Macaroni Kid

Ask the Experts: Addiction in the Family Worries Mom

My ex-husband is an alcoholic. My kids have a good relationship with their dad and see him regularly. Their dad refuses to admit he is an alcoholic or seek help...

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on May 30, 2018 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question:  My ex-husband is an alcoholic. My kids have a good relationship with their dad and see him regularly. Their dad refuses to admit he is an alcoholic or seek help (part of why our marriage ended).  Alcoholism runs in his family and I know it’s important to have conversation with my kids about that before they get to an age where they might be tempted to drink.  How early do I start those conversations and how do I do it without undermining their dad or having them think differently about him?

Answer:  I have to congratulate you on your careful question and your concern to not undermine the children’s father in light of his drinking, which contributed to end of the marriage. You are right, it is very important to talk with your children about drinking and the possible genetic history of alcoholism in the family, before they decide to drink. Best case scenario they never even take a first drink.  

Ways to go about talking with your kids about this subject does depend on their ages. The beginnings of the conversation can start with other inherited traits like eye, hair and skin color which are prevalent in the family. It will be helpful for them to know that some traits and genetic leanings are good, and some, not so good. Every family has both. Education about other predisposed conditions in the family, such as diabetes, should be discussed, as well as the possibility of the disease of addiction. With teens, a good activity is a family internet research session together, where you can help with some guided exploring on the subject. 

If questions come up about their father you can explain that addiction is a tricky disease that tells an individual that they don’t have it. You can explain that you and their father disagree about whether he has a problem, but that you feel it is important they be aware of the risks.  

Revisit this conversation often, perhaps if it comes up in a TV show or news clip; turn the conversation back to your family.   Stress repeatedly in a variety of ways that living with addiction is no way for them to live. Addiction hurts lives; it affects an individual’s thinking and health. It can cause job loss and end relationships. Always include that no one sets out to get addicted, but addiction starts out like a fun friend that you allow to live in your home, who ends up robbing you. Encourage them to talk with you about drinking and drug use when they feel challenged or have questions. Set firm boundaries about drug and alcohol use as they move into teenage years, and talk with them often. Remind them that rules mean that you love them enough to care that they turn out healthy and well.

Everyone needs to know that the genetic link with substance abuse disorders is not the only thing to consider. Parents who use substances may make choices that are not in the best interest of their children. Questions to consider are: Does he/she drink or use drugs when around the children? Have they seen him/her drunk? Does he/she drive when using alcohol and drugs, with the children in the car? Are the children put in the position of covering for, cleaning up after, or lying, in order to rescue the addicted parent, or, are older children inappropriately stepping in the role of “parent” when the adult is using? People who are in a relationship with a person with addiction are affected by that person’s use in very serious ways.  Counseling and groups like Al-Anon or Al-ateen are amazingly helpful to family members.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”

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This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on April 16, 2018 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Comment: I really love this Q & A column.  I always read it and even if the information doesn’t pertain to me, I usually know someone that it does and will send it along.  I now have a question of my own!  

From Luanne: Thank you so much!  The questions are great.  I’m so glad the column is helpful.  Sometimes it is a team effort among those that work at Health Affiliates Maine – lots of moms and lots of counselors, all whom willingly share their thoughts with me.  The answer to your question was one of those joint efforts!  Thanks to Marylena Chaisson, Heather Moreau, Lana Herring, and Andrea Krebs for insights and contribution to today’s answer.  

Question:  My little guy is seven and very curious about the world around him.  He is not shy in the least and often will ask questions to strangers.  Sometimes these questions can be received as insulting rather than as he means them—in curiosity.  He has asked questions about someone’s weight, their race and even why someone had a rash on their arm.  We have had a lot of conversations about how his questions can be received and even had a plan for him to ask me questions first and then we decide together if he can ask others.  He is a bit too impulsive for this plan to have ever worked though.  I fear that by seven, these social skills should be in place and am wondering if there may be more to it.  I would love to know how to best talk to my son to help him understand he can be curious but needs to be cautious.  

Answer:  Your child is at a natural age of curiousness, and he is wondering about differences in people. Your son’s questions are very appropriate for his age.  Seven is an important early learning time which prepares him for the future when he will be functioning more on his own. Managing his curiosity and impulsiveness is an important skill, and he needs practice! You can help him by addressing each issue on the spot or shortly after to ensure the learning. Naturally, you have to quickly assess when it is best addressed. Sometimes this situation is more uncomfortable for the parent, so having key phases to use can be helpful, for example, “Tommy loves to connect with people but he is still learning the right kind of questions to ask.”  Having a signal like a gentle squeeze of the hand indicating that they have crossed the line may be helpful, and then addressing the question later.    

Learning to manage his impulses is a big part of the picture, which you seem to recognize.  Games can be helpful, such as Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and Follow the Leader which will give your child opportunities to practice impulse control and train his brain to listen and have better self-control. This is a fun family activity. This is a good time to introduce empathy; children are capable of understanding when someone’s feelings may be hurt.  Help him recall when perhaps someone pointed something out that he may be uncomfortable with, or could have been teased about. This makes for a parallel connection and can start him on a path of recognizing that everyone struggles from time to time with problems and disabilities which affect the way we look, feel, and act. Life also teaches lessons. One time my little son asked a man in an elevator why he was bald. The man quickly asked him, “Why are you so short?”  Sometimes the rebuke from a stranger can foster your child to be more careful in the future.  Also, talking about diversity and differences as a part of everyday conversation, and being matter-of-fact about everyone not being the same, is helpful.  Exposing kids to diversity – whether it is playmates of different races or ethnicities, or toys like the American Girl dolls, which now have options for wheelchairs or other physical accommodations – is important to make accepting differences very natural. Always give him positive attention when he expresses kindness, helpfulness and appropriate conversation, which will help him gain confidence. 

It is positive that your son has some comfort in speaking to strangers. Sometimes as parents, we overdue “stranger danger” warnings and children don’t end up practicing important social skills like greeting people with a smile, speaking when spoken to, and making eye contact.  

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”

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This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on March 21, 2018 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question: All of these school shootings that are happening are really scary to me as a parent. My nine-year-old came home yesterday and said that they had a lockdown drill at their school where he was shown how to use his desk turned on its side as a shield from bullets. I had no idea how to respond or talk to him about this. While I am glad our school takes safety seriously, I feel like I should be doing more at home to talk about this issue with my son. I could use some advice on where to start.

Answer: I am sad to acknowledge that this is now added to the many worries that we have as parents and that it creates anxiety for our kids. I feel for you as I am sure this was the last thing you wanted to have your little guy, and yourself, to be concerned about. I am glad you are looking for a way to talk with him about this.

First, when your child talks about school shootings and drills, simply ask how he feels when he thinks about these things. It is important for him to express these feelings. He may feel freer to open up if you share that you are also scared about this. This lets him know that his feelings are okay. It is okay not to have answers for why someone would come to a school to shoot people. We are all struggling to understand why.

Remind him that the school also has drills for fire and other safety situations. Show him your home fire alarm. Explain how preparation is important and that lives are saved because of it. We prepare for emergencies, but most often they don’t happen. Being prepared helps people not be as afraid because they have a plan. This way you are presenting realistic information that challenges the thought that schools are unsafe. 

Talking with him about the students that have protested the government response is not only a good lesson in democracy, but also helps students move from a powerless situation to one of having a voice and becoming instrumental in making change. Lastly, encourage him to always be aware when something someone says and does just doesn’t feel right. You can liken it to how animals have instincts and insects have antenna that alerts them to danger. When he senses that something is not quite right with a person, he needs to talk with you or a teacher about it.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”

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This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on Jan 31, 2018 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question: I have a junior in high school. He gets good grades, has lots of friends and is a good kid all around. His organizational skills are horrendous though. We have to dig through his messy binder each night to try and figure out what he has for homework. He doesn’t write any of it down. I still have to wake him up each morning even if I reminded him the night before to set an alarm. He often loses things. I am fearful of how he will do when he leaves for college and would like tips to help him focus on organization over the next year and a half while he is still home, please.

Answer: Sounds like you are doing a good job with your son, and it has paid off in him being a ‘good kid all around.’ Now it is time to step back. The consequences of his disorganization might mean some hard knocks, however, this will be important learning for him. It sounds like it is time to stop helping him figure out what homework he has, and stop dealing with the messy binder. These are his problems to solve. You will not be at college with him, and if you continue to help him, he will have trouble later doing these things for himself. You rightfully recognized this need.

It is also time to stop waking him up. Begin by having a conversation about his need to be able to do this for himself. Together decide on what future date when you will no longer be waking him up for school. You will have to fight any impulse you have to get him moving. It might help you to plan to be away from the house when you first choose to have him do this on his own. He may oversleep, he may be late. Remember, you will not be there at college. Usually, once he knows that the consequences are fully his for not getting to school on time, he will begin to take responsibility. You can assist him by helping him map out what he may need to be successful, like experimenting with bedtimes and pulling away from screens before bed, and the like. Once you start, don’t go back to helping.

Your goal now with your son is to help him develop his independence. He may have to fail, and not do well initially before he gets the hang of it. Unless his scattered, disorganized behavior is the result of some form of Attention Deficit Disorders ( ADHD), I am not recommending that he needs other professional interventions. Since he is thriving in most areas of his life, this is not indicated. The pulling away during the late high school years is part of an important developmental step that both you and your son need to take.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”

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This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on Jan 3, 2018 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question: We are not a religious family. However, my mother-in-law is quite religious. I found out recently that when my kids are at my in-laws, my MIL reads them religious books, watched religious television and recently encouraged them to talk to my husband and me about going to church. I am really uncomfortable with this and my husband thinks it is all harmless. How can I address my concerns without hurting feelings?

Answer: Good question! This is a tough area, one in which everyone can have strong feelings. The best place to start is for you and your husband to decide together what you believe. Explore how you want your children to be exposed to your beliefs and those of others. Any discussion of this is best done together as it could cause a relationship discord between you and your mother-in-law if done alone. You may be able to help her understand what your wishes are if you gain an appreciation for the genuine feelings behind the sharing of her faith. When something is very important to us, the impulse is to want to share with those we love the most. Your discussion with her may start out something like this:

We know that you have a strong faith and really love sharing it with the children. We can appreciate your efforts to teach them, and how much you love them. Since we have different beliefs, we would like to talk together first about what sort of things about your faith you want to share, and how it compliments or contrast with ours.

There are a couple of things for which to be mindful. Spiritual beliefs, no matter what they are, can be of key importance in helping your children find meaning in life. Faith traditions and values, yours and hers, can be important guiding tools to help them understanding right and wrong. Over time your children will need to learn about all kinds of religious and political views, including those that differ from yours. Our culture has roots in many faith traditions and some knowledge of those will help children in their understanding of our art and literature, as well as informing their own worldviews. Many people spent their childhoods regimented in certain religious faiths, and yet go on to make their own choices once they become adults.

Another thing to remember is that the relationship that you and your children have with your in-laws is a very important one. When it is not good, it can interfere with your marriage and your happiness. Choose wisely anytime you address concerns, and do so with love.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”

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This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on Dec 6, 2017 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question: I have always been a giver. This is especially true at Christmas. I tend to overbuy for those I love and over give for those that I probably shouldn’t. What I mean by that is I will often buy gifts for everyone in the office even though it is not expected. I buy far too many gifts for our kids. It is embarrassing but I am still paying on credit cards from gifts I bought last year. I am really trying hard this year to not over give but I feel like I should lay the groundwork for those I have over-given to in the past. How do I best do that without hurting feelings? This will be an especially hard message to give to my kids.

Answer: The best part about this is that you recognize what you are doing and that you want to change. Good for you; that is often the hardest part! Gift giving has been a way you express your affection. Knowing that you need to get it under control doesn’t mean you have to stop, but you will need to modify. Gifts for co-workers, if allowed in your workplace, are usually a handwritten card with meaningful sentiments, a home-baked treat, a delicious jelly, chocolate or the like. More elaborate and expensive gifts can put your co-workers in an uncomfortable situation, especially if they can’t afford or are not inclined to buy for workmates. Remember, because you are creating debt, you cannot afford it either. If you are the only one doing it, you may want to explore why. 

Shopping for the holidays can be a time that pulls at our heartstrings. Retailers know this and make their merchandise talk to us. Some ways to combat this is to leave the store before buying or go to your car and think about your prospective purchases without the influences of the holiday atmosphere. If you do buy, leave the tags on for a while, and evaluate the cost and appropriateness of the gift for each receiver. You can always make a return. You will get better at doing this on the spot, as you make changes.

When it comes to your children, as with all parenting, you are modeling for them how to give and receive gifts, the meaning behind the giving, and also healthy financial management. Talk with them. One of the big gifts parents can give their kids is to teach them how to live within their means. Choose a budget figure of what you can spend on each child. Focus on the one most important gift on their list if it is financially reasonable. Then fill in with smaller, less expensive items which might be fun and challenging. Stay within the budget! If it is a big change from past years, you may want to add a family activity which will help the celebrating move past the gift giving. 

Lastly, if this is not something you feel you can get under control without help, and your spending is causing problems in other areas of your life and relationships, seek the help of a counselor. Sometimes there are reasons we overspend and over-give. A counselor can help you gain the insight you need to make important changes. 

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”

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This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on Nov 15, 2017 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question: My husband and our son do not get along very well. My husband has recently been saying some damaging things to my son such as calling him a loser and an idiot. I know my husband is frustrated with our son but I can see the name-calling is hurting their relationship. When I speak up to my husband he says I’m choosing sides and letting our son get away with bad behavior. I feel stuck in the middle. What do I do?

Answer: It is hard to be in the middle in this kind of situation. Thank you for asking this question because many parents identify with this sort of problem. Your husband’s behavior may be based on a true desire to help your son become a healthy, functioning adult. Or, he may have been treated the same way as a child and he is replicating the behavior with his child. Either way it is not helping, it is hurting your son. Unrealistic expectations on the part of parents can also create the misbehavior or underachievement in the child. It is the “which came first question.” There are many ways to help children and teens get their behavior under control without insults. Insults, like calling a child “loser” or “idiot” actually are a form of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse refers to any act by an adult which results in injury to a child’s health and wellbeing. 

Here is a list of kinds of emotional abuse:

  • Yelling or swearing 
  • Name calling or insults; mocking
  • Threats and intimidation
  • Ignoring or excluding
  • Isolating
  • Humiliating
  • Denial of the abuse and blaming of the victim

These are the effects of this sort of emotional abuse: lowered self-esteem (hinders success in life); increases rebellion in the child or teen; teaches the child to become aggressive toward others; increases depression (fosters feelings of worthlessness) and, causes the child to lose respect for the parent.

It is important that you help your husband to understand the damage that he is doing. If you are unable to do this, consider that you may also feel intimidated by him. If you feel you need help figuring out how to help your husband and your son, please talk to a counselor. Change can happen. Counselors can help the whole family. Your husband may just need to learn about another way to relate to his son. Children need parents to set realistic expectations, to respect them, to be consistent, and to model appropriate behavior and coping. This is the tough, but important part of parenting.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”

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This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on Oct 10, 2017 by Mary Gagnon, LMFT; Health Affiliates Maine

Question: I have a thirteen-year-old son. He brought up his desire to go trick-or-treating with friends this year. My husband immediately jumped in to say he is far too old to go trick-or-treating. I disagree. I think kids grow up too fast and should enjoy the pleasures of childhood while they can. My husband thinks the idea is immature and not healthy for a kid his age. I know adults that still enjoy dressing up in costumes and they aren’t immature. Is it wrong for us to allow our son to trick or treat?

Answer: It’s not really a question of right or wrong, but rather a question of perspective. While you value the playfulness of childhood, your husband may see your son as a person who is working on becoming an adult and leaving childhood behind. Developmentally, your son is straddling the two worlds of childhood and adulthood, and sometimes he may want to do things that are considered more “childish,” and other times he may assert himself as if he is already an adult. It can be a confusing time for adolescents and parents alike!

Why does he want to go trick-or-treating? Is it dressing up, getting candy, the independence of being with his friends, or something else that is appealing? Knowing why he’d like to go may help you and your husband understand his point of view and come up with a solution that feels right for all of you. 

There’s no age at which a person is no longer allowed to go trick-or-treating, although in our culture it is frowned upon more and more as a child gets older. Some adults may see an adolescent trick-or-treating as “not acting their age,” while others may be concerned about greediness or the possibility that the adolescents are out to cause mischief or trouble of some sort. If, after discussing it with your husband, you allow your son to go trick-or-treating, make sure he understands the rules you set (such as curfew, neighborhoods he can go to, and trick-or-treating “etiquette”) and some of the possible reactions he may receive at the neighbors’ doors and how he should respond. 

Happy Halloween!

Mary Gagnon, LMFT is a professional marriage and family therapist and the Training and Clinical Development Specialist at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children, and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”

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This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on Sep 21, 2017 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question: My son’s friend has ADHD. He often comes to our house to play and sometimes spends the night. He seems not to have much of a filter and says some inappropriate things for his age. He is also impulsive. I get concerned about him using good judgment. I don’t want to discourage the friendship but am not sure how to best talk to my son about what’s appropriate and what’s not when his friend is over. I’ve talked to the parents and they are aware of the issues and have spoken to their son but they have left the parenting up to me when he is at our home. What’s the best way to deal with this when it’s not my kid?

Answer:

 This is a bit difficult to answer without knowing the age of the children. I will give you some general interventions which I hope will apply in your situation. I think you have taken an important first step in talking with the parents. In this way you have already communicated your concerns and they have an expectation that you will address what might come up. 

Having family ground rules for behavior is good for children. This also means that when kids come to play they are under your rules. When behavior starts to cause problems, review the rules of the house, and the consequences for not following. You can say, “We really like it when you come to play, but we have rules in our house about jumping on the sofa. I need you both to find another activity.” Rules can be “no ‘potty’ talk” “no roughhousing inside” “no backtalk to adults,” and the like. When rules are broken it is important to speak up and to have a number of consequences to fit the situation, like having to play separately for a short period, to having to go home. Sometimes finding out that you mean what you say can make better behavior the next time. Kids thrive with rules and boundaries; ultimately they make them feel safe. 

Children with ADHD get lots of negative messages around their behavior which can cause problems with self-esteem. Along with enforcing rules, try to also make a point to reinforce positive behavior. Look for those times to reward positive play by adding extra time to an activity or by giving positive praise. As to your concern about this child’s impulsiveness and judgment; again this can mean very different things at different ages. Adult supervision may be really appropriate for the young ones, with repeated focus on acceptable behavior. Older children need to know to come and talk about behaviors or topics which make them feel uncomfortable. 

The most important thing is to be clear about what the expectations are in your home and to follow through when discipline or positive reinforcement as needed. Lastly, sometimes it is appropriate to discourage friendships that you do not feel are right for your child.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”

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This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on Aug 24, 2017 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question: My 13-year-old daughter recently told me that she is gender fluid. I’ve heard the term before but am not that familiar. I want to be supportive but don’t know where to start to learn more. The web has a lot of conflicting information. Please assist.

Answer: Gender fluid describes a person who identifies with both genders, and moves between expressing themselves as male and female. They can have characteristics and traits of both sexes. Many are comfortable not being either/or, but both. For young people with developing bodies, perspectives, and personalities, it can be confusing. Our culture is also confused, and messages about gender can be hurtful sometimes.

It is great that your first impulse is to be supportive and learn more. That is really good parenting! While your daughter explores her gender identity, provide time of open conversation without judgment and “shoulds.” Let her know you want to understand. Each child is individual and all kinds of uncertainties and insecurities are common. Some children try on different identities while they are finding their way, ultimately settling into one as they develop. 

Counseling is an important option for her to learn more about herself and form healthy self-esteem in the process. Look for a counselor who specializes in these issues. Counseling can also be helpful for you, as you try to understand. Sometimes the picture in our head of how life will go, for us and for our children, doesn’t match the current reality. Sharing this journey with a counselor can give you the information you need going forward.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”

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