Discussion Packet

Instant Family (2018) – Discussion Guide

Discussion Guide:

  1. What kinds of things do Lizzie, Juan, and Lita worry about while they are in their foster homes?
    Caregiver Note: Throughout the film there are many specific worries but overall there are some patterns that persist. Lizzie is especially concerned with trusting adults as so many have failed her, getting back to her mother, and finding acceptance with peers and romantic relationships. Juan is terrified of messing up and reacts with apologies and panic every time he accidentally breaks something and is often so distracted by whatever he is thinking about that he engages in these accidents. Lita is shown struggling with boundaries concerning food and toys due to lacking these things before and being afraid of being uprooted from the Wagner home again after connecting with them. All three of the children have various behaviors related to emotions concerning returning to their mother and with having to leave the Wagner home as well that can be explored.
  2. Why did Lizzie do all her mother’s paperwork for her? Why did she want to go back to her mother even though her mother had not done what she needed to take care of the children?
    Caregiver Note: It’s important for caregivers to remember that no matter how maladaptive the relationship that a child has with their biological parent that the biological parent is the very first attachment a child experiences. For this reason children will almost always long for their biological family even when separated for many years. For this reason, and due to being unable to trust her mother to take care of her reunification steps, Lizzie took control of the situation by doing her mother’s paperwork and even speaking for her in court. Caregivers should talk to their children and youth about how it’s okay to care for and love both their biological family and their foster/adoptive family as both have contributed to who they are today. Reassuring a child or youth with both our words and actions as caregivers over time will also help with reducing loyalty conflicts and helping integrate a youth’s sense of identity with their past, present, and future.
  3. How do Lizzie, Juan, and Lita each show they are worried/afraid while they spend time with the Wagners?
    Caregiver Note: Lizzie frequently displays her worry through anger, taking control over any situation she can, and shutting others out. Juan often shows worry through his spacing out, fevered apologies, and panicked questions. Lita shows fear through her own attempts to control and manipulate others in addition to her meltdowns. Over time, they each shift into using their words or reaching to the Wagners for support (i.e. – proximity, hugs, etc.) but easily slide back into negative behaviors when under greater stress later in the film. This is very typical of children who have endured trauma as the behaviors from early on have a purpose that once fulfilled need. When afraid or angry it is very hard for children to use reasoning skills in the prefrontal cortex of the brain with the amygdala and hippocampus in the driver’s seat. For this reason it will take months and years of practice for appropriate coping and communication skills to take root, especially in high stress situations. It is a great first step for children to learn how to connect feelings to behaviors and to practice this often to help build on communication and emotional intelligence skills over time.
  4. What are some ways the Wagners helped Lizzie, Juan, and Lita when they were angry, afraid, and worried?
    Caregiver Note: There are many ways the Wagners reinforced felt safety in consistency in their responses, meeting each child where they were at emotionally, relating to and validating their fears, maintaining structure and routine that the children could count on, and providing a lot of reassurance when events got intense. Caregivers should note that children who have endured trauma will struggle with engaging in communication in the traditional give-and-take or serve-and-return manner they are used to with other children and that children with trauma will require more serves for interaction than they will receive for a long time. This is because children from the child welfare system often lack the social skills of their peers from their experiences in neglectful situations. For this reason a caregiver will need to keep “serving” interactions and help with emotions even when a child doesn’t immediately respond and allow that child to learn how to “return” a response to the interactions.
  5. Why did the children, especially Lizzie, push the Wagners away when the Wagners tried to take care of them?
    Caregiver Note: As we hear in the film, Lizzie and her siblings had been in foster care for over two years and were very much used to being uprooted and shuffled between foster homes… and that’s not even considering how often they may have moved around prior to entering the child welfare system. These children have learned to not get used to their foster homes or get attached lest they experience another painful loss when they move again. For this reason it will take a foster child varying amounts of time to bond with caregivers. Caregivers should be aware that children even within siblings groups will vary in how quickly they may trust or bond with a caregiver and be prepared for this reason.
  6. Why did Lizzie push back so much when the Wagners tried to parent Lita and Juan?
    Caregiver Note: As Karen and Sharon discussed with the Wagners, Lizzie had basically parented Lita and Juan for most of their lives. That’s not to say that Lizzie should continue to parent the siblings, but that does explain her behaviors and defensiveness concerning how the children are treated, in loving affections all the way through forms of discipline. Caregivers should recognize that while an older sibling can be a wealth of information from prior to entering the home, they should not continue to parent the siblings in the caregiver’s home. A caregiver can be respectful of the struggle an older sibling has endured as a caretaker, but it’s important to remember that sense of actual safety vs. felt safety. Would you feel safe in a place where someone said they would take care of you and your siblings if they never stepped up? Nope. Like the Wagners did with Lizzie, caregivers will have a period of testing while they prove that the children are safe until an older sibling feels safe enough to allow a caregiver to parent their siblings.
  7. What did Pete and Ellie do that communicated to the children that they were going to take care of them and that Lizzie, Juan, and Lita were safe? What are some things I can do in the same way that will help you feel safe?
    Caregiver Note: Allow your youth to flesh this out, as some responses may surprise you. Often it is the little everyday actions in structure and routine that give a youth something to rely on as they build trust in the caregiver, but overall this is a great way to allow your youth to express directly what they need by seeing so many examples in the film.
  8. What kinds of things did Lizzie say people thought about fosters and teens? What kinds of things made Lizzie believe those things about herself?
    Caregiver Note: Because of harmful stereotypes in the media and Hollywood foster children (and teens especially) are often depicted as troubled, mean, and unlovable. This stereotype can inadvertently label your child when they are called a “foster child” or by their level of care in the community as, unfortunately, persons in the community will treat a child differently that they believe may be trouble. It is important that caregivers do not use child welfare system terms in relation to their child outside of the child & family team. Lizzie certainly took on these labels as indicated by her expressions given at the adoption picnic.
  9. How did the Wagners help Lizzie to see herself less as a foster and more as her own person?
    Caregiver Note: Though these were not spoken of it was shown that the Wagners encouraged Lizzie’s involvement in extracurricular activities like soccer and showed up in support of her practices and games. The Wagners over time also addressed her needs for anger outlets and care (i.e. – going to the house flip, brushing her hair, etc.) to communicate to her that she was a child worthy of love and care, things that parents should provide for their children regardless of legal status. By promoting normalcy inside and outside the home, along with structure and routine and a lot of care, this allowed Lizzie to trust Pete and Ellie in unique relationships, feel safe, and explore parts of her identity outside of the child welfare system.
  10. ACTIVITY: Grandma Sandy Shirts
    Caregiver Note: For this activity, gather some plain t-shirts and t-shirt paint from your local craft store and head outside for this messy activity on a nice day. For each shirt work together to put the preferred name for each family member on their shirt (i.e. – the name the children call the caregivers, the child’s name, child’s nickname, etc.) and then swap the shirts to decorate the shirts for one another like the shirt Lizzie got for Grandma Sandy. Keep in mind your child’s favorite colors, if they love glitter, and style as you craft their shirt. You can also allow each child to work on their own shirt and explain how the design reflects themselves if swapping shirts is too much for some siblings. Feel free to wear your shirts on a family outing and create some memories. Together.

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NOTE: Inclusion on these lists does not necessarily mean endorsement. Furthermore, with all our resources, we highly recommend you preview them first to determine if there are any trauma triggers that your child may not be ready to handle. Transfiguring Adoption does not intend for its reviewers nor its reviews to be professional, medical or legal advice. These reviews and discussion guides are intended to help parents to better be able to connect and understand their children who come from traumatic backgrounds.

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