and you can show them you are listening by saying back what you heard.  Sometimes you may find what you thought you heard was not what they were trying to say at all.  Wonderful!  By saying what you thought you heard and finding you were wrong, you get to know your child even better.  Harvey Karp from “Happiest Toddler On the Block” suggests getting on your child’s level and matching their intensity with their voice and even their facial expression while you tell them what you are hearing.  I have seen this snap a teenager out of a tantrum as well.  After you have addressed the message, and your child has calmed down you can have the discussion about how they can tell you differently next time.
  6. Try to use the suggestions from my post Trash Your Behavioral Charts! by making a chart for yourself where you earn points by handling your child’s nasty behavior so you can go out and take care of yourself.
  7. Getting your child on a regular exercise routine doing something they enjoy and making sure they are eating a healthy diet are both wonderful overall approaches for avoiding the nasty behavior in the first place.
  8. Another approach could be to catch your child off guard.  If you know your child is getting ready to throw a tantrum, calmly observe that you are expecting them to throw a tantrum.  After all, if they are angry with you, they do not want you to be right about them, they may stop themselves just to spite you.

By making these suggestions, I want to be clear that my motive is to help you and your child get through the nasty behavior with the fewest regrets possible.  I am not suggesting that the interventions I have recommended need to be the end of the discipline.  In some cases they will be and others they will not depending on how far the behavior goes with your child and what your parental beliefs about discipline are.  I also want to make sure you know that I believe whole-heartedly both as a clinician and a parent that we must be allowed to show negative emotion.  My suggestion is not to thwart negative emotions, it is to suggest meaningful alternatives to behaviors that can be associated with anger, jealousy, frustration, irritation, etc.  What are some ways you have ended the nasties?

August 2, 2012 Posted by | child development, discipline, help for parents | Leave a comment

You Never Have to Say “No” Again!

English: My dad took this picture on the day t...

English: My dad took this picture on the day that I was the child host of the Mayor Art Show. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you ever just get tired of saying that word over and over again? You know, that word…no.  Now, if you have a really little one, no works.  It’s short and sweet for your short, sweet kids.  I am talking about the older kids.  The negotiators.  For the people who see me at my practice, I am also talking about the children who are traumatized or attachment compromised, and for whom “no” is a trigger word.  The word “no” for those kids is like a magical word that can instantly build a wall (or tornado) up between you and your child that does not allow them to hear the love that parents intend behind the word “no.”

Before anyone gets all upset that I am suggesting that this word crushes fragile egos and all that nonsense, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating fear of the word “no” for parents, nor am I suggesting that children should never have to hear that word.  Let’s not pretend that “no” is never going to be a word they hear.  I am thinking you might just be tired of saying it, or you might want another option, or, like I said, for traumatized, attachment disturbed children, I’m giving you a new way to help them learn to love (trust me, “no” is a word they are familiar with anyway so no worries there).

Are you interested in knowing how this works?  Here are the conversations as they are now:

Child: Mom, can I go to the mall?

Mom: No

Child: Whhhyyyyeeee? (how do they make why into a three syllable word?)


Child: Dad, can I have a cookie?

Dad: No, not right now.  Dinner’s coming.

Child: Just one?

Dad: No.

Child: Please?  I promise I’ll eat my dinner!

Do I really need to write the rest of that conversation?  You already have it playing in your head at this point, right?

Here is an alternative.  I got it from the helpful folks who wrote the book Parenting with Love and Logic (find it in my recommended readings at the top right on this page)* and I am going to show you how it can work for anything.

Child: Mom, can I go to the mall?

Mom: Sure you can…on Saturday.

Child: Not today?

Mom: I think we’ll have more time to go on Saturday.


Child: Dad, can I have a cookie?

Dad: Sure, after dinner you can have two.

It’s that easy.  Here’s my favorite example because it takes this to the extreme and we can even laugh a little.

Teen:  Can I date a 30-year-old man with two kids?

Parents: Sure, you can date anyone you want when you’re 18.


Teen: Can I smoke crack?

Parent: Boy, that would make me really sad, but I guess when you are legally an adult you can make that choice.

I want to point out that I am not advocating that parents change their stance on an issue.  I am pointing out that if you are tired of saying that word over and over with the same result,  you can theoretically avoid “no” forever, and, because your child is not responding to the “no” you can sneak in a little loving too 🙂

Let me know what you think about this.  Does your child have an over the top reaction to “no,” or are you just tired of saying it?

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July 5, 2012 Posted by | child development, discipline, help for parents, Parenting | , , , | 6 Comments

Messing up Children in Just the Right Ways

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

One of the most common concerns I hear from newly adoptive and biological parents, not to mention parents who have been doing this parenting thing for a while now, is the worry that the parents will, or already have, “messed up” their children.  The worry is that their child is permanantly damaged or will have a “life-long problem.”  This seems to be especially concerning to parents who had a childhood that would be considered less than ideal.

To the parents with this concern, I have these words for you, and I am writing them sincerely, with all the love I have in my heart.  Do not worry.  Your children probably are already “messed up.”  If they are not yet, they will be soon.  Just like the rest of us.  While this may not seem like a loving thing to say.  I assure you that I do, in fact, mean it to be a caring statement.  I want to help parents to break free from the delusion that they will somehow, miraculously, raise the first ever, perfectly self-actualized human on the planet.  A human that has experienced the perfect mix of trouble, discipline and love, with just the right number of family members who care for them and think they are fabulous while still remaining appropriately humble.  A person who finds the perfect job, right after they finish their doctoral degree (having gone to school on scholarship), all the while dating the perfect mate for them, without any heartache involved, and maintaining perfect physical health.  If we can all let go of this delusional belief, we will all breathe easier (literally), be so much happier with our lives and be more forgiving of our own imperfections, as well as stop taking our children’s imperfections so darned personally.

Humans are made to seek out better.  We cannot avoid the questions that come to mind about who has what, whether we would prefer to have that or something different.  Your children will be no different.  Your curly-haired children will wish to have straight hair, your straight-haired children will wish it to be curly.  Your athletic children want to be better at one particular aspect of the sport they play, even if they are the best at another.  Your child who is amazing at Math, wishes to be better in English.  We all long for things just out of reach.  It is healthy and motivating for us to continue trying.  At the same time, we inevitably feel as though we are “messed up” sometimes because we have not yet got that accomplishment we are seeking at that moment.

We can feed into this as parents.  Kids come to me with many different labels, mainly involving mental health: Reactive Attachment Disorder, Oppositional-Defiant Disorder, ADHD, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  I am supposed to fix them.  Usually, the kids are not broken, even if they look like it.  Usually, the kids are reacting the only way their systems know how to abnormal circumstances.  Often times, in the response of the child, if you look hard enough, you can see creativity, even brilliance,  and most definitely resilience that ultimately exceeds expectations if we can just step back a moment to examine it with a wider lens.

I find many times, the handle holding up the umbrella of concern about “messing up” children is the worry we have that they will experience the same hurts or slights we did as children.  Some of us work so hard to make sure that we do not repeat any hurtful patterns from our own childhood.  To that I say, “No worries!  Your children, my children, all children will experience their world in completely unique and different ways that are very difficult for us to predict, even when we “know” our children so well.

A few years back, I was one of the teachers of a class for parents in the process of separating.  In the class we talked about transitioning from couples, to co-parents.  During one session of the class, there was a parent panel.  More than five years later, I can still remember the words one of the parents on a panel said after she was asked by someone in the class how to predict which of her children would need help.  “It’s hardly ever the thing you think is going to be the problem, and it’s usually the kid you are least worried about that you need to be the most concerned with.”  As parents, sometimes, we think we are mind readers, and really we are not.  Raise your hand if your parents ever thought they knew what you were thinking and they were wrong.  If your hand is not raised, lucky you!  You have forgotten that feeling of being misunderstood.  My point is, parents, even very good parents, get it wrong all the time!  Life happens.  Unplanned things that seem very difficult to understand happen.  We can’t control it, and yet- here I am about to tell you what you really wanted me to say in the beginning.  I mean this one too.  Really, your kids are not messed up.  Your kids are perfect.  Whatever struggles life has thrown your way or your child’s way, are exactly the right struggles for each of you.  The “dings” in us are what make us uniquely, importantly us.

It is easy for me to say this with confidence because of the gift I have of seeing things through a wide lens as a result of my work experience and my own life.  If that does not feel like enough for you to believe me, let’s see if we can name a few people whose moms and dads may not have planned their childhood to go quite like it did:

  • Barack Obama (I’m so sure his mother did not anticipate two marriages, having her parents take care of her son for years at a time, and living on the edge of poverty)
  • John Lennon (grew up with a single mother except for the time he was in foster care)
  • Oprah Winfrey (ever heard of her?  Her childhood was pretty rotten)

There are many more folks to list, but I think you get the point.  No one is “ruined,” in fact there are quite a few amazing stories out there to be told.  All of this is not to say leave your children, live on welfare, it’s all gonna work out.  It is to say, lighten up on yourself for the moments when you can not do or be everything you wanted to be for yourself or your children and forgive yourself for your perceived failures.  Show your children what you want them to do when they wish they could take something back or change their circumstances.  I am assuming that among the things you would want them to do is to take responsibility for any part they played in what happened, learn from it and keep growing from there.

Your children already have an advantage, you.  You do care.  You do try your hardest.  You do love them and care for them the best way you know how.  You are perfectly imperfect, and so are they.  We all are.  We are all messed up.  We are all perfect.  So are our children.

June 27, 2012 Posted by | child development, help for parents, parent support/ self improvement | , , | 12 Comments

Preparing Children for Major Transitions

Summer Camp 2010

Summer Camp 2010 (Photo credit: Olds College)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

It’s summer.  Anyone with a child in school recently has, or is about to experience a major transition from having the school routine schedule to a summer schedule.  Perhaps your children have camps, vacations, different childcare arrangements, or long stretches of time at home, or, if you are like my family, a combination of all of those depending upon the week.  Even though summer can be a time of excitement and activities that children love, remember, even something exciting can be stressful.  To illustrate this, think about the last time you went on vacation.  Did you experience any stress before you went away?  Did you worry you were going to forget to pack something?  Did you have to work to make sure you stayed in budget or planned accordingly for activities vs. rest?

Even though your child does not necessarily have the same stressors you do, they have others.  Their stressors may include concerns like whether any other kids they meet on the trip or at camp might like them, whether this is going to be a fun place to go or not, whether the rules will be the same or different for them than what they are used to, whether they will have the food they like to eat on the trip, and what to expect next.

The adopted children I see can often have additional concerns such as whether someone from their birth family might spot them (I have heard this even from children adopted at birth), whether people in public will spot their family and ask why they look different or whether their family will be accepted.  They may worry if they are going to see relatives that they feel treat them differently from children born biologically into the family, or that their adoptive family is planning on leaving them in the new location.  Many of the children I see have the additional worry about embarrassing themselves by wetting the bed or their pants during the day if that has been a problem for them.

So, how can we prepare children for all of these transitions?  Here are a few tips to get you started.  The first few are for everyone, then I have a few special tips just for people with children with attachment issues.  Remember, every child is different.  That is why I am giving you several suggestions.  I encourage you to use those that feel right for you and your child.

1.  Prepare your child by telling them in a matter of fact way about what to expect.  For example: “Remember, you are going to camp tomorrow, I don’t know if you will know any of the kids there but I do know Ms. Suzie from last year will be there again.  I’m going to pack you an apple and some cereal in your lunch instead of a peanut butter sandwich because the camp does not allow peanuts in your lunch.”  Or, “We are going to Grandma’s.  Remember, we went there last year and you slept in the same room with your cousin Joey.  Sometimes you got to go to bed later and one night Aunt Cindy is going to watch you while Mom and Dad go out.  If two adults tell you two different things to do, I want you to come ask me if you are confused.  If I’m not there, I will always let you know who is in charge.”  You may need to break this information up into several conversations if you have a child that has difficulty taking in too much information at once.  I also like to ask children what they heard me say so I can hear them say it back and confirm that they heard what I think I said so I know if they got it.

2.  Always let children know who is in charge if you are not with them.  Meet the camp counselor, introduce your child to them and point out that that person is in charge.  “She’s in charge of this camp and I expect you to listen to her.”  Or, “We are going out and you are staying with Nana and Pop, I expect you to listen to both of them.”

A side note about tone here: I am not suggesting any kind of accusatory tone.  I always recommend a matter of fact, friendly tone that takes into account that our children are little humans with feelings.  I could see the above statement being said in an accusatory way and I hope you will refrain from that as much as possible.  If you have a child that has attention or attachment issues making it possible that they were not hearing you, or that they will pretend they did not hear you later, you can have them repeat it back.  Make it a game: You: Who’s in charge?  Child: Ms. Jenny’s in charge.

3.  Talk to your child about any transitions before they happen a few times so you can figure out if your child has questions that are causing anxiety so that you can get answers for them.  It is difficult to predict the ways in which children will formulate stories to fill in the gaps in their understanding.

When I was around 13 and my youngest sister was five, my family moved to a house about five miles away from the home we were living in.  I remember one night at dinner, we were talking about the move and someone asked my sister if she was excited to be moving.  She hesitated and got a little teary, then blurted out, “Yes!  But, I’m going to miss you guys!”  Remember, even if your child has made this transition before, it may only be their second or third time doing it.

A year in the eyes of a child is infinitely longer than a year in the eyes of an adult.  For a 33-year-old, a year is 1/33rd of their lives, for a four-year old, a year is 1/4 of their lives.  That’s a big difference.  A lot happens in the year of a child, and going somewhere, like a camp or vacation, where they have not gone for a year still qualifies as a major transition in their eyes.

4.  While you are making sure that you are talking about the upcoming transition some, I want to caution you to refrain from talking about it too much.

Recently my family and I went for a vacation weekend to a child friendly hotel/amusement park.  While we were there, my husband and I walked through the lobby where there was a show going on.  The show had animatronic characters singing a song.  I can only assume the song was called “There’s Nothing to Be Afraid Of.”  I assume that was the title of the song because the characters sang that line at least twenty times in the short time we were walking through the lobby.  I turned to my husband and remarked that while I was not scared before, I was thinking I might need to be scared now!  After all, why are they so adamant about telling me that there is nothing to be afraid of unless there is, in fact, something that might be kind of scary?

My point is, I have seen many parents who are worried about their child’s response to something new, prepare their child by talking about it endlessly.  A child who might not otherwise have been so worried, can then become fearful and put more energy and focus more anxiety on this thing Mom and Dad seem to be so worried about…it must be big.  Discussions about a transition need not be endless, just check-in, answer questions gently and matter-of-factly, and refrain from shaming or embarrassing children for asking what you think is a silly question.

I have two additional tip for parents with attachment disturbed children:

1.  Attachment disordered children still need safety and predictability, however, be mindful that they can often find ways to mess up vacations for themselves and put extra strain on the family by acting out when they are anxious.  Often a child worries they will mess up a vacation until they torture themselves internally about it so much that they go ahead and get in trouble just to get it over with.  Depending on your child, you may want to keep some things about a vacation private until just before they happen and to keep your plans flexible.  For example, say you have decided to go to a water park for one day during the vacation.  If possible, give yourself a window of days and times to go.  That way if your child is having a rough day you can just go the next day so they do not feel you are taking it away because they ruined things.  Then, on the day you do go, you can tell your child that morning or even on the way there and field questions as they come.  Children with attachment issues can get overly anxious and have temper tantrums as their anxiety builds and giving them a few surprises can actually save them from this anxiety in the long run.  Reserve this for things you are all doing together, do not surprise your child by telling them you are leaving them with someone else, even someone else they like.

2.  Be mindful that as you tell a child your expectations, you are not also handing them “the keys to the kingdom” as one of my colleagues likes to say.  What she means by this is that attachment disordered children are interested in what makes you the most upset so that they may use that against you whenever they are feeling anxious, insecure or fearful.  Be careful that when you are telling them your expectations as detailed in the suggestions mentioned earlier that you are not also highlighting the things that will annoy you the most if they do them.  “We are going to grandma’s and she is making cookies.  You may have two.  I expect you to use your manners.  If there is something you would like to have, please let me know so I can tell you if it is okay,” is very different from, “We are going to Grandma’s house.  No stealing, no lying.”  The first example encourages children to meet expectations, the second informs the children of the ways they can disappoint themselves yet again.

For all children, stating what you do want is always preferable to stating what you don’t want.  If I told you not to look at the title of this post, what is the first thing you think about doing?  Reading the title of course!  However, if I said to you that I hope you keep reading this post to the end, where is your attention?  Children are the same way.  High energy children, and attachment disturbed children are like this more than others and if you say, “Don’t steal,” their little minds say over and over, “Don’t steal.  Don’t steal.  Don’t steal.” until they have thought it so hard they find a chocolate bar in their pocket that they really may not have meant to have there.  If you give a child another thought such as, “Ask me if you want something,” and they say this over and over in their heads, even if it does not always work out, it plants a better seed in a child’s mind.  The more seeds like that you plant, the more likely they are to take root.

What are some transitions your children are going through?  Are there other ways you help your child with major transitions?

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June 21, 2012 Posted by | attachment disorder, child development, help for parents, Parenting | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monday is Parent Affirmation Day at Help4yourfamily! 5/28/2012


Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

In the past week I have had two quotes come to visit me several times.  One has been a favorite of mine for a long time, Kahlil Gibran’s quote from his poem, On Children.  “Your children are not your children.  They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.  They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”  The other quote, I had never heard before last week, which is pretty surprising to me.  It comes from Mark Twain, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born…and the day you find out why.”  Each of these quotes reminds us that our children are more than just our children.  We each, all of us, are put on this earth with special, unique skills and talents.  Our children are not here to please us but to meet their own unique purpose and to believe that we control that purpose is to tell ourselves a fantastical lie.  Many parents buy into this fantasy with disasterous results.  To let go of the fantasy that we control the exact ways in which our children will form into adults is to free ourselves and our children from the inevitable feeling of failure that old attitude would bring.  This weeks affirmation is:

I allow my child to explore his or her own unique talents and abilities.  I work on finding mine as well.

This does not mean that I must drop everything and spend all of my time and money on getting my daughter to dance class.  What it means is that I am accepting of her dreams and support her in the best way I can now.  It also means that I model for her through my own openness to my unique talents and abilities.

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May 28, 2012 Posted by | affirmations, child development | , , , , , | 5 Comments

It’s Not Just Strangers- spotting potential abusers: Part II

Join the movement to end child abuse: www.1sta...

Join the movement to end child abuse: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While 96% of all abusers are men,* and men tend to be the focus of this article, it is important that we refrain from trivializing the role of women as abusers as well.  In this article, I speak mostly about men, but the same holds true for women.  Here are some tips to spot potential perpetrators or unsafe situations:

1. Look for people who are more interested in your children than their own children.  For example, if you go to a birthday party and see the father of the birthday kid paying more attention to your child than their child, take a moment to listen to the words they are saying to your child.  Are they trying to draw your child away from the crowd?  Are they excessively flattering?  Are they trying to get your child to come for a playdate even when your child seems reluctant?

2.  Pay attention to any men who are overly willing to be available to babysit, especially if they are willing to put off other, adult activities to be more available to your child for one on one time.  This is true for teenage boys and boys or girls that you know have issues but just like to hang around with your children even though your children are significantly younger.  Kids who are developmentally younger than their chronological age will still begin sexual development at the same age and if they feel more comfortable with children their own age, they are more likely to try out sexual behavior on younger children who will let them get away with it.

3.  “Grabbers” are perpetrators that take the opportunity when it presents itself.  These are, for example, the in-home, daycare provider’s brother who came to visit for a week and was in the home when you dropped your child off.  You can protect your children from those by asking any adult who is in charge of your child to tell you if there will be any other adults around your child.  If you notice a new face when you take your child to school or child care, don’t be afraid to ask.  Just do what I do and say you are an over protective parent.  Own it 🙂

4.  “Groomers” are people who take time to get a child (and parent) comfortable with them.  They may take a long time to even begin doing anything to the child.  In the meantime, they begin to seamlessly insert themselves into the family and over time, develop a relationship with the children.  Listen to your gut if you get a feeling about someone, take a minute to ask your child and get curious about how they feel when that person is around.

5.  Be visible.  Parents who are a known presence at school and day-care are less likely to have children who are victims.  Show up unannounced at child care and for school lunches if your child’s school allows it.  Volunteer a few times a year so you get to know teachers and other school personnel and they get to know you.  Know your childcare provider and, if you do not trust his or her decision-making, get a new one.

6.  Be aware of people in your own family who you know are perpetrators.  This may sound obvious, however, I have met enough people by now who allowed their child to be around the grandparent who abused the parent, yet the parent felt if they were watchful enough, their child would not get hurt, or hoped that the perpetrator had changed enough that they would not do that to their grandchild.  Similarly, if you are a divorced parent and abuse was an issue during your marriage, or you knew that your child’s other parent was harming or neglecting the children, if possible, protect your child from being alone with that parent.  Wikipedia reports that, “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that for each year between 2000 and 2005, “female parents acting alone” were most likely to be perpetrators of child abuse.”  **  If someone is a known perpetrator to you, do not allow your child to be alone with them.  Stepfathers and fathers respectively are the most likely to be reported as perpetrators of sexual abuse for girls 10 and older according to

7.  Listen to your child.  Children, especially young children, often disclose information that we do not catch if we are not listening.  If a child says something that causes you concern, be curious and ask them about it to clarify what they are talking about.  Sometimes because our young children are so sexually innocent, they don’t even know that there was anything out-of-order with what happened and they just tell you about it.

I want to conclude by being perfectly clear, that there is no guarantee that our children will never deal with an abusive caretaker.  However, the likelihood that a child will identify a problem to you sooner, so that you may take action immediately will be increased by talking to your child and being aware of the tricks of abusers.

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May 18, 2012 Posted by | child development, help for parents, keeping children safe | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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