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Working With Your Child's Teacher

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 15, 2015
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Now that we're back into the routine of school, I thought I might offer a few suggestions on how to have the best relationship possible with your child's teacher.  Too often teachers complain that when they approach a parent with a concern about a child, the parent leaps to their child's defense without really understanding the full scope of the situation, which leads to an adversarial relationship with the teacher.  Not good.  You and the teachers are on the same side – you both want what’s best for your child -- and although you may not agree on how to get there, there's no point in taking it personally or attacking one another.  To have a productive relationship with your child's teacher, we need to keep the big picture in mind and what's really best for our kid, not what soothes our bruised ego or allows us to hide from the truth just that much longer.

Make sure you find an opportunity to introduce yourself to your child's teacher, and make a point of attending as many parent-teacher meetings as possible.  If possible, you might want to ask if your child can attend the meeting, too, so that s/he has a chance to see you and the teacher working together.  Stay involved with the school by reading all materials that are sent home, and volunteer if you are able.

Remember that we don't teach kids independence and responsibility by doing too much for them.  Part of the learning objectives are to foster routines and responsibility, so it's important for parents to support them at home, too.  Create routines and habits at home, and teach your children how to advocate for themselves if they have a problem (“Where could you go to find the information you need?” “How could you ask your teacher about that?” “Let’s make a list of questions you have, and then tomorrow you can talk to your teacher about them – when could you do that?” “Could you send an email to your teacher asking to make a short appointment tomorrow to go over your test results and make sure you understand why you got the mark that you did?”)

A Listening Experiment

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Have you ever given much thought to how much talking you do?  I try to be very aware of how much I talk -- occupational hazard, I suppose -- and I try to counter-balance it with a lot of listening.  Sometimes people will describe themselves as "a good listener".  How do we know if we’re a good listener?  And why do we think it's such a good thing to be one?

I would agree that being a good listener is a great quality.  And an essential one for parents.  Try an experiment for one day, of just listening when your kids (or anyone, really) talks.  When they tell you something, instead of responding with your own take on what they've just said, try letting them know that you really heard and got what they said.  You could reflect back to them what you heard or clarify what you think they're really saying, or empathize with them.  Too often we rush in with a solution, when all our kids really want is to be heard and understood.  It doesn't have to be a big, heavy conversation; with our busy days, we sometimes stop listening attentively to even the little conversations sprinkled throughout our day. 

If you're feeling brave or have a great insight to share, post a few observations of how it went and what you learned.  You might be surprised at what comes out when you stop talking yourself...

Happiness At Home newsletter: Depression - What It Is And What To Do About It

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 01, 2015
This is the first of a two-part series on depression. In this newsletter article, I will explore what depression is and what causes it. In the next newsletter, I will describe how depression is treated and prevented. If you or someone close to you suffers from depression, it is important to educate yourself about it and seek treatment from qualified mental health professionals.
 
Depression is a serious illness, not a harmless part of life. It is a complex disorder with a variety of causes. It is never caused by just one thing. It may be the result of a mix of factors, including genetic, chemical, physical, and sociological. It is also influenced by behavior patterns learned in the family and by cognitive distortions (or distortions in our thinking).
Depression affects millions of people in this country. It is always troubling, and for some people it can be disabling. Depression is more than just sadness or “the blues.” It can have an impact on nearly every aspect of a person’s life. People who suffer from depression may experience despair and worthlessness, and this can have an enormous impact on both personal and professional relationships. In this newsletter, I will describe many of the factors that may cause depression, and I will explore strategies for preventing it.
 
Depression Is Pervasive
 When a person suffers from depression, it can affect every part of his or her life, including one’s physical body, one’s behavior, thought processes, mood, ability to relate to others, and general lifestyle.
 

Symptoms of Depression
 People who are diagnosed with clinical depression have a combination of symptoms from the following list:
•           Feelings of hopelessness, even when there is reason to be hopeful
•           Fatigue or low energy
•           Much less interest or pleasure in most regular activities
•           Low self-esteem
•           Feeling worthless
•           Excessive or inappropriate guilt
•           Lessened ability to think or concentrate
•           Indecisiveness
•           Thinking distorted thoughts; having an unrealistic view of life
•           Weight loss or gain without dieting
•           Change in appetite
•           Change in sleeping patterns
•           Recurrent thoughts of death
•           Suicidal thoughts
•           A specific plan for committing suicide
•           A suicide attempt
•           Feelings of restlessness or being slowed down
 When a person is suffering from depression, these symptoms cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. This means that the person’s family and social relationships, as well as work life, are impaired.
When a person is suffering from depression, symptoms such as these are not the result of a chronic psychotic disorder, substance abuse, general medical condition, or bereavement.
 

Grief, Sadness, and Depression
 Depression may include feelings of sadness, but it is not the same as sadness. Depression lasts much longer than sadness. While depression involves a loss of self-esteem, grief, disappointment and sadness do not. People who are depressed function less productively. People who are sad or disappointed continue to function.
 

Depression and Socioeconomic Factors
Depression does not seem to be related to ethnicity, education, income, or marital status. It strikes slightly more women than men. Some researchers believe that depression strikes more often in women who have a history of emotional and sexual abuse, economic deprivation, or are dependent on others. There seems to be a genetic link; depression is more common among parents, children, and siblings of people who are diagnosed with depression. The average age at the onset of a depressive episode is the mid-20s. People born more recently are being diagnosed at a younger age.
 

Physical Causes
Many physicians believe that depression results from a chemical imbalance in the brain. They often prescribe antidepressant medication, and many people find relief as a result. However, there is no reliable research that proves this is the case, and therefore no test to identify such a chemical imbalance. It is unknown whether life experiences cause mood changes, which create changes in brain chemistry, or whether it works in reverse.
Depression may be associated with physical events such as other diseases, physical trauma, and hormonal changes. A person who is depressed should always have a physical examination as part of the assessment process to determine the role of physical causes.
 

Signs That Professional Treatment Is Needed
If you or someone you know is depressed and exhibits any of the following signs, it is extremely important to seek the assistance of a medical or mental health professional.
1.         Thinking about death or suicide. This is always dangerous and you should see a professional therapist immediately.
2.         When symptoms of depression continue for a long time, you may need professional help. Acute responses to events are normal, but they should not last beyond a reasonable time.
3.         Your ability to function is impaired by your depression. Seek help before your life situation deteriorates to a serious level.
4.         You have become so isolated that you have no one with whom to check reality. Seek out someone to share your thoughts and feelings with.
5.         Depressive symptoms have become severe.
 
In my next newsletter, I will discuss the treatment and prevention of depression.
 
Suggested Reading
David D. Burns, M.D., Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York, Avon Books, 1999.
 
The American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition. Washington, D.C., The American Psychiatric Association, 2014.
 
Michael Yapko, Ph.D., Breaking the Patterns of Depression. New York, Doubleday, 2011.

Staying the Course

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, August 25, 2015

It's easy to second-guess ourselves as parents.  Whatever the situation is -- trying to get our little one to sleep through the night, saying no to a 16 year old who wants to go with friends on an unchaperoned camping trip, insisting our kids eat everything on their plates -- it can be tough to stick with our resolve in the face of a miserable child. 

Most of the time, we make decisions based on some sort of information.  Sometimes we make snap decisions.  If that's what's happened, and after a chance to cool down we think that we might want to reconsider our earlier position, that's one thing.  But what if you gave it some thought before deciding what to do -- and while refusing to make an individual dinner for each child seemed like a good idea at the time, now you're paying for it with miserable, sulking offspring?

In these cases, the question to ask yourself is: have I received any new information that affects my decision?  If you've learned something new about the situation and that's changed the way you feel about it, then absolutely sit down with your child or teen and talk about it.  But if there's no new information, if you still think allowing a week-night sleep over is a bad idea, and the only reason you are starting to wonder if you're taking too strong a position is because your child is moping/screaming/complaining about how unreasonable you are...well, that's different.  There's no new information here.  Let's face it, you could have probably predicted that the response to your decision was going to be less than favourable.  But there's nothing that has changed that might make you feel more comfortable with the idea, so it's not a great idea to go back on your word at this point. 

The bottom line is: you're human, and it's ok to change your mind or make a mistake.  But the question we should always ask ourselves before switching gears is, "What's changed?"  If the answer is “nothing”, and the only reason you're questioning yourself is because of how unhappy your child is, remind yourself of the reasons you made the decision you did in the first place, and reassure yourself that you're doing the best that you can.  Sympathize with how hard this is for your child, look him or her in the eye, smile, let them know that you love them, and remember: this too shall pass.

"You're Not The Boss of Me!"

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Friday, August 14, 2015

Power struggles are among the more frustrating parts of the parenting package.  Why?  Well, as Rudolph Dreikurs points out in his book Children: The Challenge, "Children are by far more clever in a power contest.  They aren't inhibited by social consequences of 'appearances' or dangerous consequences of their action."  Sad but true.

One thing you can do as a parent is to acknowledge that you can't force a child to do anything.  You can try, but if you're honest with yourself, I think you'll agree that at best, what we can do is to create an environment that encourages our children to make the same choice we would hope they would make.  That's not really the same thing as having the control to "make" them do something.  And once we hit that point in a power struggle, no one really wins and the message we were trying to convey at the beginning of all this has gone completely out the window.

So admit it.  Try saying to your child, "You're right, I can't make you do your homework/clean the table/walk the dog."  With some kids, that's all it takes to gain cooperation.  Honestly!  Give it a shot and see if it doesn't diffuse the tension, at least a little bit.

You might not be able to make him walk the dog, but let's face it: the important parenting challenge is not to get the dog walked (I'm sure there are lots of ways that problem could be resolved); it's to instill in your child the importance of following through on his responsibilities, and fostering a sense of empathy (in this case, for the dog who needs to tinkle and for the other family members who have already taken a turn walking around the block).  So, now that we have acknowledged that we can't force him to do anything, try asking for his help.  Like any human, kids like to be asked rather than commanded.  Instead of saying, "You have to walk the dog as soon as you get home from school tonight because we have to leave right at 4.00 for hockey", experiment with "Could you please walk Zippy as soon as you get home from school so we don’t have to rush to do right as we’re running out the door to hockey?"  A small change, yes, but an important one in the eyes of a child. 

It starts with "You're not the boss of me!" and it's all downhill from there.  This technique is not about giving your home over to chaos, it's about modelling the respect you'd like to see them show.  Treating them as competent and capable, and as individuals with their own thoughts and feelings, is one tactic to help diffuse those power struggles.

When You Don't Like Your Teen's Dating Choice

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Someone asked me recently what to do when you don't like your teenage son or daughter's boyfriend/girlfriend.  It's definitely a tricky subject.  While as parents we don't want to watch our kids blindly stumble through life, making wrong choice after wrong choice, when we, with our gifts of objectivity, perspective, and experience, can help them out, the reality is, there's not much we can do in situations like this.  Ultimately, the decision of whom to date is the sole responsibility of our kids (unless you belong to a culture where the parents take full responsibility for their children's dating...but if that were the case, we wouldn't be having this conversation anyway).  Here are some thoughts on how to proceed...

Start off by having a gentle conversation with your teen about what you see happening.  If you have run-of-the-mill concerns because you think the (let's assume you have a daughter with a boyfriend) boyfriend is too needy, too selfish, too impolite, too whatever, coming right out and saying that you think he's a jerk is automatically going to turn your daughter off.  Here's the catch: it will still turn her off even if she secretly agrees with you.  She is committed to not having you know and be right about everything at this point in her life, so she's not going to readily admit that you've got a point if you come at her with both guns blazing.  It's a matter of principle.

Instead, let her know in a respectful and gentle way that you have some concerns, and that you want to make sure that she's ok.  Approaching her from a position of concern and love is going to be better received than from a position of animosity, frustration, or defensiveness.  Your messages of love and concern may still be met with hostility from your teen.  That's ok; you tried.  Let it go at this point.  You can make gentle statements of acknowledgement of what's happening, without sliding into sarcasm or lectures, from now on, just to let her know that you still have her on your radar and that you haven't washed your hands of her relationship.  In a sense, you're agreeing to disagree.  This will be important to her if she decides in the future that she wants to remove herself from the relationship, because now she knows that you'll still be there for her to talk to, without judgment or "I told you so". 

Some examples of this kind of acknowledgement might be

  • You are a really great friend to (give up your free afternoon/tutor him/help him clean out the garage).
  • He's lucky to have you to support him during (the loss of his grandmother/tough exam time/his parents' divorce).
  • I'm here if you need me, and I know you're a smart cookie who can decide what's best for her
  • I love you no matter what.

What if you think your daughter may be the recipient of abuse at the hands of her boyfriend?  Ahh, that's a different kettle of fish.  This situation causes parents to hit the panic button -- and rightly so.  It's important to tread carefully here, though, because you don't want to inadvertently push her away from you and closer to him.  Abusers are fantastic at twisting facts and perceptions so that our girl doesn't know which way is up, and worries that she's too far in to be able to ask for help to get out.  Embarrassment, fear, shame, and not wanting to disappoint can also be playing a factor. 

It's important for you to speak to someone with experience in this area (i.e. a counsellor or psychologist, family doctor, or an expert in helping girls in abusive relationships), as it's a complicated and dangerous situation -- there's more to know than what I can cover here.  Here are some thoughts on where to start.  If you think that your daughter is being mistreated, tell her so.  Be loving and willing to listen to her; sometimes it takes girls a while to wrap their minds around the fact that this guy who treats her so well at times is actually an abusive boyfriend.  If you try to strong-arm her into listening to you and trusting you when she wants to believe something else, you're now doing exactly the same thing to her that he is.  Be loving, be supportive, check in with her every once in a while as to how she's doing and if there's anything she would like you to do for her.  Read up on abusive teen relationships and know what additional supports are out there for her.  Show her through your actions that you are not the controlling, demanding, emotionally-blackmailing type of person that her boyfriend is by offering her unconditional love and support, and get outside help for both of you when the time is right.

Here's a resource for teens in abusive relationships: TEAR: Teens Experiencing Abusive Relationships

And here's one for you as a parent: Dr Jill Murray, an expert in abusive relationships

Off To Camp

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Summer is half over, but there’s still lots left to do – maybe your child has sleep-away camp on the agenda during the last four weeks of summer. Camp can be an exciting, but still terrifying, prospect for many kids, especially those who don’t have a lot of experience sleeping away from home.

How can you help make the experience so fantastic they’re dying to go back next year?

Start by having a positive attitude (but don’t overdo it). Emphasize all the fun your child is going to have, and talk about all of the cool activities that she’ll have a chance to do, like swimming in the lake, canoeing, learning a new skill such as archery, or roasting marshmallows over a campfire. If you’re positive and enthusiastic, that will help your child feel confident in her decision to go. But at the same time, it’s ok to address concerns and fears. Don’t dismiss it if your child talks about being nervous as well as excited – “You’ll be fine, don’t worry about it!” Instead, validate her concerns, and ask what you could do together before you go to help her feel more confident. Stay positive and assume a good outcome for her, but don’t gloss over any fears she may have.

Check things out beforehand if you can. Advertising works by presenting a consumer with the same product over and over, which leads to feelings of familiarity and comfort, even if the consumer has never actually tried the product. Harness that same power to help soothe anxieties about the newness and strangeness of camp. Go to any open-houses the camp might have, and check out the camp’s web site together to help your child feel more comfortable with the setting. See if there’s a sample daily schedule on the site, and walk through the day together, mentally rehearsing the way the days will flow. Maybe there’s an online forum where campers can meet other campers who will be there the same week.

Bring a few comfort items from home. Something as simple as a familiar pillowcase can be enough for some kids, but maybe they’d prefer to pack a few photos or favourite stuffed friend to help bring a little bit of home with them. And of course, if there’s an opportunity for you to write to your kids while they’re away, do that! Most kids love to get mail at the best of times, and having a little connection to home by hearing about what’s going on (even if it’s nothing very exciting) can be very reassuring.

Encourage your kids to talk to the counsellors about any concerns they may have, or any loneliness or homesickness they may be feeling. The staff have seen it all before, and are experts at helping kids to feel relaxed and comfortable at camp. They’ll know just how to handle a homesick kid at bedtime, but if it’s an extreme case and your camper needs to come home, that’s ok too. The counsellors will help your child feel ok about how she’s feeling, and reassure her that there’s always next time. You can do the same: just be supportive and matter-of-fact about the whole experience, and remind her that even though she didn’t feel ready right now, she assuredly still got something positive out of the experience, and she can feel proud of herself for giving it a try.

How To Keep Your Marriage Strong

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

It’s not uncommon that I meet with couples who have come to counselling, but are a little unsure if they should even be there, since they don’t fight, they don’t storm out on one another, they’re not even considering divorce.  There’s this perception that you have to be in real trouble before you’d even consider marriage counselling.

But the truth is, waiting can just allow a problem to fest and get worse.  We’d never assume there was no point in going to the doctor until our entire arm was infected; we realize that the best course of action for physical ailments is always preventative. 

The same is true for our mental health and our marriages.

I genuinely believe that most people don’t walk down the aisle thinking that they’ll stay in the marriage as long as it’s good – they really are hopeful and filled with love and optimism in that moment.  Then how can so many of us go from that hope and optimism, to feeling disconnected and alone, or worse, indifferent?

It’s the small things that really make the difference in a marriage, both good and bad.  And it’s never too early to nip those negative habits in the bud, and replace them with more positive, loving ones. 

So, start small.  Don’t worry about booking a weekend away, or even a weekly date night.  Those things are both great, by the way, but sometimes life just happens, and if we wait for those big moments, we may go for weeks or months without finding opportunities to connect.  Just look for windows of a few minutes each day to have small moments together.  Talk about your day.  Make a note of anything amusing or amazing or out-of-the-ordinary that happens when you’re not together, and make a point of sharing it when you are.

But if even a few minutes to talk about the weather seems like too much to carve out some days, then here’s another way to create those moments between you.  John Gottman, one of the best known marriage researchers, says that one of the best ways to improve your marriage (or divorce-proof it, if it’s already pretty good) is to respond positively to the “bids” that your partner makes throughout the day.  Bids are the big and small gestures we use to get attention, affection, and acknowledgment from our partners.  Obvious bids include hugging, kissing, making a joke together, or direct requests such as, “Can we talk?” or “Let’s get a sitter and go our for dinner, just you and me.” Sometimes, though, they’re more subtle.  Responding positively, even if briefly, when our partner shares a line or two from an article that he’s reading, or when he offers to run up to the medicine cabinet when we complain of a headache, can all be a way of what Gottman refers to as “turning toward your partner.”

These little interactions sustain the emotional intimacy in a marriage.  You’re probably already doing some of this at least some of the time.  But when people are busy with young kids and busy careers, these little gestures and moments are easy to miss.  So put them on your radar, and look for the quick but meaningful ways that you can respond to your partner’s bids and keep your marriage strong.

For any number of reasons, sometimes partners need some outside help to get back on the right track in their marriage.  If you feel that’s you, don’t wait.  You don’t need to be in crisis to benefit from couple relationship counselling.  Investing in your marriage and your family isn’t a sign of weakness or failure; everyone in a family benefits when the marriage is strong.

Parenting Book Recommendations

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A number of my clients have been asking for books that they can read that describe the same Democratic Parenting philosophy that I use in our sessions.  I thought I might post a few of my favourites for everyone to check out:

  • Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen is one of my favourites.  Straightforward, thorough, and lots of great ideas as well as explanations as to why she suggests the ideas she does.  She's also a mom of SEVEN so she knows of what she speaks.
  • Children: The Challenge by Rudolph Dreikurs.  A classic.  And when I say classic, I mean that it hasn't been edited since it was written in 1964.  Not for the politically correct in some places, I'll warn you, but if you can overlook a few cringe-worthy references, the content of the book is still solid.  If your parents ever read a parenting book, this may very well have been the one.
  • Breaking the Good Mom Myth by Alyson Schafer.  Same principles in a casual, girlfriend-to-girlfriend tone.  I'd love it even more if there was an index at the back (perhaps a suggestion for your next book, Alyson?), but that just may be the overachiever in me coming through.  When you buy this book you not only get practical, relevant parenting advice, you also support a local Canadian author, too!
  • Also check out Honey, I Wrecked The Kids and Ain’t Misbehavin’ , both also by Alyson for an in-depth breakdown of the “goals of misbehaviour” that I regularly talk about in my sessions, and specific tools and strategies for handling a laundry list of parental complaints and pet peeves.  Great books.
  • And although this one isn’t a Democratic Parenting book per se, I think The Mother-Daughter Project by SuEllen Hamkins and Renee Schultz is great reading for anyone with young daughters, worried about what will happen when they hit the teenage years.  Round up a few like-minded friends, and create your own project!

I hope that gives you a few ideas as to where to start.  Not exactly typical “beach reads”, but perhaps good summer reading nonetheless…?

When Parents Clash

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What do you do when you and your partner have differences in parenting styles?

It's a surprisingly common dilemma.  My experience is that, if we look at parenting as a continuum, with authoritative parenting on the one extreme and laissez-faire on the other, most couples don't fall on the spectrum at the exact same spot.  If you're lucky, the distance between you isn't too great, but what if you really feel you are on opposite ends of the spectrum?

As with most things in parenting and relationships, communication is the first place to start.  Have an honest conversation about what your priorities as a parent are, and see if you and your partner can't come up with some sort of agreement on what matters most to you.  While you might not be that far off in what you value and want to teach your kids, you might, in fact, be surprised as to what the most important aspects are to your partner.  Talk about all of these elements and priorities honestly, perhaps over more than one conversation.

Next, you need to determine how to best meet the parenting goals you have set for yourself.  While you may feel that the best way to encourage responsibility is to allow your children to make their own decisions, your partner may feel that having a good mentor (such as a parent) who makes important decisions on their behalf, is the best course of action.  Take some time and thoughtfully consider whether or not the actions and path you've chosen up until now are really going to lead you to the place you want to be.  If it starts to seem illogical that catering to your child's every whim, for example, is going to prepare him for a life that will inevitably include disappointment, now is the time to change your strategy.  Familiar with the definition of crazy?  It's doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.

Don't be surprised, too, if some elements of your own childhood pop up in the equation.  You may have had an absent parent, and the loss has left you smothering and hovering over your kids today.  You may have loved a certain element of what your parents did, but it just doesn't seem to be working the way you might think with your own children.  Maybe all you need is a little self-checking in order to get back on course, or perhaps having some counselling or therapy yourself to help you resolve the pain of your own experience is what would be best (if you’re looking for a psychotherapist in Oakville, I’d be happy to meet to talk about these challenges with you).  That's a decision for you to make yourself.  Too often we parent mindlessly, getting into habits or ruts that aren't really working, for whatever reason, and if this process helps you to uncover some of those ruts, just know that it's never too late to make a positive change.

Another suggestion I often have for clients is to have your own little "parenting book club".  Buy a parenting book (you can check the Resources page on this site for some ideas and places to start), then take turns reading it, one chapter at a time.  At the end of each chapter, talk about what you liked, what you didn't, what you think might work, and create a plan for actually implementing some of the strategies suggested.  If you're both working together, from the same starting point, it's a lot easier to have a unified front when a challenge hits, and to trust that your partner will handle things as you would, when you're not around.

Always start from the beginning and build from there.  Working together, with a philosophy that you can both live with, is the best way to success.  While we can never change someone who doesn't want to be changed, we can create an environment between the two of you that makes it easy for your partner to meet you halfway, with a middle-ground approach that you can both feel good about. 


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Andrea Ramsay Speers • Psychotherapist & Parent Coach • Oakville Family Institute • 175 Glenashton Dr., Oakville ON • Tel.: 905-491-6949

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