Layla’s Happiness

This short story explodes with joy. The vibrant illustrations & the curly, childlike script invite us into little Layla’s world & the simple pleasures that she finds amongst family, friends & community.  It inspires us to notice the small wonders that surround us in our own lives. Layla talks to us about the things she loves – from the night sky, to eating spaghetti & climbing trees. A familiar message right now, to find happiness in our ordinary, everyday experience, is given a charming, childlike twist that warms you like a summer afternoon.

As parents we all wish for our children to be happy & we work hard to fill their lives with positive experiences & happy memories. Many adoptive parents & foster carers have expressed to me their puzzlement at how difficult their child seems to find it to hold on to happy memories, or to remember the lovely things they do together as a family. I remember hearing one parent talk enthusiastically about a day trip to the seaside, full of sparkling moments, & all their child had to say about the day was that she had dropped her ice-cream in the sand.

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The Shadow Elephant

By Nadine Robert

This picture book feels like a wonderful hug. It provides a moving exploration of the power of acceptance & empathy. The illustrations are full of full of shadows & light, contrasting the grief & sadness of a big, blue elephant & his caring, colourful friends. We discover how none of them is able to distract elephant from his mood with fun & games, because distraction isn’t what he needs. Then a tiny mouse, with the simplest gesture of sitting & talking, quietly connects with him & helps to lift the weight of the burden he is carrying.

Many children who come into attachment focused family therapy carry a great burden of sorrow, related to their past experiences of abuse, neglect & loss. Their sadness can sit heavy upon them & make them feel very lonely. It gets in the way of connection with the people who love them & is a great silencer. Adoptive parents & carers often feel worried that if they talk to their child about their grief & the difficult things that have happened in their lives, they will make the situation worse. Children can worry that if they share their grief, they will upset others & push them away.

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Beautiful Oops!

By Barney Saltzberg

This is such a fun & interactive book, full of beautiful illustrations, pull out pages & pop-ups. Some of the pop-ups might be a challenge for children who haven’t yet learned how to treat books gently, so hold this in mind! It focuses on that important life lesson – it’s ok to make mistakes. A tear in a page is turned into a crocodile’s mouth. Drips, smudges & smears on paper are opportunities to get creative & turn them into something else.

Everyone can worry about making mistakes, but for some children who have experienced trauma in their lives, the fear of making mistakes can be huge. It can be paralysing, or it can lead to huge outbursts of anger or distress. Adoptive parents & carers describe to me how their child will refuse to even try something they might find tricky. Or how they have refused to recognise their accomplishments – ripping up or throwing aside what seems to be a perfectly good drawing or piece of schoolwork.

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Even if I Did Something Awful

By Barbara Shook Hazen

This story is a sweet exploration of the unconditional love of a parent, and also teaches that love involves helping a child to make amends when they get things wrong. Another gentle message in the story is that parents get things wrong, too – all parents get cross and shout sometimes, but this does not mean that they do not love their child, or that they are a bad parent.

The little girl thinks of situations in which she might mess up or do things she isn’t supposed to do, from crayoning on the carpet to pulling down the curtains, to pinching the baby. Her mother responds playfully & lets her know that if the situations were even worse than the little girl had imagined, she would continue to love her, no matter what. Even if her daughter had played so rough, she pulled down the Empire State Building, she would love her but also make her pick it up again! Eventually, the girl confesses that she has accidentally broken a precious vase, playing ball in the house. Her mother says she would still love her even if it wasn’t an accident, but she might also get cross & shout before being able to help her clear it up.

The story illustrates the ‘two handed approach’ that we aim for in therapeutic parenting – love and acceptance, alongside clear structure and boundaries. We think about how we can connect with our children through a PACE-ful approach (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity & empathy) helping them to feel understood, before we move to correct their behaviour & help them to learn from their mistakes. Both of these hands of parenting are important, but correction is always easier if we have connected first. But this isn’t easy to do all of the time!

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All Kinds of Families!

This imaginative, rhyming story invites us to think about how many different families there are in the world, created in all sorts of different ways. It explores diversity through playfully making families from lots of inanimate objects and has a repeating phrase that gives it a sing-song appeal – bottle caps, gingersnaps, buttons or rings, you can make families from all sorts of things!

Whilst I know there has been some criticism of this book for not explicitly talking about non-traditional or multicultural families, I have found a usefulness in the story’s lack of specificity about what makes a family, which I think gives it a broad appeal and makes it a gentle introduction to exploring family structure. Over half of the pages are creatively dedicated to thinking about families being made up of diverse objects as knives and forks, thimbles and marbles, pebbles and seashells. If I have any reservations, it is that although the illustrations are beautiful, there is a lack of variety in the human families depicted – a missed opportunity for true inclusivity.

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I Love You the Purplest

This story follows a mother and her sons through a day of outdoor adventures. As they dig for worms, row their boat and fish together, Max in his red wellies and Julian in his blue wellies, the boys ask her which of them she thinks is the best? The questions Max and Julian ask might seem light-hearted but both boys are seeking reassurance of their mother’s love. She gives them answers that highlight beautifully their individual qualities & abilities.  At bedtime they ask her who she loves the most and she finds a way to let them know that they are both unique and that she loves them equally.

Sibling rivalry is of course natural and common in all families but for adopted and fostered children, it can take on a whole new level of meaning. Early experiences of abuse, neglect, loss and rejection can lead children to feel terrified about whether they deserve to be loved and whether there is enough love to go round. So, in family therapy, we use lots of playful ways to communicate to children that the love of their parent will never run out and that there is more than enough for them, as well as their brothers or sisters.

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Fred and the Dread Monster

By Bryony Irving

This story is written especially for those adopted children, who worry dreadfully that even though they have a forever family, they might lose them. Freddie Fretter loves his new home, but he starts having nightmares that he is going to be sent away again. Every night Freddie is visited in strange dreams by a big and very smelly Dread Monster, that bars his way into the forever family room, like a nasty nightclub bouncer. At first, Fred tries desperately to cope with this all by himself but over time he learns that his parents really can help him and together they can beat the monster.

So many adopted and fostered children that I have worked with in therapy have terrible worries that good things won’t last. Their experiences of loss, abandonment or multiple moves and changes of carers in the past, have taught them not to trust the adults that say it is going to be different this time. So very sadly, they often have internalised the belief that they are to blame for the bad things that have happened to them and that they don’t deserve to be happy. The more they begin to invest emotionally in the parents that are showing them love and nurture, the more terrifying the thought of losing them again becomes. The foul Dread Monster blocking Fred’s way to connecting with his family is a powerful, visual representation of this fear.

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Pete’s a Pizza

I really love this quirky, little story about a small boy, Pete, whose father decides to cheer him up one rainy day, by making him into a pizza! Pete’s parents take him through lots of playful stages in this process – kneading, stretching, whirling & twirling. Creative substitutes for oil, flour and pizza toppings are liberally applied to the ‘dough’ boy. The text resembles a set of directions and Pete’s parents show him in a really fun, loving and definitely hands-on way, that they know just what kind of activity and fun he needs to help him to feel better.

So many adopted and fostered children who have experienced traumatic early lives, struggle to feel in tune with their bodies. Neglected and abuse children may have missed out on the important early movement experiences that are so important in helping them think about any sorts of feelings. In therapy, adoptive parents and foster carers have often spoken to me of how their children struggle to notice if they are hot or cold, hungry or full. They find it hard to be still or settle to concentrate on anything for very long. These are the children that come into the therapy room like little whirlwinds and we know that we are a long way from sitting and talking about emotions – first we have to address what is going on for them on a body level. If we start by helping children to feel more comfortable in their own skins, they can become calmer and think better.

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Fizzi Moffle’s Foggy Day

During these Covid times, we all need some little treats to let us know we are thought about and cared for! This short story is our gift to you and your child, free to download and keep. Stories are a powerful way of helping our little ones make sense of the world.

Please use the comment section below to let us know what you think – we would love to hear from you.