We’ve all seen Tarzan – the orphaned child raised by apes who spends his whole childhood thinking he’s an ape only to discover that he’s a man. As the movie unfolds we watch him suffer loss, rejection, fear, friendship, hope and love. Through his ups and downs we feel the tension of being caught between a world in which you do not fit but feel you belong and a world in which you do belong but don’t fit.
Abandonment, rejection, hopelessness and helplessness are profound voices in the minds of children who’ve suffered trauma and loss. These are the echoes in their minds that form their identity. During the very critical years when a child should feel the most protected, loved and nurtured these children experience overwhelming loss and upheaval. Instability breeds uncertainty which develops into deep-seated anxiety and fear.
It’s from a place of anxiety and fear that children from hard places often enter our lives. With messages of hopelessness echoing in the recesses of our children’s minds, we can sometimes feel like our words, actions and intentions have little effect. Let me offer a little hope. I’ve seen significant improvement in my daughters behaviors, performance at school and self-confidence by simply changing the words that I speak over them.
Here are 8 important phrases that our children need to hear from us….
“You Are Valuable”
Can you imagine feeling like no one cares about you? Like a throw away? I can’t, but several of my daughters have expressed that they felt that way often in their lives. It’s heartbreaking to me that anyone, much less a child, would ever feel like no one in their life values them. It’s important for me to teach them their infinite value – regardless of how anyone treats them.
If they could say it in their own words, it would be something like this, “I need you to invest in me so that I believe I’m worth something.”
“You Are Capable”
“You can’t handle _________.” “You’re never going to be able to ______.” All of my girls – 100% of them – have come into our lives with messages like this echoing in the inner recesses of their self-identity. I’ve been surprised by the level of incompetence that several of our daughters have felt – believing that they aren’t capable of even the most simple tasks. Teaching our kids that they can make decisions for their lives, handle responsibility and do anything that they set their mind to has been a critical aspect of helping them heal and have confidence.
If they could say it in their own words, it would be something like this, “I need you to show me that I can do it on my own, encourage me to be my best self and tell me that you believe in me.”
“You Are Smart”
Educational gaps big and small are a part of this journey for our kids. The brain has to prioritize its efforts; learning will always take a backseat to survival. As a result, our kids have gaps in their learning because they are survivors. They need someone to tell them that there is a difference between not being smart and having gaps in learning. Gaps can be filled in, education can be acquired – they are smart and can do it!
If they could say it in their own words, it would be something like this, “I need you to pay attention to what I’m good at, then help me to see it too.”
“You Aren’t Damaged”
Our children have come to us with all kinds of labels – RAD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Bi-Polar Disorder, Autism, ADD, ADHD…. the list goes on. I remember sitting on my daughter’s bed and, through tears, hearing her ask the question, “Does this mean that I am never going to be able to love and have relationship with anyone for the rest of my life?” Everything in me wanted to scream, “NO!!!!” That moment changed me and broke my heart. We cannot treat our kids’ labels as a life sentence – regardless of the issue. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves on PTSD, the effects of trauma and the diagnosis that come attached to our kids. We must remove the “damaged” labels from their lives and teach them to live full, productive and successful lives. Their pasts don’t make them weak – they make them strong.
If they could say it in their own words, it would be something like this, “I need you to understand the labels that are attached to me. Gently remove the ones that don’t apply and help me understand how the others make me stronger, better and more resilient.”
“You Aren’t Dispensable”
I can’t imagine growing up thinking that I’m dispensable. Many former foster care children describe this as “feeling like a throwaway.” The reality of their lives is that, at any moment, they’re going to have to move because they’re not good enough for this family, have too many issues for that family or just simply aren’t wanted any longer. What a burden to bear. This point should have probably been point #1 because it’s the single most important thing that we make sure our kids understand – we are your family – and family is forever. Children aren’t used cars waiting to be picked over, loved for a while and then traded in on a better model – they are priceless creations with infinite value. Make sure your children hear you say that you will never give them away. Say it often and mean it.
If they could say it in their own words, it would be something like this, “I need you to know that, more than anything, I want to believe that you’ll never get rid of me. Please understand if it takes time because I’ve heard this before.”
“You Are Normal”
So much about being an orphan and growing up in foster care makes our kids feel abnormal – not having a mom and dad, having a different last name, not being able to complete the family tree project in school, and so much more. It’s important that we help our kids understand that although their experiences are different from others, that doesn’t make them abnormal. Everyone has a different story – all of our experiences are unique and they can either make us stronger or tear us apart, that’s up to us. Helping them to make sense of their story and normalizing behaviors, thoughts and emotions in the context of all they’ve experienced helps them to see that they aren’t alone are going to be okay.
If they could say it in their own words, it would be something like this, “I need you to help me see the most hidden parts of me and teach me that I’m not alone and that I can be normal.”
“You Have a Future”
If we aren’t purposeful, our dialogue with our kids can become wrapped up in the day to day struggles and challenges that we often forget the healing power of hope. One day our kids will be adults, responsible for their own lives, and they need to believe that when that day comes it can be bright, happy and successful. I’ve often told my kids, “I”m not raising the 14 year old that you are today, I’m raising the 25 year old that you’ll one day become.” Our best gift for our children’s future is our belief that they will become amazing adults.
If they could say it in their own words, it would be something like this, “I need you to believe in me and help me see that my future can be something worth looking forward to.”
“You Are Loved”
We all need to feel like there are people in our lives who love and adore us. We should be those people for our children. Regardless of behaviors, regardless of past issues, regardless of current struggles – I love my children. I am proud of the survivors that they are. I’m proud of the young women they are becoming. They each hold a very dear and special place in my heart and I am their biggest fan.
If they could say it in their own words, it would be something like this, “I need you to love me, take delight in who I am and tell me that I’m special to you.”
Check out the Healing Words page for printable and shareable graphics that you can use to share love with your kids.