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Friday, March 28, 2014

Dear Jeannie: Stopping Violence and Seeking Revenge

Dear Jeannie,

Amanda studied to teach, but she doesn't want to wander far from home. Leaving to get certified was enough for her, and she'd rather stay closer to the nest now, thank you. The only opening nearby, however, is on an Indian reservation a couple hours away. Despite growing up in this town, being familiar with every nuance of local gossip and opinion, she is massively unprepared for working with the children. They bring their families' hard feelings to the school every day. Some of the parents and family members are actively hostile and very closely involved with their children's education. Two questions: If she hated going away from home before, is fear going to be a significant problem for her? There are enough high tempers that violence *could* erupt (though she is an unlikely target for such action), but she comes from a fairly gentle home. Also, what can she be doing to work with the community to ease their hostility? This kind of thinking outside the box is a little outside her ken--and definitely mine!

Lynched in Laramie

Dear Lynched,

I'd think that given her close association with the nearby town to the Indian reservation, she'd tkae what she could get, gratefully. There'd be enough connection to her home simply through common language, accent, geography, weather, etc. Volatility is never easy to be around, especially if you were raised in an opposing manner. You didn't specify a time period, but she might make more frequent trips home (if conveyance is possible) to remove herself from the thick of the action. But if you want her to be working within the community to ease hostility, the best way to do that would not be to bail. However, this could be a part of her character arc...her fear cripples her initially, but as she grows stronger and more assured that the work she's doing could make a difference, she grows bolder. I'd make the work center around the children. Adults are less likely to get rowdy when children are present. Some sort of community project that involves children from opposing "sides," as it were. A play, perhaps, or a community garden that actively provides food, perhaps during a rough year for crops. Something like that. I welcome further questions below, but hope this was helpful!

Dear Jeannie,

Gil was born into a wealthy, ambitious noble family, well connected enough to arrange a betrothal with one of their king's lesser daughters. Trouble was, the daughter had a mind of her own and a wicked right arm. She stoned Gil mercilessly whenever the family came to court, and often rounded up other family and young courtiers to assist. The engagement was called off once the parents realized that Gil and the princess would never reconcile. Gil, however, didn't let it go. Fast forward twenty years, and Gil is staging civil war and making alliances with invaders. Revenge against the royal family (which he might call 'justice'--maybe) hardly seems reason enough to betray and destroy his own country. How did he get to this point? Gil's family wasn't particularly vicious about the failed betrothal. It's a blow to their ambitions, but they would rather have had their son whole than wed to a shrew in the making. What pushes him to do everything possible to destroy the royals?

Commoner in Caledonia 

Dear Commoner,

Early childhood wounds can be haunting. You didn't mention Gil's age when he was being stoned and ruthlessly rejected, but that's not something he'd ever be likely to forget. Depending on his upbringing and other adverse events he went through, those moments might have been singularly defining for him. It's not unfeasible that he would have let his anger and resentment stew for years. The royals might represent to him everything that is oppressive, condemning, and merciless. Perhaps he wants to show them what that feels like, and his revenge is the most obvious way to wield power of the powerful. You also didn't mention if the "lesser daughter" factors in again within your plot, but I'd think he'd target her--married to someone else or a spinster, or what. After all, her face probably held the place of honor in his dreams and remembrances of his treatment (similar to a female throwing darts at an ex-boyfriend's face). I think you could work with this motive and no one would question it. We've likely all been there. Best of luck!

Got Questions?

Maybe I've got answers. Leave your question below, anonymously, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle. I'll post my answers in future Dear Jeannie columns.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Dear Jeannie: Futuristic Castaway Love Story

Dear Jeannie,
Mark has a problem. As a mature, kind person, he's been asked to help a foreign castaway adjust to his people's culture and language. The castaway is growing on him. She's sweet and smart and eager to please. But she, and the rest of Mark's society, are aware that her own people are coming for her. It may be next week, it might be ten years, but they will find her. The more of a claim Mark has on her, the greater the risk of disaster. His own people are concerned about Mark. Conception is difficult among their people, and he is wasting the best years of his life tutoring this little foreign girl when he could be married and starting a family. Problem is, he doesn't want anyone else. What factors are going to weigh heaviest in making a decision about this? Can he justify picking her over his own people? They like her fine, but she's not kin and she brings trouble. Should he choose her, what might influence them to agree?

Torn in Toronto 

Dear Torn,

The answer to your question depends on a few things. How entrenched is Mark in his own culture? He doesn't seem to be a rule breaker by nature, or he wouldn't have been chosen to help the castaway. But the smart, introspective types have strong moral values and opinions, and are very prone to follow their heart purposefully. However, the more influence he has in his world, the more likely the others might be able to accept her, which would make his choice easier. Especially if he were to impart some knowledge to her that would end up benefiting the townspeople in some way, say, during a battle. You mentioned that he was mature, and that others thought he was wasting his prime years on the castaway. But does Mark a long history of girlfriends? Something tells me he doesn't. And that the reason he doesn't is that he is picky, perhaps. That would factor into his decision to choose the girl over his culture, because he might reason that no one in his culture has made his heart pound. Anyway, hope this helps. Thanks for writing in!

Dear Jeannie,

Owen's military father developed PTSD and an alcohol addiction which led to him abusing his wife and slapping around Owen and his two younger siblings during his worst episodes. After 10 years, his mother, a kind, loving woman, got a divorce and left with the younger two children. Owen loves the military and is ferociously loyal to his father, he's furious at his mother for (what he sees as) abandoning his mentally ill father and stealing the children. His mother wants to reconnect with Owen, but Owen absolutely despises her. He's a kind and generous individual, and I would like him to repair his relationship with his mother, but I cannot figure out how. He has brutally rebuffed all of her attempts to communicate, and he absolutely won't listen to his siblings discuss it. His father is likewise bitter at her for 'turning the other children against him,' and he encourages Owen's rebuffs. Any ideas?
Mystified in Mississippi 

Dear Mystified,

Owen might need to see another family with a similar dynamic, one in which he'd be more aligned with the mother and the abused children, to be able to see the dynamic in his own family. When people are entrenched in a certain viewpoint (and Owen definitely is that), they can't see beyond that. To expect him to without some sort of outer intervention (i.e., a letter from his mom written before the divorce, or something similar you've seen in movies and read in books) or exposure to the harmful effects in another family would be like expecting an insane person to suddenly become sane. If he could grow close to a woman, perhaps older (not romantically, though he could be interested in the eldest daughter...that sort of thing) and could begin to see evidence of her husband's abuse and how it is negatively effecting his love interest and the maternal security he feels from this woman, he might be able to see his father for what he was, rather than idolizing him and putting him on pedestal. I'm happy to entertain any other questions below in the comment section about what I've suggested. Good luck!


I might have some answers. Leave your question below, anonymously, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle. I'll post my response in future Dear Jeannie columns.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Dear Jeannie: Falling in Love...with Your Brother?

Dear Jeannie,
In response to your series on children coping with death, I have a family of kids in a story who have lost both parents. One through illness, the other through a trauma. One of them, Andy, was the only child present with their parent when she died. Andy has since been separated from his family by the courts, though his siblings all try to maintain close contact with him. He was about 8 when it happened. And he's still pretty thin-skinned about his grief. Is there anything more Andy's surviving family can be doing for him? What is "normal" going to look like for Andy, as he grows up with this trauma? Where is the line for survivors, between scars and open wounds?

Coping in Carolina  

Dear Coping,

I'm not sure if you were able to catch the conclusion to my series on grief and children coping with death, but I finished off with a post on how adults can intervene with grieving children. You'll see in the post that for someone who's around age 8, you'll need lots of patience to help them through the process. Andy will need a place to feel safe and comfortable communicating about his experience. He was really young to be present while someone actually died. Hopefully this is explained in your story and was out of necessity.  Seeing someone's final breath is a powerful experience, and one so young would likely be fairly traumatized from that, so hopefully you have good reason. As he grows up, he'll have less overt traumatic reactions, but they can still be present. Depends on how damaged emotionally you want/need him to be. Time is his greatest ally...but could also be his strongest evil. Either way could be realistic. Good luck with this little guy!

Dear Jeannie,

Cherry grew up poor in a post-war martial state. She's an orphan, taken in by her new family out of the goodness of their hearts. Which they remind her of, often. She's more than old enough to leave home, but she has nowhere to go and no way to start anything of her own. Until a young man from out of town starts paying attention to her. They fall pretty simply into love, but then he takes her to meet his family, where she discovers that she isn't really an orphan, after all. She's their long-lost daughter, and her beau's missing sister. I can pretty nearly work out how the parents are going to respond, but what about her? Is guilt or a longing for home going to hold sway over her, or something else entirely? I'm not sure if she'd respond to this as a trauma to grieve, or if her initial loss of family is going to stunt or stifle her emotions as an adult.

Wooed in Wilmington

Dear Wooed,

From your short paragraph, I can't see how she'd "long for home" at all...unless that home was an orphanage where things at least made sense to her. If her family constantly made her feel like an interloper, one who doesn't belong, than she's likely not have these emotional reactions to finding out who her real family is. What I'd say would be a bigger consideration---one that you just barely touched on---is the fact that her boyfriend is now her brother. You mentioned it was a "simple love," and perhaps you have other romantic interests in store for this girl, but she sounds fairly fresh to the idea of love, and learning her first boyfriend's her brother has got to be a drag. Seriously. I think a young teen might camp out solely on this point before doing any introspection about what it means to discover she has a family. This point totally jumped out at me, so that's what I focused on. If I missed a salient point please correspond with me in the comment section. Thanks for writing in.

Got Questions?

Maybe I got answers. Write in your question anonymously below in the comment section, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle. I'll post my answer in a futre Dear Jeannie column. (Torn in Toronto and Mystified in Mississippi, you're up next!)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dear Jeannie: Romance Without the Main Ingredient?

Dear Jeannie,

A while ago I wrote in about Skylar and his lack of ability to trust. Your comments have really helped my understanding of him as a character, but I'm having trouble thinking of what might make him trust again. Since his normal response to anyone trying to talk to him is to close himself off, it's difficult even to get him to listen to anyone. Since he's going to have to learn to trust someone if he wants his wings healed, I want him to learn to open up. Are there any events that might make him more comfortable trusting again that don't involve visiting a therapist of some sort, or would he need outside intervention to make any progress?

Still Broken in Baltimore

Dear Still Broken,

Trust is earned. That takes time and patience on behalf of the person trying to earn his trust, assuming there is such a person. There will be a push-pull kind of dance that the other person must be willing to engage in. Skylar will pull away, and that person will have to be willing to give him his space, but push when needed, to insert themselves in a way that doesn't turn Skylar off. In general, you're going to need someone who fits the Golden Retriever characteristics, who'll be willing to hang in there when the going gets tough. Yes, Skylar can learn to trust someone without therapeutic intervention...but you'll want to pay attention to the passage of time in your book to make this realistic. Hope that helps!

Dear Jeannie,
Cass grew up in in a privileged, sheltered, eccentric Medieval family. Cass's parents offered her hand in marriage as a prize in a tournament, and her older brother's friend and trainer, Will, won. He's stubborn, practical, consistent, quiet and considerate. Well, that was then, and this is now. Will hasn't said two words to her since the very sudden wedding, having taken off to fight in any battle the king saw fit. Cass has been left home to a) build their castle, b) handle all estate affairs, and c) finish growing up (she was YOUNG at the time). She's also gone through a disturbing growth spurt that nearly crippled her for a year and has changed her appearance so much that her own family almost doesn't recognize her. Will's on his way back for the first time, and Cass is surprisingly angry. I can guess at some of why, but she's inarticulate with rage, and I can't talk to her. Help!

Furious in Fresno 

Dear Furious,

Well, let's see. Most young girls grow up with visions of knights and white horses (figuratively, but perhaps literally for her). And this knight of sorts wins her hand, which is oh-so-romantic. Then he leaves her high and dry to serve his country. Noble, yes...not so romantic. And then she's thrust into this solitary role of construction and estate affairs, while still a child. Her growth spurt cripples her for a year, and she had no husband upon which to draw strength or solace. She's got all the trappings of the life she wanted without the main ingredient: an active, involved husband. So when he comes riding up, I don't have much trouble imagining her anger at her predicament. If he's been away for years, as I presume, she's been able to sit and stew on her situation for a loooooong time. Doesn't bode well for Mr. Will. I imagine she lets him have it with both guns blaring (uh, swords swinging?), or she gives him the total silent treatment, continuing to run things as she sees fit until it clashes with his way of wanting to do things....then there will be a showdown to end all showdowns.

Is this what you had in mind with your write-in? Didn't give me I just free-associated, if you will. :)


Maybe I've got answers! Leave your question below anonymously, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle. I'll post my response in future Dear Jeannie columns on Fridays.

Monday, March 3, 2014

How to Respond to Grieving Children

I'm concluding a mini-series on children and death today. if you missed earlier posts, you can click here for the introductory article on what children understand about grief, and here for the post on what common grief reactions are for the each age group.

Today, I'll wrap it up with how adults are supposed to intervene and respond to children in the various age ranges.


Infants basically need consistent care, which includes physical contact that is both nurturing and loving, as well as a secure routine. Patience is a huge asset to have when they are upset. Your presence does more than anything else. Watch your tone and take care to breathe deeply, as infants absorb your mood almost by osmosis. They sense when adults around them are upset. Older children in this age range will respond to simple, honest explanations. If they attend a funeral, they need individual attention directed to them, so that they can ask questions and receive support.


Older children also need simple and honest explanations, but they really need adults who are patient with their questions and thoughts. Responding appropriately to their innocent questions will go a long way toward reassuring them that the world is still aright. When adults are crying, telling a child that the adult is sad or missing/thinking about so-and-so will help normalize the child's similar reaction. One of the worst things you can do is skirt around the words "dead" and "death." To tell a child that someone is simply "sleeping," or "gone away," or "resting," or "passed away" doesn't illuminate the situation, and often cause confusion. This age also needs steady routines, and might need additional help and prompting through transition times. Adults can read books that explain death (there are many good ones on the market that I like to use in sessions), and can involve the child in methods to help them find closure (drawing a picture, writing a letter, etc.) with the deceased.               


The same basic interventions apply as for the age group above, but perhaps with more emphasis on rituals and closures. Allowing the child to talk about the death over and over is important, as each time the child is working something else out emotionally. Education about death and what it means is appropriate, using words they will understand. Books with this age group are very helpful, as well, and I find that artistic means of expressing themselves are great. Not only does art occupy their hands with something, but it frees their minds to be able to talk more stream of conscious. Many times, children this age will free associate almost, with memories of the person they lost. Acknowledging their pain and tears, as well as the adult's pain and tears, is an important step to remember, so as to normalize their emotional experiences.


Older children need someone to listen to them...when/if they are ready to talk. Do not force the issue. Mandatory counseling is often counter-indicated, because teens will talk when they're good and ready to do so. Of course, encourage communication, but just being available is sometimes enough. Helping them understand that they might have more intense reactions on the deceased's birthday or anniversary is good psychoeducational information to give them. They might want to make use of a journal or a particular playlist on their phone or iPod that helps them cope better.

Let's Analyze

Have I missed anything on grief and children that you wanted me to cover? If so, drop me a comment below and I'll try to address it next week.