Practical help for struggling families


Lisa Qualls
Focus on Adoption magazine

Last week I got an email from a woman whose friend’s family is struggling after their recent adoption.

Her heartfelt note asked what she could do to help this family. The line that grabbed me was, “The mom looks sad and frustrated all of the time.” Most likely, the entire family is fueled by fear and sadness.

She closed her email with, “What can I do to help? What can our church family do to help?”

Ask her what she needs

Her needs may surprise you. Maybe she hasn’t been able to get her hair cut (or go to the dentist, go to another child’s sporting event, attend church, have an uninterrupted conversation with her husband, or take a nap) because she has nobody to care for her child from “hard places.”

Go to her home with two lattes in hand, give her a hug, and listen. She may not know what she needs, but ask her, and if she isn’t sure, suggest things you can do for her.

Bring a snack for her kids and maybe a DVD for them to watch. Quite likely she has been very isolated and will be thankful for a few moments with an adult. I remember standing on my front porch and bursting into tears telling my friend that I didn’t know how we were going to survive. The compassion on her face, all those years ago, still comes to mind. Parenting a very difficult child is a lonely business.

Feed them

Everybody needs to eat and that need doesn’t change, even in the midst of crisis. There are many ways to help with this:

  • Bring dinner once a week.
  • Fill her freezer with prepared dinners.
  • Organize a cooking day and work with her to fill her freezer.
  • Go grocery shopping for her. Pick up her list and take one of her children along to be your helper. He’ll feel special and your friend will have a little break at the same time.
  • Give her gift cards for local restaurants, especially places that deliver.


When life gets very hard, it is difficult to leave the house. Things are left undone, other children aren’t able to participate in activities, and we all grow frayed around the edges.

Do errands for her once a week. So many things were left undone when our life was being lived moment-by-moment. Wardrobes grew smaller simply because I couldn’t get to the store to replace the jeans that had holes in the knees. I had great hand-me-down Christmas dresses for the girls, but no tights. Movies and library books weren’t returned on time, prescriptions weren’t picked up, snow tires weren’t put on. You get the picture.

Take her children to an activity on a regular basis. In our isolation, the other children grew very sad, stressed, and lonely. We never knew what kind of chaos an evening might hold, and we were exhausted, so our default was to simply say “no” to everything. My children Isaiah and Annarose were able to begin attending a youth group only because the youth pastor offered to pick them up and bring them home.

Sports and after-school activities were nearly impossible. If you’re signing your child up for recreational  basketball, ask your friend if her child would like to play and commit to driving to the practices and games.

My friend, Sue, began picking my daughter Claire up one morning a week and taking her to the library. To this day, Claire still looks forward to her Thursday mornings with Sue, which often include tea, the library, and her weekly spelling test.

If your friend is traveling a distance for treatment or therapy, offer to go along and drive once a month. She may be thankful for the company and the opportunity to rest. Pack a few snacks, stop to get a special coffee, or even have a meal while you are out. Be sure she knows that you are not in a hurry and that you have cleared enough time for this.


Show up. She may be embarrassed by the state of her home. If she is spending hours with a raging child, or even with a child who needs loads of attention and nurture, cleaning bathrooms, changing sheets, and mopping floors will slip down the list.

I was too embarrassed to ask for cleaning help, but I have a friend who would stop by, make tea, and as we talked, she would sweep my kitchen floor and wash the dishes alongside me. It felt natural, and I wasn’t embarrassed by her help.

Call her in the morning and tell her that you are going to stop by that afternoon to fold laundry. She’ll keep those machines running if she knows you’re coming to help. Be sure to help her put it away. One time a friend came over, picked up all of our dirty laundry and returned it clean and folded–it was like a miracle.

If you have more money than time, hire somebody to clean for her–-even once would be a big help.


Babysitting help can take a variety of forms:

  • Babysit the kids while your friend is home, so she can take a nap or work through the unending pile of paperwork that accompanies children with special needs.
  • Babysit the other children while she takes her high-need child to an appointment.
  • Babysit the child from “hard places” so your friend can have a moment with another one of her children.

Weekend help is particularly helpful for children from “hard places.” Weekends have always been difficult for my daughter Ella. The lack of structure that she enjoys at school doesn’t transfer to a long Saturday stretching before her. We would try to fill her days, but friends who invited her over for a few hours, or even all day, were a huge help.

Predictable, scheduled help is a tremendous relief for families. I’ve written about this many times, but my friend, Michele, picked Ella up from school every Wednesday and kept her until after dinner. I could count on Wednesdays being a day I could schedule appointments for other children, or simply catch my breath. It was the one night a week when we had a calm dinner time.

Respite care is a great need for families whose new children have significant challenges. A family can quickly become exhausted when there is constant raging, arguing, and destructive behavior. A friend who understands children from “hard places” and is willing to give the family a 24-hour break will have an impact far beyond what they may imagine.

Remember the sibings

Our original children struggled with our inability to give them attention and time when we added three new children to our family and one year later added another. They lost us as we struggled to figure out how to live this new life.

Give practical help. My friend, Beth, welcomed Annarose into her family and homeschooled her for a year after Ella came home.

Offer support to the kids. Isaiah and Annarose joined the youth group of a local church, and we were thankful for the encouragement and positive adult interaction they received. It was so meaningful that we eventually made that church our new church home.

Remember that they need to have fun. Friends who took our kids to do something fun were also a huge  blessing when life at home seemed to be loads of work or simply tumultuous. If the children have a sibling who is raging or crying for hours, the kids may need relief from the stress too.

Be dependable

I want to stress that is very important to be clear about what you are committing to, and then follow through. Your help will likely be a greater lifeline than you can imagine. Asking for help and trying to create a schedule of support for Ella has been one of the most difficult parts of being her parent. Friends who canceled on  commitments likely had no idea that it may have resulted in hours of rage and struggle for our entire family.

Love, don’t judge

Trust me, your friends who are struggling are likely already feeling shame over their inability to hold their  family neatly together. They need to be reminded of how much they are loved by God and by you. They need to know that they are not alone–you don’t have the answers, but you’re going to stick by them while they sort it out.

Assure them that you are praying for them, and really do it. Write their name on a Post-it and put it on your mirror. Don’t forget them because they may be hanging by a thread.

Remember that your friends and their child from “hard places” are doing the best they can, and yet they suffer. Love them through it.

Lisa Qualls blogs at One Thankful Mom (, where this article originally appeared. She writes about adoption, attachment and trauma, Sensory Processing Disorder, her 23 years of  homeschooling, marriage, life with a large family, and just about anything else that interests her. She is the mother of 12 children, including four–-Ella, Bea, Ebenezer, and Woguyu–-who joined their family via adoption from Ethiopia.