When our kids come to us with complicated or painful backstories, we might feel anxious or overwhelmed to talk with the child about the hard parts of their story. However, avoiding or delaying these conversations leaves too much space for shame and blame to creep into their tender hearts. Similarly, sharing too much too soon can set foundational understandings of themselves awry.
How can we thoughtfully approach our kids’ hard stories in ways that allow them to process, heal and move forward with an authentic understanding of their early lives? It might help to think of building your child’s knowledge of his story using the metaphor of building a house.
**Disclaimer with tongue firmly in cheek: Creating a Family is not staffed with professional contractors or carpenters. We help you build strong families. This metaphor of building actual substantial houses is imperfect and not meant to help you build a real house.**
Start with your foundation.
It will help to have your own good foundation upon which to build because when a child comes to you, her foundation might have some significant gaps. She might be missing walls. As her parent, you must put in the time and effort to become a competent builder. This means you must learn the skills and gather the tools necessary to build your foundation.
- Spend time in self-examination about your expectations and intentions for adoption or foster care.
- Talk with other experienced parents about how they managed expectations and aligned their intentions with reality.
- Consider your attachment history with your family of origin and how it can be balanced or reinforced.
- Identify and process your biases or prejudices about the foster system, birth parents who lose custody, prenatal exposure, alcoholism, addictions, criminals, etc.
Ideally, this attention to your own foundation would have started before bringing the child home in pre-adoptive or foster training. However, it’s never too late to shore up a foundation that needs some good self-work.
Shore up your child’s foundation.
Once you have the child in your home, you will likely identify the areas of need in his foundation. He may come to you in survival mode, with fear and anxiety driving his behaviors. If that is the case, concentrate on reinforcing his foundation with felt-safety cement.
If the child comes to you with a deep mistrust of parental figures, remember what you know of his backstory. Focus on shoring up the beams of “grown-ups can be trustworthy” by being predictable, safe, and consistent in nurturing and caring for him.
If your child struggles to regulate his emotions, add girder beams into your day by co-regulating with him. You can offer him the strength of your own regulation by being present in some of these ways:
- Sit with him – literally and figuratively – in his big feelings.
- Breathe deeply with him, even counting it out for him until he can count it out with you.
- Be a safe, soft space for him to feel all those big feelings.
- Stick around, calming down with him until he feels regulated.
Many of our kids come to us from chaotic or neglectful environments. Find ways to create order, routine, and nurture for the child. For example, if you know his favorite bedtime blanket needs to be washed, get his permission first. Then on laundry day, invite him into the process. Show him that it will be clean and dry by bedtime. Another example for kids of any age is how access to food represents comfort and care. If you know that peanut butter with strawberry jelly is a comforting food, make sure he can see the extra jars of strawberry jelly you keep “just for him.”
Whatever reassures this child that you will meet his needs and wants because you love him, do it! You aren’t spoiling him. And even *if* it feels like you are, this kiddo deserves the lavish love that tells his core self that he is valued and cherished, especially when he is new to your family.
Put up the framework.
As you shore up your child’s foundation, you can also attend to the framework of your child’s understanding of his story. How you frame up your child’s story with him will depend on his cognitive abilities, age, and memory of what he experienced before coming to your home. Framing it up might look like new construction. Or, you might be patching, filling in gaps, and realigning headers and beams of his understanding. Sometimes, we’re going at the framework one wall at a time, and meeting needs as we encounter them while assessing what the other side of the house needs, right?
It doesn’t matter if you will be building a brand-new frame or if you can work with the structure that’s begun already. There are still some basic considerations to guide your work.
Consider his age and stage.
Many of us who are parenting kids from trauma histories can tell you that we often feel like we are parenting several kids in one body. If you feel like that might be the case with your child, then take some time to assess a few things to help you choose the correct language for framing the hard stuff.
- Actual Age: How many years old are they?
- Appearance Age: How old do they appear to others?
- Emotional Age: How old do they act when they handle frustration and emotions?
- Social Age: How old do they act when they relate to and play with their peers?
- Academic Age: Where do they place in their educational levels?
- Life Experience Age: What age are they in their life experiences? (It might help you consider two ages here: one for the kids’ healthy, positive life experiences and one for negative, unhealthy life experiences.)
These ages might be “all over the map” for your child. You can try to average it all out as a guide for how and when to share the hard details in your unique take on “age appropriateness.”
Consider the child’s context.
Even if your child comes to you from an environment of abuse, chaos, or neglect, there are valuable parts of her family culture to consider. Investigate her racial or ethnic context, her family’s religious culture, or even their community culture. In construction, carpenters often make a new, beautiful built-in nook or cubby when renovating a family home. They incorporate parts of the original house to which the homeowners have a strong sentiment or a lovely historical story. (Please remember our disclaimer! This is a loose and imperfect metaphor!)
Think about it. What parts of your child’s backstory can you bring into your framing to bring beauty and value to your whole family? Here are a few examples to get you thinking:
• Does your child’s grandparent have the secret recipe for her favorite food? Can you get them to share it by explaining that you want to spark happy memories? That you are choosing to represent her birth family well?
• Do her birth parents have a particular music style or preference you can add to your family’s playlists?
• Is there a religious practice from your child’s family of origin that will comfort her?
Building a framework for your child to process the hard parts of her story should also include her story’s good and beautiful things. Otherwise, her adoption into your family might lose some of that beauty. It’s worth considering that choosing to frame up both the hard and the beautiful will give her a fuller picture of herself and of the family from which she came.
Consider your family’s values and culture.
When examining your intentions and expectations surrounding adoption, be sure to think through your family’s core values and unique dynamic. That information will help determine how to frame up your conversations.
Are you a family that highly values second chances, forgiveness, or purposeful forward movement? How can you discuss the hard parts of your child’s story that honor those values?
Does your family already have a depth of experience in dealing with addiction issues? Use the lessons you’ve learned to navigate challenging conversations about the nature of the disease in uniquely compassionate ways.
Keep It All Under a Sound Roof
When we are parenting kids with hard stories, it’s easy to be so busy with the business of reframing them up soundly that we forget to check the roof for leaks! For this (imperfect) metaphor, consider the roof to be the overarching condition of your home. Are you taking care of the things that cover your family and protect you from the elements of life?
How are you?
Are you engaging in healthy self-care that nourishes and shores you up? Are you eating well, exercising, or staying physically active with things that you enjoy? Do you take a mind-body-soul approach to your self-care roof? Or are you just slapping shingles over leaks hoping to make it through the next storm?
We highly recommend that you take some time to listen to our recent show on this very topic! It’s full of practical ideas, but even more importantly, it reminds us WHY self-care is so vital.
How’s your marriage/partnership?
Parenting as part of a team can be an added layer of challenge. Both of you bring different expectations, intentions, needs, and experiences to the building process. How are you doing at talking through these issues in healthy, enriching ways? How are you at NOT talking about the kids at all? You know, like out on a date or away for a weekend to do some serious foundation work together? Are you staying connected and balancing each other well in your framework?
For example, it’s not uncommon for one relationship member to focus more on the home’s aesthetics. At the same time, the other is busy with the form and function of the construction process. Determining how to maximize those differences for your growth as a couple is okay. It will benefit the kids to see you working together. Your kids will develop additional layers of trust and security in the stability of your relationship.
It’s Not About “House Beautiful.”
We aren’t discussing building a home worthy of a magazine spread here. This building and framing project isn’t about perfection. It’s about safety. Trust. Confidence. Hope.
No matter how difficult your child’s story might be, you can build the framework from which he can process and find healing. By offering him your strength and nurturing presence, his sure foundation and sturdy walls will shape the adult you know he can become.
Image Credits: HomeSpot HQ; ArmchairBuilder.com; Bryn Pinzgauer; Dave Shafer