My mom taught me not to talk about people behind their back. I appreciate that lesson. It was something that she and my dad not only taught us but something they also modeled.
This lesson served me well when I became a foster and adoptive parent but it didn’t truly sink in until I witnessed the damage that harsh words could cause. I was at a playground with my three young foster children when I overheard a conversation between two other mothers. “Well,” she drew out the word ‘well’ so that it sounded like it had 5 syllables, “You’ll never believe what her mother did.” She gestured to the tiny baby asleep in the stroller.” No wonder these precious children ended up in foster care.” She was telling her friend in a mock whisper. I shouldn’t have been listening in and tried not to hear any more. I could see one of her foster sons playing in the sand a few feet away. He wasn’t looking at her but his posture told me he heard every word. I finally gathered my children and moved quickly to the car. I knew in my gut that the woman hadn’t meant to insult her foster children but she was doing exactly that by bad mouthing their first family.
When I first had a child enter my home because of tragic circumstances, I struggled to process the trauma. I wanted to talk about all that was happening. I wanted to shout to the world my anger over a mother who would hurt a child intentionally and a father who couldn’t seem to remember to show up to the visits. I was filled with rage when I came to court one day and saw them across the room. I had been comforting their child for months. I was the one trying to help the wounds heal and I felt entitled to my anger. That was until their child saw them too, she squeezed my hand and looked up at me with unashamed love and said, “She’s pretty right? We have the same eyes.” Her pride burst forth and my anger melted. My response to this sweet child needed to be just right. If I said “no” in my anger, I would be telling the little girl that she wasn’t valuable either. If I said “yes”? I pondered the question just a moment and realized, if I said “yes, you are beautiful just like your mother,” I wasn’t denying the hurt. I wasn’t lying about the pain. I was simply validating what the child already knew, she was pretty like her momma. I didn’t hesitate further, “You are beautiful, I can see that you have the same eyes, that is so special.”
As foster and adoptive parents we must often walk a fine line of empathy for our child’s hurt and respect for the roots that will always connect them to their first family. We must balance between empathizing with our child over that hurt and also validating the child’s love for and connection with their first family.
We know what not to do! That’s simple, but what should we do?
- Your child will always love their first family. Even if hurt happened there.
- Your child’s identity is tied to their first family. Race, culture and even eye color are all tied to where they have come from.
- Keep in mind that your child may be confused if their parents made a choice that was hurtful or unsafe. They may believe that they have to make the same choices or that the choice was made because of them. This is where we can help guide them. We can reinforce the child’s connections with birth family while reminding the child that each person has ownership over their own choices.
- When your child looks in the mirror they will see the reflection of their first family. It is our job as second parents to validate the beauty in that reflection. We cannot despise the mom and love the daughter, the two will always be connected.
- Be confident in who you are, this is not a competition. You do not have to be better, smarter, stronger, or more good looking than the child’s first parents. You are both important people to the child and you both serve a different role. You never go wrong when you are kind to someone.
- Your child may be angry with his or her first parents. That is ok. Validate the child and his or her emotions. For example, if your child says something like, “I hate my birth dad. He’s a %#@$. He never came back for me.” You can respond with something like. “Wow, it sounds like it hurt a lot when your dad didn’t come to the visits. What do you wish had been different?” It can be tempting to jump in and confide similar dark emotions. Remember this is your child’s parent you are talking about. Respect your child’s emotions and your child’s parent.
Remember this is your child’s parent you are talking about. Respect your child’s emotions and your child’s parent.
- Your kids know how you feel. You cannot talk badly about their first family behind their back and then sugar coat your words in front of your child. They can tell. Be honest with your child and be honest with yourself. If you need to check your attitude toward a birth parent, do that before opening your mouth.
- Assume the best and treat others how you want to be treated. Have you ever messed up? Yeah, me too. I’m grateful that my mistakes haven’t defined me as a person forever. More often than not, when we talk about others the way we would want someone to talk about us, we will bring life to the relationship.
Have you struggled with this aspect of the journey? Perhaps your children have come from some difficult circumstances. How are you keeping it positive? Share with us in the comment section below.