Foster care and adoption are difficult. There will be hard parts to our child’s story. It is inevitable. Our children will see some things in their past as normal and others as difficult. It isn’t for us to decide which parts are difficult for our children. This is why it is so important that our children feel empowered to deal with the hard parts. Here are some things we can do to help:
- Don’t change the story. We must not try to decide the narrative for them. Only our children know the perspective from which they see things. If we are to empower our children to process their own story, we must first let them tell the story.
- Ask questions. Children may not know it’s okay to share the difficult parts of what they are feeling. Ask open-ended questions and allow your child to decide the direction: “If you could ask your birth mom one thing, what would you ask?” Your child may respond by wondering about her favorite candy bar or wondering why she left and didn’t come back. Open-ended questions allow your child to take the conversation in whatever direction they want it to go.
- Listen without interruption. No matter what, allow your child to tell the whole story. This can be so hard when we know the adult version of what happened. Our children may believe their mom is a princess or their dad would never make them do chores. It’s hard not to step in and change the narrative. There is danger in believing the fantasy, but there is more danger in never allowing your child to think the entire scenario through in the first place. They will process reality at some point. Our job is to listen.
On the other hand, our child may share a very dark version of their story. They may say something like, “I’m just worthless. No one came back for me.” This is an even harder narrative not to interrupt. It is still our job to listen to the whole thing. Let your child sit in the hard emotion while you listen and support from the sideline. You cannot take this emotion away by interrupting the story here. Allow your child to tell all of what they are feeling. Prompt with more open-ended questions if necessary, but allow your child to work through the whole feeling.
- Support no matter what. As our children process the hard parts, we can support through our actions, words, and body language. If a child lashes out at us while processing, it’s okay to say, “Please don’t say that word to me,” or “I love you no matter what,” or “I know you are feeing angry.” If our child is crying, it’s okay to let them know you feel sad too, but reassure them that you are strong enough to handle any emotion they are having and that they do not have to hide it from you. You may need to confide in a friend about your own emotions after your child processes something hard, but while your child is processing, this is the time to support no matter what.
- Provide a safe, neutral place to process. I’ll be the first to admit that I want to know everything our children are thinking, talking about, and feeling. That isn’t healthy. Actively seek out a counselor who understands trauma and attachment. Having a neutral counselor will give your children a safe space and empower them to process the hard parts without Mom and Dad present. An adult adoptee can help our children see that their emotions are very normal. A group of friends who have been adopted or spent time in foster care can provide a community where our children can feel like they can let their guard down and talk without always having to explain the backstory.
As caregivers we must remember that our job is to walk with our children, and support them, even when they are facing uphill battles in this world. This is a journey, not a marathon. Be willing to hold space for your child to grieve and process the hard parts of their story, and the difficulties they may face as they grow into adulthood.