Tuesday, October 17, 2006

What do I say to My Children?

What are some good ways to talk about abusive or neglectful birthparents with a child adopted through foster care?


Blogger Pattison007 said...

No one can make sense of why people abuse children, and I believe the day a person can is the day they need to be tested for a bed in a room with padded walls.
I think a parent has to play it by ear to what they say. I would ask the child what their take is on everything that happened and go from there. You want to make sure the child doesn't take the blame for him being in foster care. I worked with a 6 year old that would tell you that he doesn't live with his mom because she smokes the pipe with the little rocks in it. I like it when the adoptive families talk to their kids about all that happened to them, but end it with what a wonderful gift they were given by being able to adopt them.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Think Tank Moderator said...

Laura in Washington shares:

There is a great book titled, Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child, by Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler, Chapter 8 is specifically titled, Sharing the Hard Stuff: the Adoptive Parent’s Challenge. It gives pointers on how to share issues of abandonment, prostitution and drugs, physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental illness, lawbreaking, and rape and incest. What I like about this book is that it breaks it down into ages so that you can get ideas on how to share and how much to share based on the age of the child and what they will be able to process.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Think Tank Moderator said...

Gene writes:

The best resource I know is Keefer and Schooler's Telling the Truth to Your Foster or Adopted Child. It covers every possible situation and is geared to different developmental stages. Another resource is Vera Fahlberg's A Child's Journey through Placement. Hope this helps.

12:18 PM  
Blogger jpoultney said...

If at all possible, I would recommend keeping in contact with at least one birth family member. That can be a grandparent or an aunt or uncle, if it can't be the birth parents. They can help to tell the child the truth and they may be more believable then you, when a child is angry and feels that you are not telling them the whole truth.
Answer what they ask as completely and honestly as possible. Children know if youa re keeping something from them.
When looking for a positive point out that they got their beautiful eyes from their mom or maybe their sense of humor. They need to hear the positives too. If all that you have to say about the birth parents is negative, they will begin to feel that they are a bad person because they came from bad people. Find the positive and help your child to see it.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Think Tank Moderator said...

Bart, an adoptive parent and pastor writes:

I think there are several factors that have to be considered. The first factor is the age of your child (both chronologically and developmentally). For example, I answer the question my twenty-year-old son asks much differently than I answer the question my ten-year-old son asks. The second factor is to make sure you understand what your child really wants to know. You have to learn to listen beneath the surface to identify the real issue. If, for example, your child is asking because s/he is afraid that the same behavior could occur again, then words of assurance related to his/her background are necessary ("You had some very difficult times when you were younger, but in our family that's not the way we treat our children"). If they are asking for factual reasons ("Why is it that I was unable to live with my birth parent(s)?") your response will likely be different. A third factor is a personal bias, but I think it is critically important because your child's ability to trust you in the future is at stake: always be honest. I recognize that I can never answer the question: "Why didn't my birthmom care enough about to change her drinking/drugging/friends?" But what I can say, in honesty, is: "Your birth mom did the best she knew how to do, but she was not able to do/be what you needed." Sometimes I have mentioned to my child that his/her birthmom had so many issues herself she was unable to care for him/her. Although it is often very hard for me, I do my best not to villainize birthparents. I make a couple of assumptions: (1) the birthparent did the best s/he could do, and it is not my place to judge their inability; (2) it does not help my relationship with my child to somehow create friction between him/her and his/her birth parents; (3) my children carries the biological heritage of birthparents; for me to attack that heritage is to attack my child, which does not help him/her own the dignity of birth that is rightly theirs

3:00 PM  
Blogger Think Tank Moderator said...

Special Challenges to Open Adoption

by Sue Badeau, 1996

Open Adoption is often promoted as the best and most healthy way to meet the best interests of adopted children by many agencies and adoption proponents. Yet, often the literature in support of open adoption focuses on infant adoptions in which the child is placed voluntarily by birth parents who are relatively capable of making decisions in their child’s best interests. What happens to open adoption when this is not the case? Is open adoption a viable option for children adopted at older ages when there is an early history of abuse, neglect, or parental drug use, incarceration, etc.? If you have an open adoption in one of these situations, how do you prepare for and cope with the unique challenges ahead?
Older Children Know Their History
Children adopted at older ages typically know their history. This knowledge comes in the form of a combination of memories and information that has been shared with them. There are often many gaps or even outright inaccuracies in this information.
In these instances, children may try to fill in the gaps by using their imagination. If they are angry with a social worker or foster parent, or even their adoptive parent, they may decide that they cannot trust or believe what has been told to them about their history and they may construct a totally different version. If they were the victims of abuse or neglect, they may incorporate self-blame, or victimization of the birth parent into their story.
These children are dealing with a puzzle made up of blurred images. They need the help of their adoptive parents and other caring adults in their life to make sense of the puzzle and bring the blurred images into focus.
Truth is Better than Fiction
For both the children who do have memories as described above, as well as for children who had challenging birth histories that they are not able to remember, the truth will be easier to deal with, face and heal from than the fictions, fears and fantasies that will fill the void when the truth is kept from them.
The truth may be especially painful, or confusing, and the child may need professional guidance to help her work through it and eventually come to a place of healing. Certainly all children cannot cope with all the graphic details of their true story at a very early age or stage of their life. The adoptive parents will be best able to sort this out if they work together with adoption professionals and therapists as they create a plan and strategy for sharing difficult information with a child. This plan needs to begin with a foundation of trust and relationship-building between the adoptive parent and the child. The plan needs to be grounded in an understanding of child development in general and this child’s developmental status in particular. At the same time that the child is learning about his heritage, however difficult, he must be receiving extra emotional supports and boosts to his self esteem.
Within this thoughtfully planned, caring environment, children can handle the truth of their own past. But does understanding and knowing the truth necessarily need to include the contact implied in an open adoption?
Reasons for Openness in Adoptions with Challenging Histories
I would argue that even in challenging situations, open adoption can work and can be an important and satisfying aspect of the adopted child’s, and family’s life for the following reasons:
1. People are not all “good” or all “bad.” No matter what the birth history includes, the birth parents are not likely to be totally evil people. Most likely they have talents, skills and other redeeming qualities in their characters and personalities. Allowing the child to know the birth family “for better or for worse” helps them understand that poor decisions lead to problems, but even people who made these choices have good qualities. This can be enormously important as the child struggles to come to terms with
her own identity and sense of self worth.
2. People can change: Sometime birth parents who were not able to parent at a particular stage in their life due to involvement with drugs, alcohol or other challenges are able to make changes in their lives that make an open relationship comfortable and non-threatening. Again, it is helpful for a child to see
that people can change by making better decisions and choices in their life.
3. People sometimes don’t change: On the other hand, without the support of a strong network of family and friends, without motivation to change, without the ability to make good decisions, some
people do not change, Even in these situations, the open relationship can be a positive and healing experience in the child’s own growth and development and can allay rescue fantasies the child may have developed.
4. Children need closure and wholeness: Children who are cut off from contact with their birth family because there was abuse, neglect or other challenges often feel as though they have an open wound that is not allowed to heal. Future contact with the birth family is often necessary to bring about a sense of closure and healing to these wounds.
If you are in or contemplating an open adoption where there are special challenges present, what steps will make the outcome as successful as possible.
Tools for a Successful Open Adoption in Challenging Situations:
1. Use of a life book: If you have created and used a life book with your child, you will have a starting point for openness in communication and for the preparation and “debriefing” times before and after a visit or other contact. The book will be a concrete place to use as a foundation for the issues and feelings that arise.
2. Safety first: Be sure that any plans for contact place a priority on the child’s safety. If
there was a history of abuse, or violent behavior, it may be best to have contact occur at
a neutral and safe location such as the social work office or a public site such as a restaurant. In this way, the contact can occur without compromising the child’s safety.
3. Communicate about feelings: Model for your child and teach your child open communication about a wide range of feelings from happiness and contentment to fear, loneliness, sadness, anger and other scarier feelings. Ask open ended questions that will help your child feel safe and comfortable talking about difficult feelings.
4. Be positive: Look for positive qualities in the birth family that you can appreciate, talk
about and relate to rather than focusing only on the negative.
5. Debrief. Allow a time after any contact for the “fallout” that may occur. Prepare comfort foods, and reduce the distractions at home. Give your child the opportunity to talk, act out or be quietly alone as needed.
6. Use your support system: Develop and use a support system of other adoptive
parents as well as professionals who have experienced similar issues and relationships
and let these people help you keep things in perspective.
7. Be flexible: As circumstances and people change, be willing and able to change your
plans as well. There may be times when letters and phone calls are all that is safe or appropriate, other times when structured visits are OK and other times when more relaxed visits work out just fine. Use your heart and your head to make creative and wise decisions as time goes by.
8. Be in charge: Your child must always know and see that you are their parent and that
you always put their needs, safety and well-being first. Take charge of the situation and
do not let any feelings of ambivalence be passed onto your child.

Open adoptions can and do work even in the most challenging situations. But like any
relationships, they take work. If you believe an open adoption will be best for your child you can get the support you need to find a way to make it work out safely and relatively comfortably for all.

3:03 PM  
Blogger Sbadeau said...

Hi folks - just taking a minute to explain. I did not have time to write a new response to the question, so I sent Claudia a few articles I have written in the past that address the issue. Hence, my "open adoption" article posted below, which really addresses dealing with "challenging" issues. Sorry if it seemed confusing!

2:03 PM  
Blogger michelle said...

We talk about the bad choices people have made as opposed to bad people.

We talk about the resources people have and how they can determine the course of how things happen.

But otherwise we are pretty blunt, she is eight and her stepdad is in prison. She knows what happened to her.

We also keep in touch with as many family members who are out of the circle of abuse as we can to help generate some positive feelings about the birth family and parent.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Think Tank Moderator said...

Deborah Hage remarks:

Honestly! Heartfelt, empathetic honesty. Read it straight form the record.
No sugar coating. Make empathetic statements through out, such as, "Wow,
that must have been hard for you. What a survivor you are." Include
empathetic statements re the abuser such as, "She must have had a terrible
childhood herself/have been very angry/sad/confused to have done such
things. I wonder if she was abused by her mother. I hope she is finding a
way to be happy now." End with some sort of present and future affirmation
such as, "It sure is a good thing you are strong enough to take such
terrible experiences and use them to make you a better person." DEB

There are two kinds of ignorance. One is the ignorance of not knowing.
That is easily remedied by gaining knowledge that was not previously
available. The other kind of ignorance is not knowing what one does not
know. This is far more dangerous as it is not readily remedied. Mark Twain
wrote: "What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. Its what we
know for sure that just ain't so."-----Original Message-----

5:34 AM  

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