Children who are in foster care were removed from abusive or neglectful situations. Their personal histories often involve uncomfortable or painful realities. Explaining where a child has been, where they’re at and where they’re going can be tough as their foster or adoptive parent.
However, children deserve to understand these important parts of their lives, and well-meaning but misguided attempts to protect them from difficult details will only cause more harm. Talking to children in foster care or in foster-adoptive placements about adoption and birth family should be done as early as possible, and often — even in infancy.
Here are some tips to help guide those conversations with the foster child you have adopted or are fostering:
How to Talk to a Foster Child About Adoption as a Foster Parent
A child you have been temporarily fostering may be about to receive the news that his or her birth parents’ legal rights have been permanently terminated. This means that he or she will no longer have the option of reuniting with their biological parents.
As the child’s foster parent, you’ll need to help them understand that the new goal is adoption with a permanent family and what that means. However, if you’re only providing temporary care for this child, he or she may wonder why you can’t adopt them, or ask other tough questions about what’s happening.
You’ll have to explain to your foster child:
- He or she will be unable to return “home”
- How adoption is going to lead to their “new, forever home”
- What the next steps will be in your child’s individual situation
That’s a lot for a child of any age to process. Here are some tips to help you prepare your foster child for adoption:
- Above all, be reassuring
- Be honest (but age-appropriate) about what’s going on, and about their birth family
- Use positive adoption terminology
- Explain what adoption does and does not mean in your child’s situation (i.e. an adoptive family does not replace past caretakers, an adoptive family does mean forever, etc.)
- Talk about adoption with excitement, but remember your foster child is grieving the permanent loss of his or her biological family at the same time
- Talk about adoptive parents with excitement (whether that’s going to be you or another family)
- Remind your child that it’s alright to have conflicting feelings right now — continue to talk with them about what they’re feeling and support them as they cope
- Encourage them to ask questions, and answer them honestly in an age-appropriate manner
- Continue to talk about the upcoming adoption, and support your child through their changing and evolving thoughts and feelings
- Walk them through what will happen next in their individual situation, step-by-step, and check in to see if they have questions about transitioning to adoption
Remember that children comprehend best through repetition. They may not fully understand that their status quo is going to change, so you can help them to prepare by continuing to talk about transitioning from foster care to adoption and what that means in their situation. Consult your foster child’s caseworker for support and advice before you have your first conversation about adoption.
How to Talk to Foster-Adoptive Children About Birth Parents
Telling the truth to your adopted or foster child about what’s going on with their birth parents can sometimes seem counterintuitive if the truth is painful, difficult or complicated. However, hiding that truth is not an option.
Unfortunately, information about birth family or prior placements can sometimes be limited in foster care. Learn everything you can from your foster care agency and your child’s past caretakers. Any information you can provide your child may someday be important to them, even if they’re uninterested in the biological history right now.
Talking to your child about his or her birth parents can be tough — children in foster care are removed from their birth parents due to abuse or neglect, and your child may have conflicting feelings about his or her birth family. However, your child has a right to know important details about his or her biological connections, so learning how to talk to your child about birth family is necessary.
Here are a few tips:
- Use positive terminology, and remind others to do the same
- Talk about birth parents honestly but in an age-appropriate manner as your child matures
- Avoid speaking negatively of birth family, including around other friends or family members, as your child may hear your negative words from someone else’s mouth
- Assume your child’s birth family did the best they could, and your child will pick up on your empathetic attitude
- Support their feelings and interest regarding birth family, and continue to support and comfort them if they learn hurtful details
- Find moments to acknowledge birth family while keeping your child’s individual comfort level in mind (i.e. display a photo of biological family members, include them in prayers, encourage your child to write a letter or draw a picture to them for holidays, etc.)
- If possible in your situation, talk to your child’s caseworker about maintaining safe and healthy connections to biological family members
Having a general attitude of respect toward your child’s birth parents, even if you personally struggle to forgive birth parents for any maltreatment, will send a positive message to your child about themselves.
The Importance of Talking With Children About Their Adoption History
All children who were adopted deserve to know their personal histories. Not all foster or foster-adoptive parents will have a full or detailed history to provide for their child — there may be some unknowns. However, adoptive parents must never withhold whatever information they have about a child’s history, even if some details are difficult.
A child is never “too young” to start hearing about their adoption story. Research has shown that it’s best to begin telling a child his or her adoption story and talking about his or her birth parents as early as possible, even if the child is an infant.
When talking to your child about adoption and birth parents, it’s best to use age-appropriate language and start out with a simplified telling of their story. Then, as they mature and grow in understanding, you can continue to share more specific details, so your child understands nothing is hidden or off limits and that you support their natural need to understand their history.
Reading books together about foster care and adoption can be a good way to introduce topics, ask questions and explore thoughts and feelings. There are a number of books for children of different ages to help continue these ongoing conversations.
Children adopted through foster care often come from backgrounds of neglect, different types of abuse, substance exposure, violence or other difficult circumstances. If you need help talking to your child about painful details of their history, reach out to your caseworker or to an adoption-competent counselor for advice.