How to tell hard stuff to kids
Note – instead of the grammatically correct he/she, I am going to break a grammar rule here and use they/their in order to protect my children’s stories and right to privacy.
Last night sounds of laughter filled my backyard as my children happily pounded nails into an old stump, a favorite pastime. Everyone was having fun, sharing nicely when all of a sudden my little son came running into house, hysterically crying. I’ll bet you can guess what happened. Yep, he smashed his thumb with the hammer. As I sat there holding him on my lap, snuggling him tight, and comforting him, I realized how much this situation relates to a common worry expressed to me by foster and adoptive parents – “How do I tell protect my kids from hurt when they learn the hard parts of their story?”
You see, as adoptive parents this is one of our major fears. I know I spend a lot of time worrying about how exactly I am going to unveil some of the more complicated, hard parts of their story to my child. What exactly is the right way to say it? When is the best time to tell the child? What age will they be ready to hear this? Is it better to just keep it to myself, knowing that it will potentially hurt or confuse my child? Is my child even capable of understanding these concepts that are almost impossible for me as an adult to wrap my head around? And above all, who on earth can help me find these answers? And if that person did exist, can they just give me the exact words to say to make it all ok for my kid? After all, this is a huge responsibility placed on us as foster/adoptive parents, and I certainly DO NOT want to screw this up.
I want my child to own their story, without causing harm or sugar coating any of the important details. It is a delicate place to be in the adoption journey and it seems that no matter which way you move your child might be the one harmed.
I gingerly began dipping my toe in this scary aspect of adoptive parenting about 8 years ago. When my child was 3 years old, I decided it was time to start introducing some of the reasons why they were living with me, and not their first family. I literally had no idea what I was doing. I searched and searched but couldn’t find the script I so badly wanted. So you know what I did? I did my best. I fumbled through, making mistakes and saying a lot of “that’s a good question,” and “I’m not sure.” Over the years, I gained confidence. I won’t say it became easier, because truly it is never easy to have to explain to kids things that cause them distress or pain. But I figured out some things that made it less difficult for both of us.
And over time I realized that my child took their lead from me. When we discussed hard issues like addiction, homelessness, and financial insecurity in simple matter-of-fact tones, they represented other adult issues that my child did not fully understand but they could sense their importance. My child does not really understand taxes either, but they can see their value and importance by how we prioritize those conversations and actions each springtime. Kids do not inherently know the hurtful stigmas we carry. Discussing substance use, mental illness, and criminal activity will not bring gasps from a four year old; they understand it in a concrete way of relating to their own life. A preschooler might understand addiction in association with eating all the ice cream in the freezer and the consequences that come from that behavior. Little ones understand jail and prison as something like a big timeout for grown-ups. They do not bring in the judgement and shame that our culture imposes on life’s serious mistakes. Kids can know these “ugly” parts of their stories without being traumatized.
So how do you go about telling kids about the hard parts of their story? Here are 3 key tips:
#1 – Start early. Adoption experts say that neurotypical adopted children should know their whole story by the age of 12. Let me repeat that – the WHOLE story by 12. I’ll bet the first thought that pops in your head after reading that is “Whoa, no way. My kid’s story has all sorts of stuff in it that is NOT appropriate for a 12-year-old.” Well, if you don’t tell your kid, someone else just might. A quick Google search may turn up all sorts of information that indeed is not appropriate for a 12-year-old. I would much rather be the one discussing this stuff with my children, instead of them sneaking around on the internet and stumbling across some very adult stuff. Think you have your kid’s internet access on super lock down? A kid who is desperate for more information about their adoption is a kid who can figure out all sorts of ways to sneak access the treasure trove of the internet. In our case, we explained to our kid what we knew was out there on the internet, and that if they were interested, we would like to sit down with them while they looked at what was out there, because it is big, heavy, very adult stuff.
How early do you start? There is no magic age where kids will totally understand and accept the information you are giving them. Instead make it a part of regular conversation, just like you talk about other important things, like tricky people. A 3-year-old can have a conversation about good drugs and bad drugs. They can start to understand simplified, age-appropriate concepts of addiction, homelessness, poverty, and neglect. You need to set the foundation of their story early on, and then you continue to build on it as the child’s ability to understand and process their story increases with maturity.
Make the talks casual and low key. I do not recommend sitting the child down, both parents looking at him intently, and saying “Little Jimmy, we have something we need to tell you.” Imagine being a kid, sitting there as your parents drop this bombshell on you, watching your response, with their focus 100% on you. That kind of scenario just makes my blood pressure rise thinking about it.
Instead, my favorite and most successful places to have these tough conversations is in the car. Being in the car with your child naturally allows for easier discussion. Your focus is on the road (as in you are not staring at the kid, waiting for their response), and you can avoid putting your child on the spot with direct eye contact. And please, no bombshell “We have been meaning to talk to you about something.” Figure out some way to bring up whatever topic you are going to discuss gently.
Need to talk about addiction? Start the conversation by saying “Hey, I was wondering if you have heard of something called drugs.” Some of our best conversations have arisen spontaneously, like the day we observed a woman sleeping in the corner of a parking lot. We talked about how she may not have had a home, and thus was making her home in a parking lot. I then steered the conversation to discussing the challenges that might come with having a baby or toddler in that situation. I asked my kids to brainstorm the ways that homelessness might make it very difficult to parent. They came up with that it would be hard to keep the baby safe in a parking lot, nowhere to bathe the baby or cook food to feed the baby. We talked about how not having adequate resources can make it hard to keep babies safe or provide the care all babies need. My kids were able to make parallels to their own stories, opening up the door to discuss and expand upon concepts that had been previously introduced to them. And because we were in the car, no one felt like they were “put on the spot”.
Don’t try to fix it. Remember my son with the smashed finger? I didn’t try to fix it (because there isn’t much to do for a smashed finger) and I didn’t immediately declare that I would be wrapping him in bubble wrap to protect him from any future painful experiences. Instead when he came to me hurting and sad, I responded with snuggles and a warm hug.
Unfortunately, hurt is just part of the human experience. As much as we want to fix everything and make sure our kids are never hurting or sad, we know as parents that isn’t fair to our children. Part of growing up is learning to cope with sadness, hurt and hard things. It’s the same for our adopted kids. I know my gut reaction is to protect my kids from the hard parts of their stories. But that’s not fair to my kids. It is not my job as their parent to edit their story to make it read more like a fairy tale and less like reality “Once upon a time there was a mommy and a daddy who loved each other and their little baby so much but couldn’t take care of their baby. So they chose us to be your parents and we all lived happily ever after.” My duty as an adoptive parent is not to shelter them, or to make their story fit the “happily ever after” narrative. Instead my duty is to sit with my children, to share their hurt and sadness over the hard parts of their stories, to be there to respond with snuggles and warm hugs.
I need to teach my children that they will have to navigate the emotions that come with being an adoptee, and that sometimes it is ok to just sit with the hurt, the sadness, the grief. I want my kids to know that I can’t fix or take away the hard parts of their story but you can bet I will be there with warm hugs, snuggles, and the reassurance that I will be by their side, always ready with a hug.