I will never forget sitting at the dining room table one night eating dinner a family when one child suddenly and loudly blurted out, “Why do babies come out of the fagenie?” (Pronounced like a genie in a bottle with an f sound and short u sound first) The kids at the table were all different ages, and the youngest were a bit young for “the birds and the bees” conversation. I don’t remember exactly what we said. I think it was something along the lines of first correcting the pronunciation and then stating that we would discuss it after dinner with the questioning child. I do remember feeling a little unprepared and uncomfortable about the impending conversation while inwardly giggling about the mispronunciation. The same child had earlier in the same day asked point blank why people have sex, only the child and I were alone waiting for the doctor to come in for the child’s new patient appointment. I remember then thinking why is this boy I hardly know asking me, a new parent, this question?! It had to be me at the appointment and not Darren. What made me so lucky?! Both conversations ended well and helped the child understand some of life’s important questions.
Most parents undoubtedly have stories about times their kids asked questions that made them squirm. The topics may have been personal, scary, sad, touchy, or in some other way uncomfortable. They may not have felt prepared for the discussion or were unsure what information to share and how to share it on the child’s level of understanding. Dealing with difficult stories and topics comes with the territory as foster and/or adoptive parents. What should you share with your child? How and when should you share information?
- Always Tell Them The Truth
Speaking of genies in a bottle, Genie from Aladdin has some appropriate words on the topic: “You wanna court the little lady? You gotta be a straight shooter, do you got it? Tell her the TRUUUTTH!!” Foster and adopted children have often had enough happen to them in life, so (gently) tell them the truth. If you don’t, they usually can tell. Kids have a way of sensing when adults are not honest with them. As caregivers, we are trying to build a trusting parent/child relationship; the kid(s) need to know that you’ll trust them with the truth, no matter what it looks like. However, sometimes giving it to them straight means telling them the G-rated cliff notes and letting them know that details will be coming to a conversation near them when they have gotten older.
- You Don’t Always Know Everything
Make sure that your kid(s) know that you don’t have all the information about their story. Sometimes they really think we know everything and think we might be holding back information from them. Let them know when you don’t have all the information about their biological family or events in their life before you were part of it.
- What Do You Say About Their Birth Parents?
My wife and I treat this similar to the way a divorced parent has to approach a similar situation; speak as positively as possible. We are a family who believes that all people were made unique and special. This is true of children’s first parents. When we talk with kids, we need to concentrate on their parents’ special positive qualities. If an issue from the past does come up, we should describe it in the context that everyone makes mistakes.
- What About the Foster and Adoptive Parents’ Fears and Feelings?
One fear that many foster and adoptive parents have when talking about birth parents is that the birth parents will always be the hero in the eyes of the child and the foster or adoptive parents will be chopped liver. It all boils down to that is OUR issue, not the child’s. It is perfectly normal for children to love and to a point idolize their parents. The real issue is that after a rough day of helping a child from a hard place, parents have a need to feel loved and wanted. They often feel like their sacrifices in caring for a child who has been traumatized goes unnoticed. Kids from rough starts come to our homes full of needs. Upon arrival at our homes, they can’t be expected to fill any need that an adoptive/foster parent might have. As caregivers, we need to get our needs met in other ways. It is not the responsibility of a child to meet our needs.
- When Do We Tell Kids Information?
This is a big question particularly for families who adopt children as infants or before verbal memory. Many of us have heard stories of people finding out as teens or adults that they were adopted. This information is often not taken well. Professionals now encourage families to include adoption as a normal part of their family’s story from day one with their new child. When a child grows up knowing they are adopted and are able to process that information at each stage of their development, trust between the child and caregiver is not threatened. Our book lists include books that parents can read to their children even beginning in infancy. It is important to gently share information on the child’s level as they ask for it, and even when they don’t ask. That brings me to my next thought…
- What If Kids Do Not Ask Questions?
One thing I have learned from adult adoptees is that often they wanted to ask questions but were afraid of hurting their adoptive or foster parent’s feelings or were afraid that they would respond negatively. You may ask them if they ever wonder about what their birth parents are doing or how they are, what they thought when the child was born, and so on. You may share things you know on important days. For example, if you know why a birth parent chose a certain name for the child, you can mention that on their birthday. You could start a conversation about something you wonder about and see if the child starts to engage in the conversation.
There are times that the above guidelines may not fit every situation you may face. There is also the added trouble of possibly having received information from your child about their biological home and the information being incorrect. We had a young child who told us some stories about the behavior of a group of adults in the biological home. We had to report what the child said to the caseworker, but do we know if it is completely true? Do we lump that information in with the information we have received from caseworkers and official reports, or do we filter it through the lens of knowing the child often told pretend stories and half-truths as if they were true?
If you’re an adoptive or foster parent, you will at some point hold information about your child’s history. You don’t have to give them all the information at once, but you do need to make sure they get the information. When we set aside our feelings, needs, or discomfort and continually allow open dialogue about a child’s history, the child we see us as safe, trustworthy, and approachable.
Let’s Talk This Out:
- What’s one thing that you would like to know about your child(ren)’s past?
- How would you talk about sexual abuse differently with an elementary school child as opposed to a high school student?
- How do you talk about a birth parent giving up rights differently with the same categories of children?
- What’s one question that you hope your child never asks?
- Is there anything about the past your child doesn’t know? What is your plan to tell them?
Your comments help the whole group:
Leave your thoughts, advice and questions on the comments below