On an unseasonably warm night in February last year, we sat on our front porch with our children gathered around. Our objective was to assemble a new wagon we had just bought for our new farm (yes, we bought a farm!). The excitement was palpable because this wagon would carry our kids’ toys, pets, neighborhood friends, and a few of their odd inventions.
We laughed together as we tried to stay on track with the assembly directions. We stopped several times to locate critical parts of the wagon, but mostly we had fun on a rare opportunity to be outside in Indiana in the winter without dressing head to toe in thermals. The conversation bounced from topic to topic: What kind of animals will we have on our new farm? Will everyone get their own room? What will the new school be like?
At one point we began talking about adoption (which is not an abnormal conversation since all our children have been adopted). Suddenly, without warning, one of our kids blurted out, “I don’t give a sh— about my birth mom.” Everyone froze. Our other kids glanced quickly at us to see our reaction. We motioned subtly for them to head inside as we sat down on the front steps next to our solemn child. We asked lovingly what was going on, and then we listened. We did the best we could to help him process.
So how do we help our children process these hard, deeply wounding parts of their story? Here’s what we’ve learned to do:
- Give permission. You must give your child permission to feel, express, and share openly their thoughts and deep feelings about their tremendous loss. When you and I have faced deep grieving moments in our lives, we process with friends and family. We must give our kiddos permission to do the same.
- Be transparent and vulnerable. We must allow our children to share openly and not interrupt them or redirect them (yet). A dear friend of ours has been walking through this with her daughter. Recently their therapist told her to let her daughter share her story (the good, bad, and ugly) and to do nothing but listen to everything she shares. No response. No counter. Nothing.
This is a hard thing to do. Why? Because when she says, “I’m worthless,” you want to jump in and say, “Oh no, sweetie, you are worth more than I could ever say!” When she says, “Nobody loves me. How could anyone love me?” you want to interrupt and tell her how much you love her. You need to let her share openly without interruption. There will be a moment when you can say all these loving things in response to her broken heart, but she must be permitted to dump every emotion out first. Your constant presence and your willingness to listen will build her trust in you.
- Be authentic. Please be real with your child. Don’t shame them for their colorful language or display of emotion. Don’t try to soften the blow to your own system. Just listen. As people of faith, we remember that Jesus doesn’t respond with shock to human brokenness. Jesus allowed human beings to grieve deeply in their sorrow. He loved people in a radical way that threatened some religious leaders. He charged into the mess of human existence without flinching. Be silent, listen, learn, give permission, and allow your child to be free with their words and expression.
- Be honest. Your child’s hard storylines may be difficult for you to grasp. You deplore the hardships they’ve faced. Because of this, you may want to soften the blow by skirting around the truth when they ask. Do not do this. Don’t eliminate details, thinking you’re protecting their heart. They are going to find out sometime anyway, especially with access to the internet. Honest questions from your children deserve honest answers.
- Be compassionate. Your compassion is an ointment in the wounds of your child. Your presence with them as they grieve slowly puts the broken pieces of their soul back together.
- Remain open. Be open to having this conversation as much as your children want to, always, for as long as it takes. These hard storylines are embedded deep within them. The images, the memories, the fear, the trauma they’ve gone through may never go away. They may have to learn to live in spite of it, and that may mean they need to continue talking about it with you for a very long time. It can be exhausting, but your willingness to listen is critical.
There’s a reason we use the word “journey” so often in our posts, on our podcast, and in classes we teach. Adoption is a journey, not a destination. Navigating the hard parts of your child’s story with them is a journey. You may never arrive at a place where there is no more pain, no more grief or deep sorrow (for you or your child). Be ready and willing to walk this messy road for as long as it takes.