Five-ish Things That Kids Learn in Families


“What we remember from childhood we remember forever…”   Cynthia Ozick, American writer 1928.

Young children, and teens, sometimes have values, priorities, behaviors and feelings that they have to unlearn, or re-channel if they have been exposed to traumatic life events, or unhealthy behaviors by their parents. It can be a long, slow process but don't give up.  Healthy life skills, coping mechanisms and trust building come from watching you, as well as, being given opportunities to experiment, grow and change. 

The parameters of ‘normal’.

Family life is a microscopic version of the world. It’s where children and teens learn to interact with others. Learn how they fit into social and work (chores or working for others) relationships.  It’s where they learn boundaries and where they learn to evaluate what is acceptable, unacceptable or just plain bizarre behavior.

Often, if tragedy or abuse occurs in a child’s life, they tend to expect bad things unless we help them put things in perspective. It should be every parenting adult’s goal to help kiddos see that life is a series of possibilities–not just a steady stream of problems.

How to handle feelings and conflict.

It can be especially hard for youth who have been threatened or punished for “talking back” to engage in any conversations that they know would have triggered a violent reaction in their mom or dad.  However, their day-to-day success, as well as all ongoing and future relationships rely on their learning how to give and receive feedback honestly, respectfully, and at appropriate times.

If kids yell obscenities, hit, walk away when you are talking with them, or demonstrate other extreme behaviors create a cooling off period, and then explain rules of engagement.  Let them practice when they are calm saying “I” statements that don’t threaten or demean. Role play examples they can relate to such as, “I feel scared when you yell, like you just did.  I know that the odds of a plane crashing are very slim, however, it makes my stomach hurt when you make fun of me for not wanting to fly because that’s how my parents died.  It’s my turn to decide what movie we are going to go see since you choose last week. Was there a reason you want to choose this week too?”

Feelings are honest.  It’s okay for children and teens to be angry, mad, sad, glad, silly or whatever.  What’s important is how feelings are expressed by words, voice tone, body language and timing. They learn respect as much from watching and listening to how you talk to others, and about others as they do from lectures or coaching. If a birth parent is, or was, abusive they may need professional counseling.

Being responsible isn’t easy.

Kids learn from experience–so even when it’s painful let them try new things or re-try old things in new ways giving them more and more control and responsibility. Let them make mistakes. Let them learn about natural consequences, and most important set them up to succeed.

Not all their efforts will be painless, or pretty, but from each attempt they will learn. Show them trust and respect by honestly praising successes (even partial) and together talk through events and feelings when things don’t turn out so well. Be open to their suggestions and be flexible.  When you can’t ‘flex’ explain “why”. Is it too expensive, are you overbooked, or is it simply too dangerous, illogical, or against your values?

Learning to be a good winner or a good loser.

Don’t believe the drivel that anyone can do anything they set their mind to.  I am 5’2″ and will never be 5’7″.  At seventy, I’m too old to become an Olympic champion in anything.  They too have some skills and gifts and some restrictions. If they have been cut from the high school varsity basketball team help them access the situation.  Would extra practice or coaching help?  Would joining a ‘rec’ team improve their future chances in high school, college and beyond?  Are they simply, at 5 foot, too short to compete unless they get a growth spurt?

Additionally, everyone cannot be best at everything.  If they try something and fail then they will have learned a little more about themselves and be better prepared when passed over for a job promotion or maybe learning that there are physical reasons that they cannot eat sugar without serious health consequences.

Sometimes winning comes easily.  They will be better served if they learn early on how to share the glory in a team sport or turn the spotlight to encouraging others.  “I am the greatest” (you fill in the blank) comments can quickly turn off others.

Values and ethics.

We live in a world where everything we do is quickly picked up, passed on and/or critiqued by others on social media.  It’s not easy to be bullied at school or work, but it’s mega multiplied when the bullying jumps to cyber and your child is exposed to ridicule from those he/she interacts with every day.

Since we can’t control everything that happens to our children as youngsters or young adults, we have to help them develop the self confidence and self worth to ride out the storms. Teens don’t always believe that character counts more than immediate popularity. However, surrounding them with family, mentors, good friends who share your family’s values will help them mentally shrug and walk away or calmly say, “that’s not cool”.

Let them know that they aren’t victims and that asking for help from God or others takes courage and strength but we all need others…and we all can help others.

Met earlier this month in Seattle with a number of other grandfamily members (and Donna Butts from Generations United) at the Casey Leadership Retreat. Amazing people. Amazing organizations.

Five Things Kids of Addicts, or Alcoholics, Absolutely Need to Hear.

1. You are not Your Dad and are not responsible for things He does.

Shared genes don’t dictate who you are, or will become…or make you responsible for what your birth dad does. 

You do not owe anyone answers about your parents, or their behavior, regardless if the person asking is a family member, friend, stranger or teacher. Always acknowledge questions respectfully by your words, voice tone, and body language, but only share what you want.    “I don’t know. ”  “Thank you for understanding that it hurts to talk about my dad,” or “If this is really important I’ll give you my mom/grandpa/foster dad’s cell number and you can talk to them,” are all appropriate responses to insensitive inquiries.

2. only your mom can choose to quit.

As much as you want your mom to stop drinking, or using drugs, you can’t make her quit. I tried, others tried.  Addictions are hard to break…but help is available.

Your mom drinks too much (or uses drugs).  It’s not because she doesn’t love you, or because of something you did, or didn’t do.  It’s because her body now is used to the chemical changes drugs or alcohol cause and she physically needs the temporary escape or ‘high’ feeling that she gets when using.  This craving overrules logical thinking and even terrible consequences like losing you or being in prison (whatever is applicable). Depending on child’s age, and circumstances, this can lead to a discussion of problems in her getting a job, dangers of seeing her existing friends, or a need for counseling to face problems.

3.  YOU AREN’T A VICTIM.

Life is hard, but you can do “hard”.

Everyone eventually has tough things to face.  You know Kevin’s mom commited suicide, Jax is  bullied because she is overweight, and others have terrible diseases like cancer.  Remember how we saw on TV that some dads are killed protecting our country.  You can choose to stay mad (or sad) or blame your dad/mom for how you act, but you can also choose to accept responsibility for what you do. You know how you’ve been hurt, so you can help others who are hurting.

Again for older children or teens more discussion can be helpful, e.g. “In NO HERO former Navy SEAL, Mark Owen, wrote, “Only focus on your three-foot world…focus on what you can affect.” Good advice.  Don’t dwell on what might happen if your dad returns. Get good grades so you can go on to be the game developer you want to be, and learn to control your temper.  It’s my job to keep working on the things that will make it so you always live with grandpa and I.  The attorney says he thinks it will only be a few more months until the judge lets that happen.”

4.  life isn’t fair.  get over it.

Listen.  Be honest.  Don’t preach.  Honor their feelings.

“I agree it sucks that you have to spend every other weekend visiting your mom and she won’t take you to your lacrosse games.  I have talked with your caseworker and am trying to see if we can change visiting times, but for now we have to do what the judge tells us.”

If your child, or the grandchild you are raising, is unfairly accused of something, and after presenting their side are still over-ruled, then maybe it’s time for one of the, “Pick your battles”, “I can go to bat for you but the consequences may be…” or “It’s a tough break but what can you do differently next time so when someone says something mean about your dad so you don’t get in a fight and end up suspended?” speeches.  Follow up with a hug and “I love you” or whatever physical contact they will accept.

If an unfair accusation that would impact the rest of their life (like a sexual aggression, troublemaker or slow learner) is made then go to the mat both for, and with, them.  

5.  You can trust me.

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You can tell them that you are not their addicted parent and can be trusted, but they won’t believe you until you show up, and follow up, time after time after time.  

If you promise to be at a game–be there.  If you promise chocolate chip cookies–make them.  If you say they will lose video time for hitting their little brother and they hit their brother, then get the facts but give the consequence. Make the video time loss reasonable for their age and circumstances–but do it.  Be consistent and do it again, and again until the message comes through that you don’t hit others.  The more natural the consequence the more impactful.

If they get into trouble outside your home, always listen to their side of the story before commenting or making judgment.  Teachers are people, kids set others up…don’t assume an adult or other child is always right.  Ask questions, and expect factual–not purely emotional–answers. However, also remember that children of alcoholics and addicts have learned to lie as a means of survival.  Be their advocate, but don’t blindly defend them.

Praise effort, progress, and any little thing you honestly can until they start growing in self-confidence and life skills.  Let them hear that you notice what they say, and what they do. Compliment their achievements in front of others and reward good behavior.  A lot of champions are made because they don’t want to let their coach or family or teammates, who believe in them, down.  Talk them up, don’t tear their parent down.

Letters and journaling.

Had the best conversation with a high school senior talking about family traditions.  In her family everyone puts a memento, or letter, in a keepsake box when a child is born and then when they turn eighteen the family gets together and each item is opened and shared.  It’s fun, personal…and priceless.

Writing letters is something I’d encourage you to do.  For years, people have told me they loved the letters to Chad (my adopted son/grandson) that I put at the end of each chapter in my first book, Second Time Around: Help for Grandparents Raising their Children’s Kids.  

It’s a legacy you can hand your child/grandchild/niece or nephew down the road and it really releases a lot of feelings for you.  Letters can also be an answer to a problem one grandmother recently asked, “How do I counteract lies my daughter says, like “Your grandmother took you?” when reality is she abandoned her.”  If she had written letters to her grandson or granddaughter, she might want to share a letter dated years ago that substantiates, not only her story but also reaffirms how very much you love her. The same goes for letters to sons and daughters.  Be sure to capture the happy, the positive, the sweet, as well as all the dreams you hold for them.   If you’re like me there will be a lot of letters that you’ll tear up too…because somethings are too heavy, too hurtful, or too personal to share with them–or to have someone find after you are no longer around.  

Following are  a few excerpts from my first book’s letters I wrote (copyrights apply):

First week:   “I cried so hard that I sank to the floor where I’m writing this, too heartsick to get up and too scared of what’s going to happen, to sleep…The biggest horror to me is that your mom doesn’t seem sorry or appalled by what she did…I pray to God you are safe tonight wherever you are and aren’t afraid.”

Maybe six months later:  “Today I took you for a blood test to see if you are HIV positive…”

Several years down the road:  “I went to court and told the judge why I didn’t think your mommy can keep you afe.  I didn’t want to tell him.  I didn’t want to hurt your mommy.  You see, in my heart she’s still my little girl.  But I had to.  I had to keep you safe, and your unborn sister safe.  When you are angry you are violent.  Remember when Bobby (now IMG_3322my husband and Chad’s adopted dad) was lying on his side on the floor and you kicked him so hard he collapsed or when you shook your rocking chair until the arm broke?…”

When Chad was six:  “Never think of yourself as a victim–you aren’t.  You have the advantage of knowing pain so you can help others.  I love your laugh.  It was silent for a long time so I stop and smile whenever I hear it.  When you are dating, always, always, always respect yourself, your date, and the little souls up in heaven who are waiting for you to someday be their daddy.”

Now Chad and his wife, Jessica, are waiting for the birth of their first born.  Can’t wait to write him/her a letter welcoming them.  I love them already.

The power of saying “no” to an addict.

“No”.  A tiny word.  A huge statement.   A line in the sand.   A lifetime of dreams shattered.   Your future’s foundation.

Know when to say, “no”.

To the user:

No debates, lectures, or moral judgements.  You did it all before, probably many times…didn’t work then, won’t work now.  The user’s thoughts and life are now theirs to own.  If something impacts you, set a boundary–if not–let it go, “This isn’t your house anymore and you can’t come inside.  Your things will be on the porch from 3-5 Sunday and if they aren’t gone, then we’ll give them to a charity.”

No enabling emotionally or functionally, “Sorry, but you chose to have the first drink, then you choose to drink more, and then you drove drunk.  I’ll always love you, but I won’t bail you out, or ever try to soften the consequences of choices you make, or things you do.”

No sharing confidences or information–not about their kids’ activities or their well-being, or your own feelings if you have custody.  Addicts try to manipulate and control.  You may know when you are being conned–but their little ones don’t.

No playing together.   Play time has passed; reality means responsibility. Sustained sobriety lasting until after their kids are grown has to come first.

To yourself:

No begging.  Stay calm on the outside, even when your heart is breaking on the inside.  Logic or referring to past history doesn’t work in the battlefield of an alcoholic’s mind.

No bribing.  Negotiating keeps the addict in the game and once a user gets what they want, they revert or renege.

No whining.  Nothing makes you weaker in the eyes of an alcoholic–or their children for that matter.  Don’t be pathetic–be self empowered.   Fake it until you can make it…real.

No more.   Sometimes you have to walk away but…

No giving up hope for their changing.  Never stop believing.  God is an equal opportunity, and free choice, supporter.   He won’t make them change, but He’ll give them every opportunity–and all the love and support they need–to change. Sometimes, there’s more gain with pain.