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April 2017 – North Dakota Post Adopt Network
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Monthly Archives

April 2017

What Do Our Children Need From Us?

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March 22, 2017 | Morgan Nerat, LSW

When parenting children who have been traumatized, or parenting a child who grew up in hard places, it’s often hard to communicate with them or know what they need from us. We are not mind readers, but maybe some of these hints will help you parent your children.

A Set Schedule
Some of the children in the AASK program were raised in a birth home that was not consistent, where things could change in a matter of minutes, and no one knew what the schedule was. Some of the children in the AASK program have moved to foster home to foster home or treatment facility to foster home too many times. Children need predictability due to their past experiences. Many of our children do not do well with sudden change, because it may bring back old memories or cause unnecessary anxiety. For example, when there is an activity coming up, have a talk with your kiddo and prepare them for this upcoming change or about expectations.

Figure Out What They Are Hinting at
Some children don’t know what they want and if they don’t know what they want, how are they going to tell you what they want? Have you ever had your child follow you around the house or maybe stare at you? You ask if they need something, ask if they need to tell you about their day, or you ask if they’re hungry, and their answer is ‘no’. You play a guessing game, but you are losing because you don’t know what they want. Try asking if they would like to play a board game. Try asking if they need a hug. Maybe they need reassurance that you want to spend time with them. Maybe they want a positive physical touch but do not know how to ask for it.

Have any of your adoptive kiddos repeatedly said your name over and over again? When you finally ask what they need, they might pause and attempt to come up with a clever question, because they did not know what to ask you when they started calling for you. Try saying, “if you are asking if I love you, the answer is yes”.

You adopted your child/sibling group and you want them to feel part of the family, because they are now part of your family. Therefore, please do not tell everyone about your child’s birth history, how they entered foster care, or why their birth parent’s parental rights were terminated. Don’t be that person who overshares! If your child wants to tell other’s about their story, that is their decision and you can be there to support your child; however, also teach your child about privacy. We all know those people who want to be a bit nosy. Stop them in their tracks and instead, brag about all of your child’s victories and their accomplishments.

Claim Your Child
Oftentimes, I work with children who are looking for someone to claim them. You can make  little comments such as, “I’m so glad our family is complete”, “Our family is blessed to have each other”, “I am so happy to be your dad”, “I’m so glad I can call you my son”.  A family I recently worked with told me a student at their daughter’s school asked if he was her dad. He said, “Yes I am her dad”, and the look on their daughter’s face was pure joy!



Social Media Safety

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February 23, 2017 | Sonja McLean, LCSW

 Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. All examples of social media outlets, with the potential to be harmless or incredibly destructive, especially to our unassuming youth. Protecting your youth from the harmful side of social media is becoming more and more difficult and proper education is becoming the one safeguard against this.

When we think of negative social media use by our teens, often times sexting is the first concern that comes to mind.  When talking to your youth about safety risks of using social media in this way, keeping an open dialogue and setting strict limits is imperative.  In her book, “There’s No Place Like Home for Sex Education: A Guidebook for Parents”, Mary Gossart notes these basic tips:

  • Ask questions: Find out what your youth thinks about sexting. Have any of their friends experienced this? And how did your youth respond?

  • Help your youth brainstorm ways to overcome peer pressure and remind them that your door is always open!

  • Remind them that when they send something, those words and images are now “out of their control”. 

  • Encourage your youth to count to 10 before hitting send and to consider the ways their message could be used.

  • Help your youth realize that impulsivity can “come back to haunt them” and then they have no control of what can happen.

  • Be honest with them when you talk about risks and consequences.

  • Set appropriate expectations for social media use.

  • Ask your youth what impressions they want to give to people and how that impression can change based on what they send. 

  • Keep listening!

If you want to learn more about how to talk with your kids about social media, sexuality, or healthy decisions, ND Post Adopt Network has these books available for check out:

  • There’s No Place Like Home for Sex Education: A Guidebook for Parents by Mary Gossart
  • Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten Rules for Talking with Teenagers about Sex by Karen Rayne

Want more information on social media safety? Check out our webinar, facilitated by Jessica Schindeldecker of the Fargo Police Department!



Dr. Brené Brown on Empathy

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February 23, 2017 | Sonja McLean, LCSW

“What is the best way to ease someone’s pain and suffering? In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.”

Supporting a Grieving Child

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February 23, 2017 | Sonja McLean, LCSW

I attended the ATTACh conference fall of 2016 in St. Louis.  Cynthia Agbayani of Lifeworks Outreach Services, Inc. spoke on helping adopted youth grieve losses.

Agbayani noted that a youth once told her that their “heart was cracked” and another stated “if I start crying, I won’t stop”. Too often we assume we know what youth are feeling throughout their journey in foster care and adoption and treat them accordingly, but do we stop to ask them how they perceive their experience? It’s scary and uncomfortable to talk about grief and all too often we tend to avoid it, saying “it’s okay”, “don’t be sad”, “don’t cry”, “it’s fine”.  While we come from a good place in saying those things, we really may be dismissing the true feelings a child is sharing with us.  Their feelings are hurt. They are scared. Their hearts are cracked. And they are opening up to tell us that and we are essentially telling them to stop when we use those common statements.

There is a difference in grief vs. trauma. Processing grief leaves a general feeling of sadness, it can bring relief, and if there is anger, it is usually non-violent.  Processing trauma can lead to feelings of terror, feeling unsafe, and anger maybe physically violent (Levine and Kline, 2007). While grief is healed through emotional release and tends to diminish over time, trauma involves flashbacks, startling, and other symptoms that may worsen over time.

With grief, Agbayani stresses the importance of clearly and honestly answering primary questions for youth, such as “will I ever see my parents again?” or “what will happen to my parents?”.  Glossing over this information will cause confusion and further stress for a child. Your ability to answer these questions for your child and assist them in managing their grief will impact your child’s ability to develop a secure attachment to you as they continue to age.  Normal mourning may include expectations of return, persisting memories, fear of additional losses, and feelings of sadness that will come and go.  Symptoms of failed mourning could include feelings of anxiety, insecurity, as well as blame and guilt.  Youth may have bursts of overactivity, and may have an increase in anti-social, delinquent or depressive behaviors.  They may feel like something is medically wrong with them when there is not, or may become more self-reliant.   Keep in mind, while not all youth that demonstrate these activities have “failed mourning”, they are things to keep in mind as you parent youth from tough places.

To help a child grieve losses, here are some ideas given by Agbayani:

  • As the caregiver, make a list of what may be triggering to your child so you can pay attention to those situations.

  • Provide your child with age appropriate answers to questions they have, regardless of how uncomfortable that question may be for you.

  • Allow your child choices in situations that permit this.

  • Stick to routine as much as you are able.

  • Help your child practice answering questions that peers, teachers, and other adults may ask them (and help them in understanding that it is okay to not share personal information if they do not feel comfortable in doing so).  Give them ideas of what words to use.

  • Make a safe container to hold your child’s heartbreak and anger.

  • Help your child recognize their strong feelings and sensations.

  • Make a life timeline, listing memories, stories, happy and sad times.

(Levine and Kline, 2007)

And keep in mind, youth are not so different from adults. When we are struggling or grieving, we often call our friends or family, or find someone to talk through and process our experiences with. Your child also needs to process their grief with others who listen with empathy in order to grieve successfully (James and Friedman, 2001).

Grief does not completely go away. It will come and go in various ways as your child ages. How you talk about it with your child now will have a huge effect on their ability to handle their grief as they get older.

If you have questions on helping your child process their experiences or would like recommendations for services or providers, please feel free to contact me at postadopt@pathinc.org or 701-551-6349.


Books referenced in this post:

Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing, by Maggie Kline and Peter A. Levine

When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses, by John w. James, Russell Friedman, and Leslie Matthews

Choosing Professionals

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October 5, 2016 | Sonja McLean

I would like to address a very common question that is coming through the ND Post Adopt Network. Families are wondering how they can find appropriate service providers. They note that when they are looking for therapists, psychiatrists, etc. many are very good at their jobs, but not all are well-versed in the realm of adoption or foster care. They state that it is difficult to find a service provider because wait lists are long and the number of professionals who understand the complexities of adoption narrow options even more.

When choosing a professional to work with, you do not need to necessarily ONLY look at service providers that have the experience of working with adoption, but you do need to note their willingness to learn and understand your family dynamics, your children, and your story.  Here is a great list of questions to ask providers prior to working with them:

1. Do you have experience with foster and adoptive families? If so, how much?

2. How often do you work with them?

3. What adoption-related training have you received?

4. Can you connect me with one or two families willing to give a reference?

5. Do you offer therapy for both the family and the child

6. Will you accept payments from my insurance provider?

If you find a provider that you feel a strong connection with, encourage them to seek adoption specific trainings or to contact the ND Post Adopt Network for information and tools to help them enrich their practice!

Information compiled from “Strengthen Your Forever Family: A Step-by-Step Guide to Post-Adoption” by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.


By | Uncategorized

August 15, 2016 | Sonja McLean, LCSW


After adoption, many families wish they had friends that really understand what they are going through as they parent youth from foster care.  Extended family and friends mean well, but don’t always quite understand the unique issues that surround adoption-they don’t “get it”.

ND Post Adopt Network is creating a mentoring program for you as adoptive families. According to Richard Delaney in his book “Safe Passage”, mentoring is defined as “teaching, tutoring, or coaching provided by a trusted confidant.” (p.5)  It’s goals are to “stabilize, overcome isolation, engender hope, and provide safe passage for a child and family.” (p. 5) The intent is that adoptive families help other adoptive families by validating feelings, providing support, and showing that they understand what they are going through.

Families are able to participate in this program in two ways:

  1. Be connected to a mentor!  Do you have questions that you wish you could talk to another adoptive family about? Would you like to learn how others handled situations? Are you looking for someone to check in with you to see how you are doing?  Your family can be connected to another who has gone through similar situations and knows how to navigate the system.

  2. Be a mentor family! Have you adopted? Do you have an interest in helping other families through tough times through phone calls, text, email, and/or providing informal respite? If so, you can apply to be a mentor family.

We are so excited to be able to offer this support to adoptive families! To participate in this mentoring network, email Sonja at postadopt@pathinc.org or call her at 701-551-6349.

As It Stands

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June 27, 2016 | Sonja McLean, LCSW

July 1st.

Happy New (fiscal) Year! 🙂

I wanted to share some of our great progress with you all:

  • Support groups: A huge thank you to everyone who is participating in the support groups that are being held in Bismarck, Fargo, and Minot. Our groups are strong-we have had great conversation and learning opportunities available to adoptive families and I hope these will continue to grow! (Pssst….Dickinson! Your support groups are on deck to start this fall! Stay tuned!)
  • Webinars: We had our first webinar in June and it was a total success! Webinars are held quarterly throughout the year. Topics upcoming in 2016 are Social Media Safety and Self-Care. 
  • Mentoring: We have a list of adoptive families that are interested in supporting other adoptive families. We will soon hold a 4-6 hour training for our mentoring families, but they are available to us now when there is a need!
  • Adoption Camp: There is a committee exploring options for a 2017 summer overnight camp for adoptive families. This is a very exciting concept and we are looking forward to seeing it come to fruition! Again, stay tuned!
  • Welcome Information: Families that adopted (through AASK) from 2012-present have all received information about our network. Other LCPAs (Licensed Child Placing Agencies) in the state have our information and are giving it to their adoptive families, as well. Information will be sent out to subsidized guardianship families from ND DHS with their annual review packets.
  • Training/Education:  I will be presenting on adoption/post adopt at the Fall Festival of Training in Region V in the fall. Hope to see you there! Look for trauma trainings geared toward adoptive families in early spring!
  • Case Management: I have worked with over 30 families in the last 6 months, helping to navigate the child welfare system, finding adoption knowledgeable supports, and advocating for their child’s needs.  I am here to be a listening ear, share what I  know, and plug you into our network!

These are the highlights of the last 6 months. Lots of progress, a long way to go!

My vision is that this service reaches every North Dakota family who has adopted and that it provides you useful information and support as you raise your children.  As always, I am open to suggestions and feedback to make this vision a reality! Please feel free to contact me by emailing through the website or to postadopt@pathinc.org. You may also call me toll free at 844.454.1139. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for committing to the children in your home, both temporary and permanent, however they got there.

Sexual Behavior Problems in Children

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June 27, 2016 | Sonja McLean, LCSW

I recently went through a Trauma Training with Heather Simonich presenting. I have seen this presentation many times but continually take away very useful information from it each time. For those of you who have not heard her speak, I would HIGHLY recommend it! For those of you that have, ENCOURAGE others to go!

Heather shared a very applicable article with attendees and I wanted to share it with you. Click the link to open the article:  “Understanding and Coping with Sexual Behavior Problems in Children” from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.  It discusses what may be harmless curiosity and what may pose a risk to the child or others.

Per the article noted above, it is important to remember that sexual behavior problems:

  • Are not limited to any particular group of children

  • Occur in children across all age ranges, socioeconomic levels, cultures, living circumstances, and family structures.

  • Are not related to children’s sexual orientation.

Also according to the article, “children who receive treatment for their sexual behavior problems rarely commit sexual offenses or abuse as adults.” This is important to keep in mind–and shows how imperative proper treatment and education is!

If you would like to chat more on treatment options, youth developmental stages, or adoption issues, please give me a call or send an email through the website. I would be happy to help!

Preventing Disruption

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Preventing Disruption

June 17, 2016 | Vanessa Deibert, LSW, AASK worker

<< Before moving into Vanessa’s blog post, I want to quickly define some terminology.  In this article, Vanessa talks about “adoption disruptions”.  Adoption disruptions happen during adoptive placement and before finalization if a family and/or youth decide that the match is unfortunately not a good fit.  After an adoption is finalized, if the family decides they are unable to meet a child’s needs and opt to relinquish their parental rights, that is called an “adoption dissolution”.  Regardless of what agency you went through for your adoption or how your child was added to your home, Vanessa has some great tips on how to work through hard times. >>

If you have ever been on the receiving end of “I hate you”, “You’re not my real mom/dad”, or “I don’t want you to adopt me anymore”, you may be a foster or adoptive parent. While these statements may be hard for family members to hear, they ultimately serve a purpose for the kids who are saying them. It’s often much easier for kids to try to hurt the family they are attaching to before they are hurt themselves. The kids that we work with have seen patterns in adults such as: adults don’t keep me safe, adults always leave, and adults don’t want me. During adoptive placement, when kids start feeling comfortable and safe, testing behaviors are almost inevitable. They want to make sure that you’re not going to give up on them when things are tough and in their own way they are trying to tell you, “I feel safe here, please don’t make me leave”.

Adoption disruptions can happen during adoptive placement when testing behaviors get hard to handle or when families start to wonder if the testing will ever stop. Adoption disruption or adoption dissolution are very traumatic for both child and family. While some of the following prevention tips may seem like common sense, in the midst of an adoptive placement where you are struggling as a parent, they may not be remembered quite so easily.

  • Take time for yourself! The entire family is going to feel stressed out at times, make sure to take time for yourselves, whether it’s asking a family member or friend to watch the kids for a little bit so you can go out shopping, read a book, or just go for a walk. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, taking care of others is a challenge.

  • Check your expectations. Just because a child has been living with a family for a period of time, doesn’t mean they are going to automatically attach and their behaviors are going to go away. While it is not a bad thing to have expectations for children, make sure they are realistic ones.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help! This one can be difficult for many people, not just families who are adopting from foster care. Be sure to reach out to family members and friends for support. They likely want to help and your informal supports will often be worth the most!

  • Don’t be afraid to try new techniques. Whether you have previously parented birth children, adopted children, or haven’t had much experience parenting, don’t be afraid to change your parenting style. A one size fits all approach does not work with kids and while one child may respond very well to a certain technique, another may not respond at all.

It may be difficult to try to reason with children who are so certain that you are going to give up on them and while love does not fix all, remember to keep a compassionate heart. These kids have seen traumatic things, they have been through traumatic events, and lived in chaos. When it gets hard, take a deep breath and remember that their behaviors do not define them and at the end of the day, they are just kids who need adults to show them a new pattern;  that adults are capable of loving them,  adults will provide them with a safe place, and adults won’t give up on them.

Helping Extended Family Understand Adoption

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May 31, 2016 | Sonja McLean

 (Information compiled from resources cited at the end of this article.)

Deciding to parent is a decision not made lightly and is usually part of a larger journey.  Midpoint on this journey may be the conscious decision to adopt. Extended family and friends may have a hard time understanding this plan. Most of the time, your family hasn’t experienced this journey with you from the very beginning and they haven’t gained the knowledge that you have from your trainings, meetings, and discussions with others.  Naturally, they may have a lot of questions and fears about your plan. It’s unfair that we assume that our families know and understand the process, as self-preservation may have stalled you from telling your extended family about your adoption plans right away. Don’t let negative reactions steer you off course. We were all new to adoption at one point!

In educating your extended family, teach positive adoption language (list attached). As adoptive parents, be prepared for some painful questions. Your extended family may have questions about everything from how the adoption process works to why your child was made available for adoption. Ensure that you and your partner have an agreement on how much information should be shared and with whom. When you need support from your family, be direct in requesting this. Sometimes your family may not know everything you are dealing with and not realize when you need help or not know how to help you. As adoptive parents, you may also want to set boundaries with your extended family. Let them know what is okay and what isn’t, when to visit and when you would prefer them not to.

Extended family may be nervous about your adoption and what that means for you.  Assure them that you are comfortable with where you are, that you are committed to this process and are excited about it! Let them know that the training and conversations with your case workers have helped prepare you for what it will be like to parent a child that isn’t biologically yours. You are the experts of your children and your family, no matter how long your children have been with you and no matter how they became a part of your family.

Most comments that extended family members make are out of love and concern. They may be concerned that their biological family tree has stopped; that there may be a loss of family traits, genetics, etc. As adoptive parents, we can education our families on the concept that our family won’t end, but rather our family tree will uniquely expand.

Comments that make us cringe (ie. “even though she’s half black…” or “he is so amazing, I can’t believe his real mom didn’t want her” or “I just don’t understand why anyone would give you up”) may come up innocently.  Remember, extended family members have not had the education that we have on positive adoption language. Our first instinct may be “they should know better!” when in reality it should be “how would they know?” Although your relatives may sound a bit “clunky” with their language, they are “growing out loud” and learning from your lead. Take a moment to acknowledge how lucky your kids are to have these extended relatives, but also let them know that these comments may disrespect your child’s birth parents or your role as a parent.  Explain that it is important for your child to grow up hearing their biological family talked about with respect and when their adoption plan is questioned, it may make the child further question their feelings toward birth parents. Letting your extended family know that it would mean a lot to you that if they say negative things about birth parents or make racial statements, it affects not only you as the parent, but it negatively affects the child, as well.

Some extended family may prefer that your adoption not be so visible.  This is common with older generations, especially regarding transracial adoptions. But we cannot minimize the transracial aspect- we know we need to acknowledge and celebrate our kids’ identity as people of color. We need to make decisions and choices that help them navigate their world with this in mind.

Not all adoption stories are rosy and happy. Most of the media coverage involving adoption tends to be “adoption horror stories”. Unfortunately, we rarely hear of adoption success stories in media coverage and extended family may have a concern for your well-being. As part of our role as adoptive parents, we need to find a gentle way to educate others on being careful of how we share information about adoption, especially when we explain adoption in the context of dramatic stories from the news.

When you add a child to your family, it is important for your extended family to know that adoption isn’t always a celebration for children, but can bring forward feelings of grief and loss. Help your extended family know that they are essentially strangers to your new children and encourage them to build their relationships slowly and at the child’s pace. Asking the child if they can participate in playing with them, asking for permission before they hug them, and respecting that child’s personal space will help the child feel safe and respected.

Adoptive families may catch flak for their parenting styles, especially when extended family doesn’t understand that what you are doing is to facilitate attachment.  This may come from a general lack of understanding of child development, or not understanding the type of environment your child came from, the effects of deprivation early in life, and the need to create a healthy, stable attachment between child and caregiver. You may feel judged in this situation, but extended relatives need to understand the why behind what you are doing (ie. Why you need to be the only one changing diapers and doing feedings, why you are not letting your child “cry it out”, why you need to be the disciplinarian).  This can be hard for extended relatives to watch-they want to love and help too!

The topic of “open adoption” can be scary for extended family to think about as it is commonly misunderstood.  It could be threatening to your family that a child could have more than one core set of parents, grandparents, etc. Help your extended family understand that openness now is going to be healthier for your entire family in the long run and will ensure that there are no secrets surrounding your child’s adoption, although there may be some aspects of the situation that you decide to keep private.

Parenting through adoption is a privilege. Something to be proud and excited about. The impact of adoption certainly doesn’t stop at the child.  It is important that you as adoptive parents, connect to a continued support network that understands the uniqueness of your situation. Many adoptive families appreciate knowing that other families out there are experiencing similar celebrations and struggles.

If you have questions or suggestions, please feel free to reach out!

Thanks for reading! 🙂


 Author unknown. (date unknown). “Activities to promote attachment” http://www.attach-china.org/attachmentactivi.html

 Calvani, C. (date unknown). “We’re adopting!”.  https://www.adoptivefamilies.com/adoption-process/announcing-your-adoption-decision/

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). “Working with birth and adoptive families to support open adoption”. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

Lyon, L. (date unknown). “Parenting a traumatized child”.  http://attach-china.org/therapeuticparen.html

O’Toole, Elizabeth. (2011). “Preparing your extended family when adopting a child”. [podcast]. https://creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/preparing-your-extended-family-when-adopting-a-child/