Working with Military Kids using the Oaklander Model

I currently am a mental health consultant for military families, as well as working with children and families in private practice. I work with the children of U.S. military service personnel, as well as doing parent consults and staff training. For the past year I’ve alternated between being away from home on assignment for a few months as a consultant, and then being home for a few weeks or months. From May to December last year, I was gone for 5 1/2 of those seven months. The program I work for helps military families and their children cope with family separations and other stresses of military life. My assignments so far have been in the part of the program that focuses on the children. We do individual parent consults and family sessions that are short term, problem-solving counseling rather than the therapy I’ve been used to doing, and we give lots of support to the staff for their stress.

Mainly what we do with the kids is to be a loving presence. These kids suffer a lot with their parents being gone, moving around, losing friends. We just hang out with kids in the child development centers, school age programs and in the teen centers and give them a chance to talk if they want to talk. I might be doing a drawing with a child, helping them with homework or an art project, and then they just start to talk about their lives. The essence of it is really being present. I’ll share some stories of kids I’ve worked with.

Helen Sherry at home, hiking along a road that runs on top of the San Andreas Fault

I worked with a 4 year old boy in Alaska. He was scribbling really hard with a crayon on the table. The teachers were busy and hadn’t noticed. I went over and said, “If you crayon on the paper you’ll have it forever, you can take it home for your Mom.” He thought that was a good idea. He scribbled furiously with every color over his whole paper. He insisted that I do the same on another paper, giving me the crayons faster and faster. Then he did the other side of the paper. The teacher came and I said, “Look what he’s doing. He made a beautiful design with all of these colors.” His teacher told me later that he had almost no language. He was just grunting and hitting kids when he first came into the class. The drawing transformed his inside feelings into something beautiful because he had someone there who could sit silently and copy what he was doing, showing him it was special, and honoring HIM as someone special. The caregivers, many of whom are military wives, do a great job, but most of the time in a hectic classroom they can’t take that one on one time with a troubled kid. Here is my drawing:

I love helping school age kids with their homework. In Hawaii I helped a 9 year old boy in the after school program with his book report. We read a book together about turtles. I told him I’d just bought a note card of a turtle that looked just like the one in his book. We really

connected and he got very involved, with my support, in his book report. He was always in trouble at school and home because he never did his homework. I was there at the end of the day when his mom came to pick him up, and told her how hard he worked on his book report. She just lit up. She was so used to no one ever having anything nice to say about her kid. He told me later she took him out for ice cream to celebrate! After that, every day he brought me books to read together, and book reports became his ‘thing’ that he and his mom shared. In Hawaii I also worked with a little girl who was very withdrawn. We played games and drew together. Right when I was leaving, the last person I saw was her mother. I told her, “Your daughter is so special, when I think of Hawaii, I will always think of her.” Her mom got tears in her eyes and said she felt that way, but the teachers never saw it. I told her, “She’s a right brain person in left brain world.” Her mom was an officer and a single parent. She was conflicted about her career, knowing that her daughter was suffering and needed more time with her. She kept thanking me for seeing who her daughter really was.

In Germany I worked with a three-year old boy who had terrible problems at school. Everyone cringed when he came in. He hit the other kids and made it clear that he was not going to cooperate with anyone. I hung out with him a lot and just practiced catching him doing something good. It was a challenge at first! What he had gotten before was just lots of feedback on what he was doing wrong. I took the friendship I established with him and got other kids involved in whatever we were doing. Gradually he made friends with a little girl, and it made me smile to see the two of them walking together outside. Through a story about ducks flying away and leaving other ducks behind, he was able to express his grief about his family’s deployment separations and thereby learn to deal with them better. He took a puppet and said, “The duckies fly away.” He zoomed the duck off, but then he zoomed him back to us and said, “Then the duckies come back.” I was there for two months and was able to talk with his dad about how kids don’t have the words to express their fear and anxiety and sadness so they act out.

I’m a sand play therapist. In my practice at home I have a room full of games and things I’ve gathered over the years. When I work with the military kids, I am often there with nothing except myself. I am reminded of Violet’s stories of working with kids in South Africa using just clay from the river and sticks! In Hawaii I went out and bought simple coloring pencils for my family sessions with three children whose parents were divorcing. Somehow, it was enough because those few sessions gave the children a place they could draw and start to talk about how it felt with their family being ripped apart, and their mother could listen and learn to support them.

Another time I worked with an eight-year old girl who kept trying to involve me in breaking the rules to do special art projects with her. She would take off and raid the cabinets when the caregiver wasn’t looking. I kept reminding her of the rules and gently setting boundaries. We ended up making pictures for each other on my last day. She surprised me by writing I love you on her picture for me. All I had been doing was being consistent, saying let’s do this instead in a positive way. That was what she needed instead of the punishments and being made wrong that she was used to at school and home. She got to touch a part of herself that she admired and loved. Simple but powerful.

I feel called to help these kids who give so much. Their parents are doing the best that they can to serve our country, and I feel these kids deserve the kind of special support our program provides. It is hard at times because we’re someone special then we are gone, just as their parents are there and then gone when they’re deployed or just as they lose their friends when they move. We only have a short time together. The goodbyes are hard, but I tell the children I’ve connected with that they will always be in my heart. I know that, just like in some of the case histories Violet shares in her books and her talks, even in that short time together, being present and real with a child can make a difference. We can give them a chance to express difficult emotions and help them learn some new ways to deal with them skillfully. This can make a huge difference in a child’s life as they carry the skills learned with them through the years. We’re helping build resiliency. They so deserve it.

Helen M. Sherry, Ph.D. has been licensed as a Marriage, Family and Child Therapist since 1980, and was part of the original Center for Child and Adolescent Therapy in Hermosa Beach, CA with Violet Oaklander, PhD. Her website is and she can be contacted at

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Helen M. Sherry, Ph.D.

Helen M. Sherry, Ph.D. has been licensed as a Marriage, Family and Child Therapist since 1980, and was part of the original Center for Child and Adolescent Therapy in Hermosa Beach, CA with Violet Oaklander, Ph.D. She completed her doctorate at International College in 1984 with Violet as her mentor teacher. As part of her studies, she worked with Dora Kalff for six months learning Sandplay Therapy in Switzerland, and took coursework at the Jung Institute in Zurich. She then completed the research for her dissertation on Sandplay with Deaf Children while in New Zealand for three months for her wedding to Kiwi Colin Quennell.

In 1997, Helen and Colin moved to Arroyo Grande on the Central Coast of California with their two sons, Colin Edward and Bryan. She was hired by Life Steps Foundation as Children's Services Director at Pasos de Vida, a rehab that reunites mentally ill, chemically dependent women with their children. She continues there part time, while maintaining a full-time private practice and writing for children and teens. Her picture story book to help young children deal with grief, Where Is Heaven, along with excerpts of two of her other children's books, was published in December, 2005, as part of an anthology through Barnes & Noble-- Tales From the Corner, San Luis Obispo, CA: Central Coast Press. Helen is a long-time meditator and is now combining many of the techniques learned with Violet into healing meditation classes in her Arroyo Grande office. Her email address is: