Are you raising an adopted, foster, or kinship child who was exposed to drugs or alcohol while their birth mother was pregnant? Many of us parenting kids with prenatal substance exposure grapple with what to tell them about prenatal exposure. Avoiding the topic can contribute to our kids feeling shame, confusion, and even self-blame. Explaining too much about or telling them too soon may confuse them. How do you explain prenatal exposure to your child?
Building Your Child’s Understanding of Prenatal Exposure
Your goal is to explain the complex issues of prenatal exposure to your child so that they can process, heal, and move forward with tools to thrive. Consider our metaphor for building a house to help you understand how to build your child’s understanding.
Prepare the site.
Before a builder starts constructing a new house, they must prepare the ground. The same applies to having these kinds of difficult conversations with your child.
1. Identify your purpose.
Whether or not your child has a confirmed diagnosis of prenatal substance exposure or you strongly suspect that their birth mother used alcohol or drugs while pregnant, think through your “why.” Why do you want or need to tell your child about their birth mother’s pregnancy experience?
Knowledge can empower our kids, especially if they may already feel different from their peers. Knowing about their substance exposure during pregnancy can help our kids understand why they struggle with organizational skills or staying focused.
Understanding the impacts of drugs or alcohol on a developing baby’s brain can empower them to advocate for themselves (eventually, with support and information) to be successful as they grow. Knowing why they struggle can be a tremendous relief from shame and self-blame.
However, it’s also important to know that the empowerment of this knowledge might also carry sadness for your child. You might see the balance of empowerment and sadness shift as your child gains a new understanding and processes their story.
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2. Identify your feelings.
Preparing for these conversations should also include an examination of your personal feelings about prenatal exposure and your child’s birth mother. It’s common to feel some degree of anger and frustration. Why would someone risk their baby’s health by abusing alcohol and drugs?!?
However, remember that most moms don’t want to hurt their babies. Alcoholism, drug abuse, or addiction can happen to anyone and make it hard to make good choices, even during pregnancy.
Can you make room in your mixed-up feelings for empathy for her struggles? Can you extend some grace to her? It will be helpful to grapple with these questions before you talk with your child so that you can model these traits for them.
Build the foundation.
A well-built house starts with a strong foundation. When your child believes they can trust you to care for them, they can believe what you say and feel safe even when they hear this difficult information. Further, they can trust that you will be present with them while they come to terms with what they learn. Having these courageous conversations with your child cannot happen until you have built a foundation of love, safety, and trust with them.
If your child has come to you with a deep mistrust of parental figures, this may take a while. Be patient and focus on laying level, stable groundwork.
1. Create routine and predictability.
Many of our kids come to us from chaotic or neglectful environments. Finding ways to create order, routine, and nurture for your child will strengthen the foundation of trust. Kids who know what to expect and what is expected of them feel safe and confident that you’ve got them and will be with them for all the good and challenging things.
For example, if you know your child’s favorite bedtime blanket needs to be washed, get their permission first. Then on laundry day, invite them to add the detergent or press the buttons to start the machine. Show him that it will be clean and dry by bedtime. Repeat this kind of reassurance in regular and predictable ways with other routines in your home.
2. Give the comfort that works.
When a child has experienced abuse or neglect, they tend to rely on favorites to feel comforted and nurtured. Granting access to their favorite foods, for example, is a way to offer comfort to your child in addition to the comfort of actually eating those foods. So, if you know that peanut butter with strawberry jelly is your child’s comfort food, ensure they can see the extra jars of strawberry jelly you keep.
The point is to do whatever reassures your child that you will meet their needs and wants because you love them. You aren’t spoiling them with these comforts. And even if it feels like you are, doesn’t your child deserve lavish love that tells them they are valued and cherished? We think so!
3. Help your child shine!
What are your child’s strengths or natural talents? Identify them and provide plenty of opportunities to pursue those strengths. Focus on the effort or character traits of perseverance and curiosity, then praise those if the activity isn’t a success. Even when their actions or attempts don’t succeed, don’t let your child feel like a failure.
Encourage trying, succeeding, and failing with your kids to help them learn that prenatal exposure is just one part of their story. Through it, nurture their strengths to build their foundation of confidence — model or even role-play how to shine and how to try again.
Follow the plan.
Every builder has some plan they follow, whether blueprints designed by an architect or a floor plan scribbled on a piece of paper or pictured in their head. Develop a plan for how you will tell your child about their prenatal substance exposure.
1. Take your time laying out the information.
Your plan should include timing the conversations. Be patient. Explaining the complex issues of prenatal exposure cannot happen in one sitting. After all, no house gets completed in a day. Your child’s understanding of prenatal exposure will grow over multiple conversations throughout their life.
2. Timing is everything.
Consider what is happening in your child’s life before discussing their prenatal substance exposure or how it impacts their daily experience. Look for moments together when your child is calm, open, and feeling safe with you.
For example, suppose your foster or kinship child just had an upsetting visit with a birth parent. In that case, it might not be the best time for a conversation about prenatal exposure. When your child is having a meltdown over homework, be present to help them calm down and regulate. Please don’t use this moment to explain why their brain struggles with these math problems.
3. Plan your materials.
Just like a builder makes a materials list before they begin a project, you can gather resources to help you share your child’s story.
Stories using animals or other children can make the information feel less personal and soften the harsh realities of prenatal exposure. There are many books about brain differences and prenatal substance exposure that can help. Here are some titles to get you started:
- A Walk in the Rain With a Brain* is a picture book for young children that celebrates how each person’s brain is unique.
- Sam’s Bear* is a video picture book for young children about substance use during pregnancy and brain development. This link is a video read-aloud version.
- Strawberry and Crackers* is a series of illustrated children’s books about twins with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
- The Way I Am is Different* is about an elementary-age boy with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. It helps children understand their “different” is perfectly okay and that they are not alone.
- Hugs for Teens with FASD: A Book of Encouragement* offers helpful quotes and ideas to help teens and young adults cope with the emotions they may feel due to prenatal exposure.
While you read, make observations or ask open-ended questions to help your child connect the stories to their life.
Get to work!
Sometimes builders must wait for the right weather conditions to build a house. It would be best to think about when is the right time to start these conversations with your child. Are they old enough to understand the way you will tell them? Are they secure enough to believe you and handle challenging information?
Diane Malbin, MSW*, is an expert on prenatal exposure and the parent of a daughter with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). She recommends that parents begin talking with children about their prenatal exposure as early as possible in a developmentally appropriate way. It’s important to reassure your child that they are not the problem. Instead, they have a problem, and this problem has solutions. Include assurances that you will be with them to find those solutions! Your steady, confident reassurances can help prevent frustration and increase understanding and confidence for you both.
Provide a lifetime warranty.
A good builder doesn’t just start the house. He also finishes it, patches nail holes and returns to make repairs. Many offer a warranty that guarantees their work for years to come.
In other words, revisit these conversations about prenatal exposure often throughout your child’s life or however they live in your home. They will need your consistent presence and guarantee of love and support throughout their life as they process this and other challenges. You can help them understand themselves and prepare for adulthood.
Tell us in the comments how you’ve explained prenatal exposure to your kids!
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Image Credits: Nicola Barts; Rodolfo Quirós; Mikael Blomkvist; cottonbro studio