I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I received a child life history on a little girl who would soon become our daughter. It was an overwhelming moment. As I sat my kitchen table that day, I was flooded with mixed emotions. This stack of paper represented a moment that we had been praying and dreaming about for months—more information about our daughter. A major step closer to having her home with us. These were the details we had been waiting to find out… What’s she like? What are her hobbies? Who is she? As I dug into the documents, I discovered a detailed history of a little girl who’d been removed from her family years ago. The losses of her journey to our family were overwhelming. Yet what stood out most to me were the pages of documented behaviors, diagnoses and psychological profiles. Depression. Hoarding. Oppositional Defiance. Attachment Issues. ADD. IEP. Cognitive Impairment. An overwhelming list of behaviors, treatments, successes and failures lay before us, and we’re the lucky ones. Many parents don’t have any advance notice of the types of trauma and challenges that might lay ahead of them in this journey.
The purpose of the documents were to help us decide if this child was a fit for our family. It was expected that we would review them, ask questions and make an informed decision about whether or not to proceed with meeting her and ultimately adopting her. After reading them, we were left heartbroken and apprehensive. Thankfully, we took the time to have a serious conversation with her case worker. We knew that in order to proceed, we would have to find a way to discover the real flesh-and-blood child behind the scary images painted in black and white on the pages sitting in front of us.
The Child Life History is a significant part of the foster and adoption process. It should be read with reverence and care. Parents should be educated on a child’s journey, challenges and areas of emotional and physical wellness. Without these documents, we can’t know what to expect or where to begin in the healing journey with our children. But, we must remember, that’s exactly what the documents, diagnosis and profiles are for – so that we can identify what’s going on and provide help. Yet for far too many children that’s not how they’re used. They’re used as lifetime labels to define the child and set expectations for their future.
Too often in foster and adoption circles I hear parents using phrases like these:
“My RAD child….”
“Our ADHD son….”
“Our Oppositional Defiant daughter…”
“Our adopted hoarding & violent son, home 2 years….”
“My trauma child…” (full disclosure, I’ve been guilty of this one myself.)
You get the point. Although words written in black and white are a useful tool in describing a child’s journey to your family, they should never be used to define the totality of their future as a part of your family. It’s dangerous and unfair to allow experiences in which you played no part or had no first hand knowledge of define the identity of a child in your care. I’m very thankful that my rocky pre-teen and teen years weren’t captured on paper by my parents, school officials and therapists. Really thankful!
I’ve sat on this post for months because it’s a difficult and sensitive topic. A few months ago, in preparation for writing it, I conducted an unofficial experiment; I posed a question to several foster care, adoption and parenting groups that I participate in. I asked these well adjusted, successful and mature adults to describe a behavior that they were caught in as a child. Here’s a few responses.
- “I told my mom I was a smoker, on birth control and planning on moving out…. All in one breath.”
- “I purchased a lighter at the gas station then preceded to my friend’s house and we burned leaves in her bedroom. Her mom caught us and kicked me out.”
- “I forged my mom’s signature on a letter from my teacher saying that I had cheated on my spelling test. I had done the forging once before and never got caught.”
- “My mom would let me back the car out of the driveway in the morning to let it warm up. One morning I accidentally hit our fence and the damage was so bad on my dad’s beloved cadillac that the headlight was hanging on with one wire!”
- “I squirted juice in the face of a mentally disabled girl because she was staring at me.”
- “I put my brother’s pet hamster in the microwave because I wanted to see what would happen.”
- “I stole my dad’s credit card out of his wallet and used it to purchase items on the internet.”
- “I would sneak out of the house with my boyfriend and go to parties to get drunk and do … other things.. I was 12.”
- “I would get up in the middle of the night to eat the cookies that were in the cookie jar because I didn’t want my brothers to have them.”
How many labels do you see in these behaviors?
Theft, Deception, Destruction of Property, Vandalism, Defiance, Bullying, Cruelty to Animals, Promiscuity, Drug & Alcohol Use, Attempted Arson
Everyone who answered my question is a good person, with great families. But, what if these labels had been placed on them – in black and white – and followed them around for the rest of their childhood. What would the consequences have been to their futures?
As important as it is that we as foster and adoptive parents have a full picture of the journey that led our children to our family, it is equally as important that we don’t let these snapshots of time in our children’s lives define who they are. They are not the totality of their identity, they are merely snapshots of a bad moment that some well meaning adult decided to write down in black and white.
The purpose of this post isn’t to bash anyone who has struggled with the challenges that complex trauma and abuse create for parents trying to care for children who’ve found themselves as the victims the dark and unfair side of our world. The purpose of this post is to bring some levity to our responsibility as those who’ve been granted the task of creating an environment for healing and wholeness for our children.
All children are precious and all are on loan to us temporarily (whether biological, foster or adopted) because we have a role to play in helping to shape their purpose, destiny and healing. They need us to be stronger than the battles they face. They need us to understand the things that they can’t. They need to trust that we have their best interest at heart, always. Most importantly, someone in their life needs to see the best in them and that someone should be us. We can’t do those things if the lens we see them through is hopeless. In even the most devastating circumstances, there is always hope.
This is a call to foster and adoptive parents – and every parent – please stop labeling kids. They are more than their diagnosis, more than their past mistakes, more than what’s happened to them and more than how they act momentarily. One day they will become adults and our fingerprints will mark their lives forever – what will the legacy of that fingerprint be? Although I’ve made plenty of mistakes as a mom, I pray that the fingerprint I leave on my children’s lives is one that pushes them to always be the best they can be. To see the best in themselves and in others. To know that although their past might be full of heartache, loss and grief it doesn’t define their present or their future. And, to know that they they are precious, loved, adored and worthy of great value – no matter what.
So, here’s what I pray every parent remembers…..
Their diagnosis isn’t an adjective, it’s a noun.
We must stop using the names of disorders, diagnosis and behaviors as an adjective to describe our children. They aren’t our “insert diagnosis” child. They are our precious child who has a challenge related to “insert behavior.” Challenges can be overcome, they are temporary and can be managed and conquered. Adjectives stick. Don’t stick labels on children that they have to spend a lifetime peeling off.
They have a name. Use it or make up a better one.
When talking about them, use their name. And if you can’t for legal or privacy reasons, make up a sweet nickname….. Superman, Princess, Buttercup, Sweet Pea. Using a name and nickname humanizes them and is an intentional reminder that they are a person who is worthy of dignity and not defined by diagnosis.
They aren’t defined by their past any more than you are by yours.
We all have skeletons in our closet. There are things that happened in my childhood that I’m very thankful aren’t written in black and white. There are things that happened in my young adulthood that I’m thankful aren’t documented too! Those things were powerful lessons in my life that taught me something and shaped me, but they DON’T define me. Our children’s pasts don’t define them either. Their stories are private and for them to tell, protect it for them until they can protect it for themselves.
They need us to reframe their identity and give them a foundation for life.
It’s healthy to discuss challenges with our children in age appropriate ways. They need to understand the issues that they face – the effects of trauma, the impact of abuse/neglect and the process of grief. But we must tread lightly and refuse to use fatalistic language. Children with attachment issues can attach – it’s not a life sentence. It’s a long journey of building trust and learning better behaviors, but it’s not the lifelong foundation of their identity. There’s a big difference between, “Attachments are difficult for you to navigate because you don’t have a foundation of trust in your childhood, but you’re learning and growing now just like you should have early on. Look at how much you’ve already grown (insert great examples of success…)” or “You just can’t attach because you were abused as a child.” There’s a major difference between something being difficult and being impossible. Even a person without legs can still navigate from here to there using a wheelchair or prosthetics. Where our children have deficits we have to provide wheelchairs that help them navigate the challenge. Some diagnoses (FAS/Autism, etc) will be lifelong challenges, but just like losing a limb, they don’t have to prevent our kids from living fulfilling, successful and happy lives as adults. We just have to find the right set of tools for their success.
We must find rest for our weary souls.
Parenting children from hard places is hard. It just is. As a parent you can often feel like you’re being held captive by your child’s difficulties and challenges. We all get there. That’s why it’s critically important to find others that you can share your struggles with – find community with people who understand. Be cautious, however, that the community you find is encouraging and uplifting to you – not fatalistic. Just as it’s critical for you to provide a foundation of hope for your kids, there need to be others in your life that give you a foundation of hope for your family.