On an unseasonably warm night in February, we sit on our front porch with our children gathered around. Our objective is to assemble a new wagon we’ve just bought for our new farm (yes, we bought a farm!). There’s excitement in the air as this wagon will fit all of their toys, plus some of the pets, the neighborhood friends, and a few of their odd inventions.
We laugh together…try to stay on track with the assembly directions…stop several times to locate critical parts of the wagon…but mostly, we have fun on a rare instance that we can actually be outside in Indiana in the winter without dressing head to toe in thermals. The conversation bounces from what kind of animals we can have on our new farm, to whether or not everyone gets their own room, to the new school they’ll start attending soon.
At one point we begin talking about adoption (which is not an abnormal conversation since all of our children have been adopted). Suddenly, without warning, one of our kids blurts out, “I don’t give a shit about my birth mom.” Everyone freezes. Our other kids glance quickly at us to see our reaction. We motion subtly for them to head inside as we sit down on the front steps next to our solemn child. We ask lovingly what’s going on, and then, we listen. We do the best we can to help him process.
We’ve had many of these conversations over the years. In the beginning they were uncomfortable, but now, they’re commonplace and we welcome them openly.
It’s a big question that people ask us often. How do we help our children process these hard, deeply wounding, parts of their story? We’re right there in this trench with you. Here’s what we’ve learned to do…
- Permission. You must, must, must give your child permission to feel, express, and share openly their thoughts, feelings, sadness, anger, and deep loss. Allow them to feel the same emotions, and express the same emotions as you do. When you and I have faced deep grieving moments in our life, we process with friends, and family. And we do this freely, unbridled. We have to give our kiddos permission to do the same. When my child muttered, “I don’t give a shit about my birth-mom,” we didn’t correct his language, we barricaded our thoughts and cleared the way for his.
- Transparency and Vulnerability. We must allow our children to share openly, and not interrupt them, or re-direct them (yet). A dear friend of ours has been walking through this with her daughter. Recently their therapist, in the midst of a counseling appointment, 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. Hard thing to do. Why? Because you want to jump in and respond when she says, “I’m worthless,” with, “Oh no sweetie, you have worth!” You want to interrupt and tell her how much you love her when she says, “No body loves me, how could anyone love me?” But you need to let her share openly without interruption. There will be a moment when you can say all of these loving things in response to her broken heart. But she must be permitted to dump every emotion out. She will know that you love her, and that you aren’t going anywhere, simply by your presence and your willingness to listen to her.
- Authenticity. Please, please, please DON’T get super spiritual about this. Don’t over-spiritualize their feelings…or their grief! Don’t spew Christinese at them, or something you heard the preacher say, read on a bumper sticker, or read in a Hallmark card somewhere. Don’t respond to their use of colorful language with some verse from the Bible, that you’re probably taking out of context. Don’t try to soften the blow to your own system by focusing solely on their language, and not on the bigger picture.Jesus Himself doesn’t do this in response to human brokenness. Do you realize this? I think we’ve created an over-Christianized version of Jesus and we allow this to lead us when stuff gets hard. Jesus allowed human beings to grieve, and grieve deeply in their deepest sorrow. And He was wild and dangerous and loved people in a radical way that was considered unsafe to onlookers, especially the Pharisees (religious leaders of that day). That’s why they hated him. They spent all of their time trying to present themselves as a polished, perfect religious specimen of a human being but Jesus turned all of their religiosity upside down with his crazy, deep love of people. He charged into the mess of human existence without flinching. I think when we respond to hard stuff immediately from scripture we do our kiddos an injustice. Not that scripture isn’t healing. It is and it’s healed some of the darkest, wounded, jacked up parts of me. But it becomes more alive and healing than ever when we approach people from our own brokenness in a real and authentic way first (this includes our kids). The greatest representation of Christ that you can have is your ability to be silent and listen, and learn, and give permission, and allow your child to be free with their words and expression. Jesus is not afraid of our honesty, or vulnerability, or realness. We shouldn’t be either.
- Honesty. Your child’s hard storylines are difficult for you to grasp. You love them, you fight for them, and you hate the hell they’ve gone through. Because of this, you have a tendency to want to soften the blow by skirting around the truth when they ask. DON’T. Can I just be blunt for a moment….DON’T eliminate details thinking you’re protecting their heart. They are going to find out at some point anyway. It’s the age of the internet and just about anything is accessible online. They’re going to learn the truth of their past, and their birth family. You need to answer honestly when you’re asked an honest question from your children. Obviously, there is a time and place to be honest- and you must consider whether it’s the appropriate age for them to talk about honest details, but you owe it to your kids to tell the truth.
- Compassion. Your words, your actions, your understanding, your being okay with not being okay, your willingness to give permission, and allow them to be transparent, and your posture means everything. Even though it doesn’t seem like it, it’s ointment in their wound. Your silent compassion when they’re broken, your presence with them as they grieve slowly, over time, puts the broken pieces of their soul back together. And, along with this, compassion toward their birth parents (especially if they have a lot of red in their ledger) is key. As much as you can, model this before them. There’s more to birth parent relationships, and we’ve written several posts about treating birth parents with respect. We believe strongly in this.
- Continuing To Remain Open. Be open to having this conversation as much as your children want to, always, for as long as it takes. REMEMBER- these hard storylines are imbedded deep within them. They are like a show they watch on repeat, or a song that continues to play in their mind. 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 talk about it with you for a very, very long time. It can be exhausting, but your willingness to enter into the mess 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. It’s not a destination. And navigating the hard parts of your child’s story with them, is a journey. You may never arrive to the place where there is no more pain, no more grief, or deep sorrow (for you or your child). You have to know that this is a road you may walk with your child for a long time. The wounds they’ve sustained, the loss they’ve experienced, will live with them forever. Be ready and willing to walk this messy road, for as long as it takes.
Are you in this season with your child currently? How are you finding your way? Share your story with us in the comment section below.