Category Archives for "Trauma"

Jun 08

“If It Bleeds, It Leads” – Talking to Children About Tragic News Headlines

By Kristyn Buchanan | Children 0-5 , Kids 5-12 , Parenting Tips , Teens 13 and Over , Trauma

Welcome back our guest blogger Marly Hinestroza, as she discusses about tragic media headlines, the effects on children, and how you as a parent can help!


On 01/13/18, at 8:00 am HST, I was trying to entertain eight 9 year old girls who had just woken up from a birthday-sleepover party for my daughter, when I received an alarm on my phone that read “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Many people have shared what it was like to be in Hawaii during this “mistake” and I echo many of the sentiments of fear, anger, confusion and sadness so I won’t go into that (Coping with Hawaii’s Ballistic Missile False Alarm). Luckily, my fight or flight instinct kicked in and fight prevailed so I managed to get my daughter, her friends, my 18 month old and 2 year old lab into the laundry room with as many provisions as I had ready for hurricane season, because who prepares for incoming missiles? Right…

“If It Bleeds, It Leads”

Barely a month later, on 2/14/18 as I’m ordering lunch with a friend, the headline start to roll across the screen – “Mass shooting in Florida High School.” So my heart drops and I think “what must those kids be going through? Those parents? What if it was my kids? Why is this happening?!”

There is so much going on in the world and it is close to impossible to shut all the “noise” out and keep it away from our children. Whether they are on social media or not, news spread like wildfire and children are talking about it. News stories are coming up in sessions with school age children and teens who have “heard that” or “read this on Facebook.” News stories are also coming up in sessions with parents who are struggling with how to talk to their children about how bleak the world seems to be some days.

Shortly after the shooting my daughter’s elementary school sent out a letter in an attempt to reassure parents that they have drills to prepare for the unfortunate. I asked my nine year old if she’s done the drills, tried to gage if she understands why and tried to ensure she knows what to do even though just the thought of it makes me sick. Then she told me something that chilled me; she told me that a teacher asked her if her light up shoes (which she loves and wears almost daily) have an on/off button and that when they have a drill she has to turn them off because she won’t want the bad guy to see her… Later on I saw a viral post on FB about light up shoes and I cried the tears I didn’t allow myself to shed when talking to her.

How to Talk To Your Child About Tragedy

At this point I realized that I myself don’t quite feel prepared to talk to my children about the tragedies in the world, which some days seems to be daily occurrences. I don’t want to address any of it with my nine year old, and does my 18 month old even need anything from me in the days following a tragedy that is being covered on every media channel, social media app and seemingly everyone around me? The answer is YES. Yes, no matter the age our children have needs that we must meet during times of national and international tragedies. There are many articles on this topic and at times the sheer amount of information available can be overwhelming, however, there are some common themes when talking to children about tragedies in the world:

Listen, allow them to express themselves and reinforce that they are safe.

Start where the child is. From infants to adolescents our children speak to us both with their words and with their actions so no matter their age it is important that we listen to them.

-Infants and toddlers may be responding to you and how you are coping with the stress, listen to the cues they are giving you.

  •         Sleep regressions
  •         Change in appetite
  •         Excessive crying or screaming
  •         Increased irritability or sadness
  •         Shows anxiety/startles easily

If you notice these signs in the days following a national or international tragedy that is being broadcasted widely take a moment to assess how you are responding to it. Limit your exposure to it as much as possible, especially when interacting with your infant or toddler and take care of yourself. The NCTSN provides a comprehensive list of signs to look out for.

School age children are also looking at you and how you are responding to the events but they are likely to also be receiving information from other such as teachers, peers, older siblings or even TV and social media. Listen to what your child knows already and correct misinformation as well as provide facts in simple, clear and concise age appropriate terms. If they have an explanation that implies they understand something has happened, that it is over and those able to help have done so (police, EMTs etc.) and they are safe either because it happened in a place far away or because they have been reassured their school and caregivers will protect them then don’t take away their sense of safety. This is the explanation they need to feel safe and although we know that unfortunately tragedies can happen nearly anywhere and at any time, we don’t want to burden our children with that knowledge.

  •         Regressive behaviors (i.e. thumb sucking, bedwetting)
  •         Difficulty focusing
  •         Excessive temper, irritable, sadness, anxious
  •         Difficulty sleeping
  •         Frequent headaches or stomach aches

-Adolescents may be even more exposed to tragic news as it is more common for them to be on social media, however they probably still have many questions and misinformation about what has happened. An adolescent may not know how far away or close an event is to them, they may wonder why it has happened and what is being done about it and have misconceptions about what can actually be done. As with younger children, gently correct misinformation by offering facts in simple and clear language. Remember that they are getting information from many sources and whatever gaps they have are being filled in by their imagination and what they are piecing together. It is also important to listen to them in whatever way they choose to present the information, whether they tell you what they know and how they are feeling or using friends as examples. Don’t remove the mask by saying “I bet you’re feeling that way too.” Or “Sarah doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” The American Academy of Pediatrics has a website called Healthy Children where you can find articles including phrases to say and what not to say for natural or man-made tragedies and loss.

  •         Difficulty focusing
  •         Increased irritability and anger outburst
  •         Withdrawing from others and activities they enjoyed
  •         Change in appetite
  •         Difficulty sleeping

No matter the age, be open to having the conversation – it is better that they get the information from you than from others. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in CT I listened to an interview with Dr. Benjamin Shain, MD and he was asked by the interviewer when to talk to children about these tragedies, are there times to avoid such as before bed? His response was no, if children are talking about it, it is best to address it then and provide clear and concise answers. Ultimately, no matter the age, they are looking at you for how to navigate these very overwhelming situations and they need to feel safe and reassured.

Give Love

When in doubt, my new internal mantra has been “I don’t got all the answers, so tell me who does. All I really know is that we really need love!” – Landon McNamara  (great song with Island vibes and a powerful message). Yes there are horrific things going on and somedays it feels very overwhelming but one thing we can do is GIVE LOVE. So no, it won’t be easy to have these conversations with our children and as much as we wish we didn’t have to, we need to. We need to listen to them, allow them to express themselves and help them feel safe.


Marly A. Hinestroza-Gaviria, LCSW

Ms. Hinestroza-Gaviria is a Resilience Trainer for FOCUS Hawaii working with military families and couples. Marly has worked as a certified Multidimensional Family Therapist with adolescents and their families dealing with adolescent high-risk behaviors and/or substance abuse. She has experience working with children from infancy to adolescence and their families providing assessments, individual and family therapeutic interventions, service coordination and crisis intervention. Marly earned her Master of Social Work degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey.



Jan 17


By Jen Taylor | Children 0-5 , Kids 5-12 , Play Therapy , Play Therapy Interventions , Professionals , Trauma

That is the name of Holly Willard’s coloring book and the subject of her course Sexual Abuse Treatment Methods Using Play Therapy from the 2017 Play Therapy Summit.

Holly takes this topic very seriously and it is obvious during her heartfelt presentation that sexual abuse prevention is one of her passions.

And that’s because she knows the statistics.  You probably do to:

  • 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused
  • 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused
  • 75% percent of perpetrators are well known to the child

I even created a nifty little graphic to remind everyone of those numbers.

For Those Who Love Resources

If you are a fan of directive play therapy interventions and techniques, then Holly’s course Sexual Abuse Treatment Methods Using Play Therapy is right up your alley.

I have not counted them all but I know there are at least a dozen different resources and play therapy techniques included in her course.

Her coloring book, You Are Amazing, is just one page after another of directive interventions.  But she is not just promoting her book.  She is genuinely promoting relationship enhancing techniques that also build self esteem and resiliency.

And she knows of tons of resources.

My absolute favorite are these Superhero finger tatoos that she uses from Amazon (no affiliate links here…just sharing).

You get more tatoos than capes, so Holly recommends using construction paper for capes to stretch the value.

She uses them to talk about all the characteristics about the child that make them super.

It’s a cool way to build the self-esteem and talk about the special powers they have.

See 5 More Resources from her course in the  Facebook  group today.

It’s still all about the relationship

Holly shares so many directive play therapy strategies in her course, but at the end of they day, she really wants people to remember that what they are doing is enough.

You can have all sorts of cool books.

There are dozens more cool techniques that you can use.

But, she reminds us that many of these play-based interventions came FROM children DURING sessions.  It was through a child’s ability to be vulnerable in sessions that many directive play therapy interventions were created.

And Holly (and I) want you to remember that you are doing good work.

And as Holly says,


Jan 16

Coping with Hawaii’s Ballistic Missile False Alarm

By Jen Taylor | Parenting Tips , Trauma

It’s been two full days since Hawaii’s ballistic missile false alarm.  Many people have blogged about what it was like to think you were going to die.

People who were not here really don’t understand it.  After all, they didn’t even know about it UNTIL IT WAS OVER.

But for people in Hawaii,  it was stressful to say the least.

And frankly, the news coverage about it has not been very helpful.  In fact, it is all quite dismal.  There really are no fallout shelters and even if there were, you probably couldn’t get through the traffic to get to one in time.  The “advice” about what to do includes “lay down flat in the street” if you can’t get inside.   Is this a joke?

So, from a mental health counselor and play therapist who experienced this first hand, it was helpful for me to actually write down what  OUR BRAINS went through on Saturday 1/13/18 around 8am so that I can process it myself.

Parents, it is helpful if you understand this because then you can explain it to your children.


The Amgydala Is Attempting To Determine the Nature of Threat

Even for trained therapists, understanding the parts of the brain and how they all function can be very difficult.  But, put very simply, the amygdala (pronounced uhmig-duh-luh)  is the part of the brain that is most responsible for our FEAR response.

You can go here to see a picture of the brain and where the amygdala is located.  But basically, the job of the amygdala is to assess for threats.

When you got the message on your phone (or like me, saw it while scanning Facebook posts),it was your amygdala that was immediately activated and started asking questions.

Questions like:

  • What do I know about this situation?
  • Is this familiar or unfamiliar?
  • Is this real or not real?
  • Can this information be trusted?
  • What are my senses telling me about how afraid I should be?

 During this time, you may have thought:

  • It’s  weird that the local news is still showing basketball games.
  • And later…well it IS on the ticker on the news station now so this is more serious.
  • I do (or don’t) hear the warning sirens -depending on where you are- so that makes me feel more scared (or less).
  • I can’t find anything about it online (and, the Hawaii Emergency Response website is not loading/crashed).
  • I have heard about this threat on the news a lot lately and we’ve been practicing for the past two months to prepare for this situation.
  • The message says “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
  • I know that the Navy has ways to shoot it down OR
  • I’m not confident that we have a way to fight this thing.
  • (and for me personally). My husband is not here and while we are talking on the phone, our call is disconnected.  (HUGE AMYGDALA response there).

The amygdala responded in different ways:

  1. This is HUGE.  This is SERIOUS.  We could DIE. 
  2. Hmm. This doesn’t make total SENSE.  I need MORE INFORMATION.  I am CONFUSED.
  3. I don’t believe this.  This ISN’T RIGHT. We are OKAY. 

And all responses are NORMAL.

Your brain then starts deciding what to do about this threat (or challenge) as my fellow play therapist Lisa Dion explains in this very wonderful podcast episode about the amygdala.

In this podcast, Lisa explains that the first threat (or challenge) that the brain assesses is regarding physical and emotional safety.

So, as we were all taking in all of this sensory information (what am I seeing, hearing, feeling in this moment), people started to take action.

Those actions included:

  • Going back to sleep or going about their normal routine
  • For me, changing out of pajamas and into real clothes
  • Gathering supplies
  • Making provisions to shelter (clearing out space in the closet, getting blankets or mattresses, whatever)
  • Making additional phone calls (to get information, to talk to relatives)
  • Gathering our pets and children
  • Looking for somewhere to shelter in place
  • Trying to drive closer to family members or safety
  • Doing nothing (feeling unable to move)
  • Actively seeking more information (Googling, looking for news, listening for sirens).

Everyone did whatever they thought they needed to do in that moment to keep themselves and their family members ALIVE and SAFE.

And considering, none of us knew exactly what we needed to do to achieve that goal…we just followed our own instincts.  We were trying to take something  unknown and make it manageable.

Whatever response you had in that moment was NORMAL.  

That is exactly how people in that situation FEEL, THINK, and RESPOND.

And that is what you can teach your children.  How they felt in that moment was normal.  And how they feel about it today is part of a range of expected emotions.


Look for the Helpers

After tragedies, people often reference the quote from Fred Rogers, “look for the helpers.”

And this event was no different.  Remember all the people passing along information in the neighborhood Facebook groups.  Remember, the strangers who were sharing resources or ideas about what was going on.  Remember, Tulsi Gabbard tweeting out that this was a false alarm.

For us, 38 minutes seemed like an awful long time for “HELP” to arrive.

But even in those minutes that we were all waiting for the official word, we were helping each other.

  • We were helping each other find places to shelter.
  • We were helping our children to feel less afraid.
  • We were helping our far away loved ones prepare for our possible deaths.
  • We were helping by spreading the word that this was a mistake.

Now, I do realize that not EVERYONE was helpful.  I’ve heard the stories about people locked out of stores.  I know that someone was struck by a vehicle in their rush to find safety.  But, even under these circumstances, most people were trying to HELP others when they could.


In this heightened state of threat management, the news that this was all a big mistake was both relieving and infuriating all at the same time.  Because our bodies had already responded to the threat (our blood pressure was up, our hearts beating fast, our breathing more rapid) and we weren’t able to just turn all that off just yet. The body doesn’t work like a light switch. It takes some time to calm the amygdala.

So naturally, people got angry.  Typical responses included:

  • How could this happen?
  • Why would you do a test without telling us?
  • Where is this button and how did this happen?
  • That person should be fired.
  • They all should be fired.
  • Maybe it really was a missile and it got shot down and they are hiding that from us.
  • Maybe THIS is another mistake.
  • What if this happens again?
  • We are not ready.
  • This is messed up.
  • No one understands what this was like for us.
  • This is unfair.

And probably more colorful and profane versions of those questions too.  That is how people feel when they go through something like this.

In the two days following this false alarm, I saw many people do very helpful things for their brains and their bodies.  This was part of our ability to calm our amgydala back down and return to a somewhat normal state of functioning.

Positive Coping Skills After The False Alarm:

  • Going to church
  • Going to the beach
  • Taking a hike or walk in nature
  • Spending time with your family or calling relatives far away
  • Creating a real emergency kit
  • Talking with friends and neighbors about your experience
  • Playing games
  • Seeking support from mental health providers
  • Making jokes or memes

Other Things People Experience After the False Alarm:

  • Drinking Excessively or Using Drugs (Numbing the experience…not good, but it happens)
  • Engaging in Risky Behaviors (who cares, what if I die tomorrow?)
  • Getting Angry Easily or Yelling At People for No Reason (very common)
  • Overreacting to little mistakes or problems (very common)
  • Being overly jumpy, paranoid or on guard (text messages make you cringe)
  • Separation Anxiety (I don’t want to be far away from my family)

Again, this is all NORMAL.

There is no magic wand for making us all feel better.  But, if you are experiencing a lot of those more negative coping behaviors and they are persisting for weeks after this false alarm, I strongly encourage you to seek more support from a mental health professional.   If you need more specific help, please reach out to me through my website (Note: It still says I am in Memphis, TN… I just got here to Oahu and it’s on my to-do list to update it).

Remember, you are not alone.  Your response was completely normal.  And there is help if you need it.

Sep 17

We’re Going to Disneyland! Preparing Children With Trauma History for High Intensity Activities!

By Jen Taylor | Kids 5-12 , Trauma

We’re going to Disneyland! After a crazy month getting ready for our big move, we are taking a much needed family vacation to break up the trip to Hawaii with a little stop over in Disneyland.  Planning for this trip reminded me of a few conversations I had over the years with foster and adopted children who have a history of trauma and their experiences with Disney (or other high value experiences).

Many truly amazing families have taken their new foster children or recently adopted children on fantastic vacations. And, unfortunately, despite the high hopes for a “memory of a lifetime” experience, some come back reporting that it was extremely challenging.

This is actually a VERY COMMON experience.

Remember we talked before that children with a history of trauma don’t respond to traditional parenting logic.  They usually don’t care about consequences, but more importantly, don’t think they are worthy of rewards.

Now, let’s apply that to Disneyland/Disney World or other Exciting Events

Excitement Phase

This does not just apply to Disney, but to any exciting new adventure.

I can’t say that I have ever met a child that doesn’t get excited about the prospect of going to Disneyland.  For weeks before the trip, I hear them talk about the airplane trip or the rides or the parades. They may watch commercials or videos and think about all of the fun stuff that is going to happen.  They are really, really excited.

The problem with this excitement is that physiologically, it is actually a very similar response to fear.

This concept is explained in an article by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic where she explains:

That’s because anxiety and excitement are both aroused emotions. In both, the heart beats faster, cortisol surges, and the body prepares for action. In other words, they’re “arousal congruent.” The only difference is that excitement is a positive emotion‚ focused on all the ways something could go well.

So, your children that have a history of trauma are used to feeling these same feelings; however, typically from a fear based perspective rather than a simply positive frame of mind.

Which leads to…

Fear Response

Despite the excitement, your child might actually have some unexpressed worries about this event.  He might be afraid of heights or not want the feeling of being out of control.  She might be worried that she will get lost from you or worse, left there and abandoned.

There are all sorts of fears that come up (some rational and some irrational) when a new and exciting event is proposed.  Combine this with a nervous system response that feels a lot like anxiety and you have a child that might start feeling like something terrible is about to happen. Or, one who is triggered by other memories of when their body felt that same way when something scary really did happen.

Grief Response

Another common experience I hear from kids is that while they are truly enjoying the opportunity to do something amazing with you, internally, they might also be having a grief response.  This response is something like, “I wish my biological family did this with me.

This can be true even if the biological family did some pretty terrible things OR if the child doesn’t even remember them.   These feelings come out of nowhere -the child was not expecting them and doesn’t usually know how to verbalize it or explain it.

This can also come up if the child DID in fact have a fun experience pre-trauma.  The memory of doing something fun with biological relatives or before a big change can also trigger the sadness of grief.  They are grieving the memory of that experience and the loss of the future experiences with those people.

Guilt Response

This can turn into a feeling of guilt.  Sometimes children will feel like they are not worthy of an experience like this. Or they feel guilty because other siblings do not have the same opportunities.  Sometimes to lessen the burden of that guilt, they might sabotage the experience by “not enjoying it.”

You’ve heard of survivor’s guilt, right? People who survive a tragedy often feel guilt because they lived while their friends died.  Children with trauma history sometimes go through a similar experience.  They wonder why they get to do something so cool while they are acutely aware that not everyone else does.

Again, this triggers the “I’m not worthy” response.

Sensory Overload +Lack of Routine

Now, combine all of the feelings, body sensations, and thoughts with sensory overload to the millionth degree. The sights, the sounds, the crowds, the movements.  It’s really all overwhelming.  Add to that the fact that you have taken away every bit of routine (the bed, the schedule, the mealtimes, possibly a time zone change), etc.

It’s like taking a car that is already going 90 mph and added a shot of nitrous oxide to it.


Be Prepared for the Crash

As much fun as it is, just be prepared that you are likely to experience some problem behaviors during an event like this.  It doesn’t mean that you can’t go, it just means, be mindful of what all of this is like from the child’s point of view.

Expect any of the following

  • Increased defiance or disrespect
  • Decreased ability to follow directions
  • Regressed behaviors (acting younger than age)
  • Helplessness
  • Lack of fear response
  • Hyperactivity
  • Loss of sleep
  • Irritability
  • Interpersonal problems (ie. fighting with peers or siblings)
  • Refusal to Participate
  • Basically any other problem behavior you can think of

What Can You Do?

Start by being aware that this is a potential response for any child, but especially for children with a history of trauma.

Acknowledge it and talk about it with your child.  Tell them that it is normal to feel both anxiety and excitement and that sometimes their brain gets confused about which is which.

Prepare by giving your child specific things to expect out of the trip (schedules, daily activities, etc).  Aim for few, if any surprises.

Keep to your schedule (or a best, give the child the daily schedule).  Review it each morning (today we are going to do x, then have lunch, then so y, and then come back to the hotel for bed).

Don’t overdo it.  Don’t overcrowd your schedule trying to fit it all in.  Sometimes it’s better to ride the same few rides over and over again.

Don’t take it personally.  If the child is feeling sad or guilt, acknowledge it and talk about it.  But don’t get offended.  “We spent all of this money and you don’t even appreciate it” is NOT helpful here!!!

Bring something sensory as a comfort.  This might be a coin or stone to keep in a pocket, or a soft piece of fabric or a chewable piece of jewelry.  It is helpful to have something to keep your hands busy as this reduces the stress response in your body.

When you get back home, things return to normal pretty quickly.  Usually within a week.

Final Thoughts:

Even if your child has not experienced a major trauma, the experience of Disney or other theme parks can be overwhelming.  Pat yourself on the back for being willing to go on this adventure with your child.  Remember that from their point of view, a tiny sliver of the park is still pretty amazing.  Be a kid yourself.  Experience the joy and don’t let a few (minor or major) tantrums stop you from doing cool stuff.

And, for those of you who have been to Disney with toddlers…pray for me.  You know what I’m going through this week. Lucky for me, the next stop is a beach in Hawaii. (And I know that wasn’t the case for most of you, so I am especially grateful for that).

Aug 29

My Ex is An Alcoholic? Should My Child Still Have Visits?

By Jen Taylor | Children 0-5 , Kids 5-12 , Parenting Tips , Play Therapy , Teens 13 and Over , Trauma

Managing parent and child visits when drugs or alcohol is involved can be tricky. Sadly, drug and alcohol abuse is a factor in over 30 million homes (according to Narc-Anon). And, too many of those homes involve children.

If you are dealing with a spouse or an ex that has a drug or alcohol problem, it can be difficult to determine if visits with your child are going to be helpful or harmful. Sometimes, the court has ordered visitation and the decision is not up to you.

Follow Court Orders Regarding Visits

First and foremost, follow any court orders that are in place. If the court order does not make sense or seems unfair, contact an attorney for legal advice on how to proceed.

If there is an immediate safety risk (like, the parent shows up for visitation intoxicated), you may need to contact local law enforcement.

When safety is a repeated concern, you can also contact a visitation center and/or mental health professional that provides therapeutic or supervised visitations.

*Note: Mental health providers can assist your child with COPING with visits, but typically will not make recommendations about custody and/or visitation. 

Don’t Feel Guilty About Your Decision

If the decision for visits is up to you, lose the guilt.   You are thinking about this problem in terms of your child’s best interest and you are already a good parent. There is no clear right or wrong answer here.

Also, know that you can change your mind. Just because you allow visits today does not mean that you have to allow them the next time. Use your parental judgment and seek consultation with a mental health provider to work through this process.

Children Can Benefit From Visits With Your Ex

In general, I will say that most children benefit from contact with their biological parent. Even if those people have pretty serious issues or drug problems. And, Narc-Anon reports that 75% of children will not go on to develop a drug or alcohol problem themselves.

To me, that only sounds like good odds if it is someone else’s kid. If it’s my child, I want more reassurance than that. Anyone that has worked with addicts knows that they can be manipulative, demanding, unpredictable and moody, to say the least. To put a child in that environment does not always feel good.

9 Tips For Managing Visits With An Alcoholic Ex:

  1. At each visit, assess for current intoxication. Notice if the parent appears under the influence. Do they smell like drugs or alcohol? What is their speech pattern? How do they look physically? Obviously, this is a non-scientific method but I believe that most people can trust their instincts here. If the person appears to be high or under the influence, let them be the one to prove you wrong. Cancel the visit.
  2. Set a schedule.  Pick a date/time for visitation and stick to it. Until the other parent has a period of consistent visits, do not allow visits on a random basis. If the parent misses the scheduled visit time, then they will have to wait until the next week.
  3. Start with phone calls. If the parent does not make a regular visit, switch to phone calls on a regularly scheduled day and time to promote consistency before returning to visits.  If they are not consistent with phone calls, switch to letters. Once the parent provides consistent contact, they can move up to the next level of contact.
  4. Whenever possible, do not tell the child in advance about the visits.  Especially for younger and non-verbal children.  We want to avoid having children waiting by the door or looking out the window for someone that may or may not show up. Older children will be more aware of the schedule.  So, if they are expecting a visit and it does not happen, reassure the child that it is not their fault. You can also acknowledge the feeling they are experiencing. “You are disappointed.”
  5. Have a ritual for transitions to and from visits. Try to do the same types of activities together before the visit starts. This can be as simple as reading a book, listening to a story or having a specific snack. Upon return, do not ask questions about the visit. Instead, play a SENSORY activity. This is something that requires the child to touch, taste, see, smell, or listen. Things like baking, playing a game outside, or doing something with their hands will help reduce stress upon the return.
  6. Do not ask questions about the visit: Not, even, “how was your visit?” “or did you have fun?” Instead, welcome the child back by saying, “I am glad you are home” and then offer your transition activity. “Want to watch our TV show?” or “Should we go ride bikes?”  Remember that a child is worried that they will hurt your feelings if they had fun or will get the other parent in trouble if something bad did happen.  Just wait it out.
  7. Remember, bad news travels fast. If something really terrible happened during the visit (like a car crash or injury), you probably would have been contacted by an authority.  Your child will most likely tell you if something else happened.   Trust them to do so in their own time and way.
  8. If the child talks about the visit, reflect on their feelings without judgment. When they do start talking,  comment on the feeling they are expressing.  For example, “You had fun” or “You were disappointed.” It may sound obvious, but do not badmouth the other parent and do not make promises to address any specific issues.
  9.  Plan a counseling session. If your child doesn’t want to visit or is having behavioral or emotional problems upon their return, it is time to seek additional support. It is usually helpful for children to visit their mental health counselor on one of the days immediately following visitation so that the child has a neutral place to discuss any feelings that may arise.

Give Your Child Safety Skills For Visits

Before sending a child for visits,  have a safety plan.

  • Teach young children your real name, phone number and address.
  • Make sure your child knows that they do not have to get in a vehicle with a parent that has been drinking or using drugs.
  • If they have a cell phone, use a code word so that they can all you to notify you of any problems.  (So, they don’t have to say the parent is drunk in front of that parent). They just say, “Mom, don’t forget bananas! and you know that means trouble.
  • Have a neighbor that they can go if they get scared or need help.  If you don’t know anyone, go knocking and introduce your child to them.
  • Practice the safety plan in advance. Role play using the code words, rehearse the phone numbers.

Keep Good Documentation of Visits

Finally, keep good records about the visits.  Note any problems or issues.  Discretely, jot down behaviors or quotes from your child.  Follow up with an attorney if you have additional legal questions and contact a child therapist if you need additional supports.

What else have you done to deal with an alcoholic ex?


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