It’s a Family Affair: Kids Living with Substance Use Disorder

After seeing this video (produced as a public service message by the Finnish organization Fragile Childhood), what person in their right mind would even THINK of drinking or drugging excessively around their kids??? Hmm…well…probably NO ONE: IF alcoholism and addiction were a matter of willpower, as so many in our society believe them to be. In fact, alcoholism is a chronic, progressive disease of the brain for which there is no known cure. It impacts many aspects of the patient’s thinking and communication, compounding treatment challenges. Even in recovery, the alcoholic and addict is still subject to relapse; the treatment and recovery processes themselves are arduous and put a strain on both the patient and his/her family.

And the kids in the family? According to The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, children living with substance use disorders are often surrounded with unpredictability and chaos. The parent’s behavior fluctuates from loving and kind to hostile to withdrawn to… crazy. Rules may be nonexistent or inconsistent. Children love and worry about their parents, but may be angry that they don’t stop using. A wide range of other stressors may co-occur, such as abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, unemployment and financial problems, homelessness…all of which make keeping friends, doing well in school, and staying physically and emotionally healthy very hard for COAs (Children of Alcoholics/Addicts).

With this information in mind, it’s a no brainer that there should be lots of programs available to support young children living with substance use disorders, right? Actually: no…there are not. While there ARE lots of substance use prevention programs that are targeted to kids, most focus on middle and secondary students, who are at greater risk for using and misusing drugs and alcohol in the immediate future. Given what we know about the development in early childhood of two critical and related protective factors against SUD, resilience and executive functions, wouldn’t the best time to help children avoid taking that first drink or drug be when they are preschoolers?

In order to get some insight into why my hours of searching for these “no brainer” early childhood programs turned up so little, I contacted Ms. Tina George, MSW, Coordinator of the Student Assistance Programs at Caron, one of the premier drug and alcohol treatment facilities in the country. Ms. George provides Student Assistance Program Training across the east coast and is an approved Lead Trainer for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Student Assistance Teams are mandated in every public school in Pennsylvania, and are comprised of teachers, guidance counselors and administrators who are a “primary vehicle to address students’ behavioral health needs and concerns. SAP identifies and links students to behavioral health care education, programs and services in the school and community to address students’ barriers to learning due to a social, emotional or mental health concern or problem” (as per the Pennsylvania SAP site). Caron provides a three-day training session for SAP team members, which focuses on the kinds of skills, knowledge and dispositions team members need in order to address substance misuse prevention, as well as other issues.

Effective programming for younger children focuses on making healthy decisions and behaving in healthy ways (PATHS is an example of an age-based program which targets the development of alternative thinking strategies for children from preschool up). Cognitively, preschoolers are less able to discriminate between a parent having a beer with dinner and parental alcohol abuse because young children often overgeneralize as they construct meaning.

But then, Ms. George raised another issue: money. Funding for prevention programs is available for public schools, although the sources for this money are less prevalent than they were even a few years ago. However, as with so many other important aspects of EARLY care and education, funding is tight to nonexistent. It is the parents who pick up the tab for not only tuition but also any additional programming child care centers offer. And extra funds for programs to address the needs of young children living with addiction are hard to come by.

Imagination on the Move is committed to addressing this gap. Check out our new and growing Resources section for links and readings related to young children living with familial substance use disorders and please comment below if you know of other useful tools that will help the teachers of these children better meet their needs. Thank you!

Girl in the Tower: Rapunzel’s Resilient Sister

dotti Canary Prince

The Canary Prince, by Silvia Dotti*

Folklorists tell us: it’s not about the hair! Instead, what makes Rapunzel a story told around the world is the motif of a girl locked away in a tower. And far from passively sitting around and being victimized by the witch who holds her captive, SOME girls in the tower demonstrate tremendous courage, intelligence and resilience (see that post, and this post, and also this post, for more on the protective factors for resilience).

Take the princess in Italo Calvino’s Italian version, The Canary Prince (also available in picture book format by Eric Jon Nones). It is her stepmother who convinced her father to stick her in the tower, where the girl wants for nothing except…well…freedom and companionship. A witch notices that a passing prince is entranced with her, and, feeling sorry for them both, gives the princess a magic book. When the princess turns the pages one way, the prince transforms into a canary, who can fly up to her window sill. When she turns them the other way, he becomes a man, and a great friend for the lonely girl. Talk about the power of the written word! AND what kind and competent helpers can do to give you hope!

When step-mommy dearest discovers that the canary who visits the tower daily is actually an enchanted prince, she sticks pins on the window sill to put an end to the princess’s joy. Instead of swooning at the blood, this quick-witted princess thinks on her feet, and using great self-regulation skills, immediately flips the pages of the magic book so that the mortally injured canary will fly back to where his men are waiting for him, transform into the prince, and can be carried home and cared for.

But that’s not all! No! She is beside herself with worry and so rips her sheets and makes a ladder so she can escape (good initiative and problem-solving, princess!). Off into the dark forest she goes, and hides in a tree, where she overhears witches talking about the one elixir that can save her prince’s life. She travels to his kingdom, disguises herself as a doctor, and convinces the king that he should let her into the royal chamber where the prince lies dying. Through persistence and careful attention to detail, she discovers the elixir and cures the prince (who of course doesn’t recognize her since, well…she IS in disguise). When the overjoyed king offers her “all the wealth in the kingdom,” the doctor/princess asks only for the prince’s coat of arms, his standard, and his bloodied yellow vest as her reward.

Back she goes to her tower, a bold, resilient heroine! BUT: what’s this???? That wretch the prince rides by and thinks SHE is the one who tried to kill him! He’s MAD and gives her the stink eye before riding past. Does she weep and wail and plead? Heck no. She whips out the book and flips the pages so he has no choice but to turn into a canary and fly to her window sill. She flips the pages again, and he turns into a very irritated prince. But when she shows him the vest, and tells him what she did to rescue him, he believes her at last, and recognizes his one true love. And of course, they live happily and resiliently ever after!

Critics of sharing fairytales with children often point to the stereotype of sighing princesses who are only fulfilled by marriage to their Prince Charming as sexist and outdated. Indeed, the Disney versions of many familiar tales often play into this. But the rich variants of our favorite stories embedded into other cultural traditions often show us very different, and far more resilient, heroines and heroes.

THESE are the models who can engage our children’s imaginations. These are the cunning, brave, and kind characters who continue to sneak into children’s own make believe and stories, even when well-meaning adults offer politically correct alternatives.  These are the heroes who draw kids into a magical world where, no matter how overwhelming the challenges, resilience ensures a happy ending.

Intrigued about how Rapunzel and her resilient Italian sister in The Canary Prince can be shared with young children in a way that fosters THEIR resilience? Stay tuned for an upcoming series of posts on using fairytales in the classroom, starting with Rapunzel! Each story will feature a treasure chest of sparkling ideas, all designed to help you wave the magic wand of fairytales to nurture resilience in a child-centered environment!

*Many thanks to artist Silvia Dotti for giving me permission to use her beautiful image! Check out her magical renderings of fairytales and other literature on Etsy!

Fairytales and “Emotional Muscle”


“Fairy tales show real life issues in a fantastical scenario where most often the hero triumphs…Children need to discover in a safe environment that bad things happen to everyone. Because guess what? No one in life is immune from challenges- so we need to build capacity in our children. Do we build emotional muscles so our children hang on during tough times or do we shelter our kids, protecting them, leaving them so weak they can’t handle anything requiring strength?”

(Taylor, Why Fairy Tales Are Important to Childhood, 2012)

Why Fairytales for Professional Development?

9b57d13d65c35e119135a76fd476536bI haven’t posted for quite a while, but it is not because I haven’t been thinking and writing about resilience, and Story, and the impact that substance use disorder has on young children. My journey for the past 18 months has been along the long and often dusty, desolate road of Dissertation, and it is only now, when the end glitters in the distance like sunshine on a magic crystal, that I think I can come back to this project of the heart.

I have learned so much, and am eager to start sharing some of the specific ways that fairytales resonate with the “ordinary magic” of the protective factors of resilience (as Dr. Ann Masten describes them). But first: why fairytales? What on earth do they have to do with kids living with substance use disorder and how the pickle do I expect these ancient tales of magic to help teachers???

I recently recalled for the first time in years a comment that one of my constructivist heroes, the late, great Dr. Harry Wachs, said to me when I told him that I wanted to use Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas with the adjudicated teens that I was working with: “But Stephanie: they will be able to see right through that…and tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than what they believe.” That set me off on a quest that resulted in using fairytales to discuss moral judgment and reasoning with these adolescents, all of whom had displayed questionable judgment, or they wouldn’t have been in residential treatment.

I believe that teachers (and all of us) are often stuck in our preconceptions of what is “right” or “appropriate” etc. and that fairytales offer a degree of separation that helps us to dig into our own prejudices, without fear of censure when we are being genuine. Social equity work of ALL kinds requires exactly this: it is a challenge to achieve that self-awareness and clarity without raising defenses.

We can all laugh at Jack being a smart aleck, and cheer when Beauty ignores her father’s edicts, or do fist pumps when Hansel and Gretel trick their parents…but when these children are in our classrooms, we call out their “challenging behaviors” without taking into consideration the context of the child’s life, or the characteristics of resilience that they are demonstrating. Hopefully, raising teacher awareness about the impact of SUD, as well as the “ordinary magic” of resilience, in a way that is playful and accessible, will help them better meet the needs of the children they work with.

Toto, We’re Not in New Brunswick Anymore: A Tale of Resilience

Holland TunnelOnce upon a few weeks ago, I was headed to the joint conference of The Association for the Study of Play, and the International Play Association of America, held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. I had carefully planned my route from Pittsburgh to avoid, at all costs, the series of roads I most feared: I-95 and its wicked spawn 295, 395, 495 and 695, which slither around the East Coast like venomous snakes. As someone who dislikes heavy traffic, and has no sense of direction, the extra half hour it would take was my gift to myself…I’m all about lowering stress, especially when going to a PLAY conference, for heaven’s sakes!

I had printed out my directions since my phone GPS seems to ignore my penchant for alternative routes at times. But, as darkness began to fall, I decided that it would be a good idea to type in the hotel address, just in case. When I glanced down at my phone a few minutes later, I saw that I’d put in 3 Albany St, New Brunswick, instead of 2 Albany St., and in a rare moment of precision, I decided to correct it. My phone flashed me some message about how my route had changed, which, duh, I realized since I’d changed the address. And I drove on into the night.

I kept seeing signs for the Holland Tunnel, and New York City, and I won’t say I didn’t pay attention. But surely, I reasoned, the path to New Brunswick would veer off at some point…the cities WERE kind of close, right?

Then a skyline rose in the dark in front of me. Dang…that sure LOOKS like NYC! And as the gazillion lanes of traffic I found myself merging into inched toward the huge sign shouting “Holland Tunnel,” I began to second guess myself. How could this be right? What was I going to do? And, I HATE TUNNELS (due, I’m sure, to the same lack of spatial reasoning in my brain that contributes to my horrible sense of direction, and makes me feel like I will crash into the walls).

I took a breath. I kept driving. And as I was hurtling through the bowels of the beast, I refrained from acting on my first instinct: to scream and stop the car in abject terror. I self-regulated, using that private speech that Vygotsky said helped children scaffold their own instincts with adaptive action: “I will be fine. It’s just a tunnel. A really, really, really long tunnel. No one else seems concerned. Stopping is not a good idea. Nor is screaming and banging my head on the steering wheel. Maybe there’s a tunnel before New Brunswick….I will be fine.”

As I finally exited the tunnel, and saw a sign pointing to the Financial District, I at last admitted to myself that I was, indeed, in the only driving location that terrified me more than the 95s…New York City. Alrighty then.

At the first light, I checked my phone, which was still giving me directions to turn left, turn right. Traitor! And that’s when I noticed two things: 1) I was headed to 2 Albany St., New York NY, instead of 2 Albany St. New Brunswick, NJ; and 2) my phone was almost out of juice. I stayed calm and followed the phone’s directions and about the time I “had reached my destination,” my phone died completely. It was 9:30 at night, I was alone in New York City, with no idea about where to go, and dead tired from driving for six hours after working all day.

Time to call up my resilience fairies! I drove around the block several times, considering my options.  I would call my dear friend Bud…who was somewhere in the city! Oh, right: no phone. OK…how was I going to charge my phone? My computer! Which was in the trunk! I carefully pulled the car into a bus lane, turned it off, and leapt out, raced to the trunk, snagged my computer bag, jumped back into the driver’s seat, and in a few minutes, had plugged my phone into the USB port. Proud of my initiative, I sat there, in the bus lane. Gradually I became aware that maybe I couldn’t just sit there til my phone charged…something about the nasty looks of other drivers and a police car that seemed to be circling…

I drove slowly around the block again, and saw a parking garage. Forty dollars for an hour???? Um…no worries. I had, after all, some magic plastic in my purse that would cover the time it would take to charge my phone.  I pulled in and explained my situation to the attendant.  “New JERSEY???? How did you get here??? I don’t know how to get you back.” Then he suddenly pointed to a car about to exit: “That car’s from Jersey! Ask them! Stop them!”

I charged towards the car, waving my arms. Slowly the window rolled down, and with only a slight look of suspicion and disbelief, the driver shook his head and asked me why I didn’t use my GPS. Um. Dead. Then he shook his head again and gave me a “Turn left, turn right, veer right at the curve” series of directions that would get me back to the Holland Tunnel. As I thanked him, he smiled and said, “After that, just look for the signs for 95…that should get you somewhere close to New Brunswick and you can ask for directions again.” And off he drove.

The parking attendant refused to take any money and pointed me to the exit. Attachment, the third protective factor which along with initiative and self-regulation makes up resilience, doesn’t have to come from family or friends. The kindness of strangers, and being open to ask them, will due in a pinch. Maybe THAT’S why so many fairy tales have “magical helpers” who appear out of nowhere, right when they are needed…

I made it to the play conference late that night, having overcome a series of (relatively minor) adversities and even more committed to helping teachers develop these attributes  of resilience in young children with intention and purpose.  Whether it’s family substance use disorder, or abuse, or grief, or just being lost in a strange city, we all face dragons at some point. The powerful secret weapon of resilience helps to protect us from those dragons so we can go on to play another day!

Want to know more about resilience? Check out this blog post, or this one, or, for more in-depth information, Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child and the Devereux Center for Resilient Children offer lots of information and resources!

Children of Alcoholics Week, 2016, By the Numbers


We really don’t have time to sit around and wring our hands. The time to act is NOW.

“It only takes one caring and supportive adult to change the trajectory of a child’s life…” Doesn’t it make sense to give teachers, especially those working in childcare with the most vulnerable young children, the tools they need to maximize their interactions?

On Bats, Trauma, and Resilience

little bat

Last week, I found a bat in my washing machine. Really.

I had thrown in some old towels after my dog’s bath a few days before and must have gotten distracted. The next time I went down to do laundry, the lid was open and the tub still filled with water, along with the towels. I shut the lid and the washing machine did its thing. After the spin cycle, I went to put the towels in the dryer, and there was this little brown bat, shivering into the towels!

Images of my last indoor bat encounter of the close kind flashed through my mind. Several decades ago, a bat flew into my bedroom one night. I screamed, yelled, waved my arms, grabbed a broom, threw dirty clothes at it, and then lay trembling in bed, cursing my bad luck and new role as sole protector of my sleeping children. Finally, after what seemed like hours, it found its way out through the window I had left open.

This time, I talked gently to my bat, and tried to figure out how to help the poor thing. I held first a box, and then a wire bird feeder inside the tub, hoping she would be able to climb it like a ladder (no, this did not work!). I opened the basement door so she could smell the fresh air. I watched as the little bat struggled to climb up the metal walls of the machine, her claws trying to grasp the holes, and then as she slid back to the wet towels. Again and again, she tried, until at last she flew out, right past the open door, and clung to a cupboard near the furnace.  I reminded her where the open door was (helpful, huh?!), put in another load of laundry, and left. When I came back a while later, the little bat was gone. I closed the outside door.

I mused about the trauma that the little bat must have experienced: suddenly being swept into a swirling tub of water and (biodegradable!)suds, clinging to the rotating tub as it vibrated and spun through the wash cycle. And yet somehow, she survived, and persistently worked her way back to home and safety. THAT is resilience!

I thought, too, about the children who come into our classrooms, still spinning from whatever ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) they’re living. Some tremble in a frightened heap, but others come in loud and thrashing and ready to claw their way their way out.

How can we help these kids build the same kind of protective resilience that my little bat displayed? Research tells us that there are three main protective factors for resilience: attachment, initiative and self-regulation. Could my little resilient bat have come to teach me more about these?

With Little Bat #1, who was, truth be told, probably also a bit traumatized,  I pretty much blew it. Forget attachment: no way my yelling and fierceness could have been perceived as anything THAT bat could trust or want to be around! Initiative? Absolutely not: swiping a broom at him to shove him out the window took away any ideas he might have had about how to get out (like…maybe the same way he came in???). As for self-regulation: I don’t know much about bats’ emotions, but that bat’s swooping and squeaking and diving from ceiling to floor as I tried to regulate it right out of my life didn’t seem much under his control to me!

Of course, my calmness helped with the attachment in last week’s Little Bat #2. A soft voice, and kind demeanor makes any of us feel less threatened, which is a pre-requisite for healthy attachments.

I also respected the little bat’s initiative: OK…so I thought my idea about offering her the wire suet cage was kind of brilliant since bats use their claws to climb BUT when she didn’t grab onto the idea, I let it go, too. And because I did, she figured it out herself.

Although I’m sure she was scared, of both her ride through the spin cycle and the giantess hovering around her, Little Bat #2 demonstrated remarkable self-regulation. Without a lot of flapping or fluttering, she flew to a place where she could get warmer and drier and groom and collect her wits. And when SHE was ready, she went about her business. I gave her the space to put the SELF back into self-regulation (here’s a great blog on the topic if you want to read more).

Thank you, Little Bat, for reminding me that resilience, whether for bats or young children, can emerge from what researcher Ann Masten calls “Ordinary Magic.” This is the magic that our children need and want most of all as they move from adversity to happily ever aftering.

(Little Bat print courtesy of  New York Public Library Digital Collection, a great collection that is in the public domain!)