Tapestry Books provides some excellent resources to help start discussions, and these discussions need to start early. According to Jayne, “Adoptive and foster parents and their children need to become comfortable with the topic very early—when the children are toddlers.”
Of course, the child’s story should be told in a way they can understand and process developmentally—what you would tell a preschool age child is not the same as the discussion you’d have with a ten-year-old. Research supports the idea of a child knowing their entire story by the time they are 12 years old developmentally (meaning, socially and emotionally, not just chronologically). After the age of 12, the longer you wait, the higher the risk of exposing the child to accidental information—then the process of telling becomes more painful and confusing for the child.
With children in foster care, the situation can be a little different. “Be careful,” Jayne advises. “Work closely with the social worker, and if you have a relationship with the biological parent, work together to tell the story. Everybody needs to be on the same page, because they aren’t your children.”
How do I know when my child is ready to hear their story?
Jayne suggests paying attention to the types of questions your child is asking, then be careful to examine and identify the feelings that may be causing the questions. If you are not sharing past a certain point of your child’s story, Jayne encourages you to determine what might be causing your hesitation: Is it about you, as the parent, or the child?
How do I honor my child’s birth parents but remain truthful?
Jayne cautions adoptive and foster parents to create an environment of compassion. The biological parents’ past may not have been of their choosing, and in telling the story, it’s important to consider what happened in their past that has impacted your child’s story.
“Many biological parents have suffered from CUTS: Chronic Unpredictable Toxic Stress,” Jayne explains. “They may not have had a safe adult in their own past and were not able to choose a path other than the one they ended up following.” They then bring that woundedness and trauma into their own children’s lives. A good resource for this topic is the book Hospitious Adoption by James Gritter.
Should I wait until my kids ask questions about their adoption?
“As adults, we should initiate the conversation,” says Jayne. “It’s our job to tell, not their job to ask.”
It’s also important to remember that telling a child’s story is not a one-time thing. Children will process their story and then questions will pop up as they grow and mature. The child’s story is a long-term, ongoing conversation, and parents should be concerned if they haven’t had a conversation with their child about their story for a significant length of time.
“Especially between the ages of 8-12, kids can go underground about their adoption or foster story. But that’s when they are developing their thoughts and beliefs about it, so they actually need to talk more. It’s important for the parent to initiate the conversations at this stage,” Jayne explains.
Be sensitive and attuned to your child’s behaviors as well. Kids of trauma will often use behavior more than words. It’s okay to start a conversation with “Do you worry or have thoughts that you don’t belong to our family or that we will send you back?” because they may be experiencing feelings of shame, guilt and rejection.
Ten Questions Adoptive and Foster Kids Wish They Were Asked (compiled by Jayne)
- I know you have had a lot of losses. Some adopted kids said they thought it all was their fault. Have you ever thought you were responsible for what happened to you? (Addressing sense of guilt)
- Some kids who have come through foster care or from orphanages feel something is wrong with them. Have you ever felt that something was wrong with you because you are/were in foster care or adopted? Would you talk to us about that? (Addressing sense of shame)
- Some adopted kids have said they are embarrassed for anyone to know they are adopted. Have you ever felt embarrassed that you are adopted/in foster care or came from an orphanage? (Addressing sense of shame)
- What would you like to talk about or tell us about what life was like before you came to us? (A child from foster care or from an orphanage)
- Do you ever worry or have thoughts that you don’t belong to our family or that we might “send you back?” When do those thoughts happen? (Addressing fear of rejection)
- How do you feel when we bring up the conversation around your birth family or your adoption?
- Are there times you need to talk about your birth family and past, but are afraid to bring it up?
- Do you ever have difficult memories that you don’t know what to do with?
- Are there things we say in public about your story and life that you wish we wouldn’t? or wish we would say?
- What are some things you wish we knew about you?
Developing a sense of belonging
Developing a sense of belonging can be hard. One adoptive adult told Jayne, “Home is an inside feeling,” meaning it’s not a physical place but more of an emotional place. This is a similar concept to a child’s notion of safety—a child may be in a safe environment, but unless that child feels safe, his or her behavior may not reflect the confidence and comfort that security should bring.
The idea of not feeling connected completely may never totally be filled. The best way to help an adoptive child or child in foster care feel that sense of belonging isn’t dependent only on the adoptive/foster parents. “Adult adoptees often say the greatest sense of belonging in a family was conveyed by the actions, attitudes and acceptance of grandparents and extended family members. This is why it’s so important to have the whole family involved with the relationship.”
“We are still very aware of our adult son’s need for connectedness,” Jayne goes on to say. “We never go more than 48 hours without connecting with him somehow.”
A word of caution, however. If you are fostering, be careful that you don’t use and abuse your family (parents/extended family) as your support system or dumping ground. It may reduce their desire and ability to be “grandparents” after you’ve adopted if they’ve seen or heard about the worst of times during the foster experience.
Helping kids process their story
Parents—adoptive and foster—need to pay attention to their children. Ideally trauma needs to be processed within 72 hours. Respond to their history, let them tell their story. Remember to look for triggers, which are often related to the five senses (taste, sight, touch, smell, and hearing). Create a safe environment for kids to share. And typically, it is the adoptive or foster mom who sets the stage and creates the environment for the family.
Helping kids deal with uncomfortable questions
Sometimes other kids, or even adults, ask questions that an adoptive child or child in foster care is not comfortable answering. As parents, we need to model our response in front of them—take the high road, don’t be offended. WISE Up is a resource that teaches kids to Walk away, say It’s private—we only talk about that at home, Share your story in 2-3 sentences, and Educate others by encouraging them to contact organization who can explain more information about adoption or foster care.
“Foster parents need to have four things,” says Jayne. “Tough skin, a sensitive heart, a mind willing to learn and an incredible sense of humor.” These characteristics will help parents get through a lot of emotionally tricky situations.
What about racial differences and heritage?
Again, the most important thing is to be aware of the differences and embrace the heritage of other cultures. One way to do this would be to find a mentor or life coach—an adult with a similar racial background—who can help your child learn about life from this unique perspective.
How do you encourage attachment in teens?
Jayne suggests that using the five senses will go a long way in helping teens attach and develop a relationship. And their story might be harder to tell—they’ve had more time to have more experiences. “Kids will talk when they are ready—it may be two months or five years or 15 years. Be ready, don’t push…create an authentic environment for them to feel comfortable.”
What about when kids say hurtful things?
Remember that the greatest need for adoptive kids is attachment, and their greatest fear is separation. So if they are feeling unattached or afraid of separation, they will defend themselves, often verbally using words that are the opposite of what they mean. Josh Shipp, who grew up in foster care, says foster and adoptive parents need to learn the art of not taking it personally.
Hospitious Adoption by James Gritter
Jenn Ranter’s podcast episode Trauma: How you can help your child and family survive
W.I.S.E. Up by Marilyn Schoettle
Josh Shipp – The Power of One Caring Adult
The Connected Child by Karyn B. Purvis, David R. Cross, Wendy Lyons Sunshine
Books co-authored by Jayne Schooler:
- Wounded Children, Healing Homes
- Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child
- Parenting in Transracial Adoption: Real Questions, Real Answers
Hopefully, this episode has helped you right where you are on your foster care journey. That’s the goal. If you enjoyed it, will you tell others?
The best way to do that is to rate the podcast on Apple Podcasts and leave us a brief review! Your ratings and reviews help us get this podcast in front of new listeners. Your feedback also lets us know how we can better serve you. Thank you so much!
Meet Our Guest
Jayne Schooler is married to David and they have two adult children, one by adoption through foster care, and are grandparents to four. Both Jayne and David are nationally and internationally recognized as speakers/trainers in the field of adoption and foster care, in their work with Back2Back Ministries, partnering with LAMb International, and Orphan’s Promise.
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