Why Does My Six Year Old Talk Like A Baby Kids and Lifebooks: Tips for Social Workers

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Kids and Lifebooks: Tips for Social Workers

Every child who is adopted from foster care deserves a clear, detailed record of their life before adoption. As a foster child waits for a forever family, a life book can help her make sense of the past and prepare to move forward.

Once a child is placed with a permanent family, life books are a link to the past that can inform and enhance the future. Made with care, life books are an invaluable tool for helping children through difficult life transitions and enabling them to take ownership of their unique stories.

Simply put, a life book is a book that presents the life story of a child. Like other books, life books can contain pictures, artwork, text, and other meaningful memorabilia that convey information about a child’s personal history. What kid doesn’t like to be the star of his own story for an audience of his choosing?

It’s very simple in principle… until you start considering abuse and neglect, multiple placements, loss and grief, complicated legalities and disruptions. How can you translate abuse, drugs and rejection into terms and images suitable for a five-year-old? You may have to learn some new skills, but a well-constructed life book can hold a story of even the deepest loss and pain.

Key Components

When I was a new adoption worker, the experienced writers in my office created a resume template/checklist. All our life books included:

o information about the child’s birth

o a copy of the child’s birth certificate

o birth family information

o why the child entered foster care

o history of different placements

o work page of blessing

To boost children’s self-esteem, our template included a very optimistic birth page. One common line was, “When you were born, the doctors ooohed and aaahed…”

While I believed in all the life book components, I never liked this line. To me, it just didn’t ring true. So many of our children were little drug addicted babies, fighting for their lives. Life books are supposed to be about the truth.

Life Books Truths.

Because biographies are historical documents, it is never okay to lie. Sometimes, however, you may not know much about a particular event — say, the moment the child was born. In such circumstances, you may need to say, “I’ll bet that….”

For example:

I’ll bet your birth mother was happy that he gave birth to such a beautiful baby girl, but maybe she also felt sad and confused because of her problems with bad drugs.

Official documents such as birth certificates and hospital birth records are a great source of factual information, and children love to see the important pieces of paper that validate their existence. Foster children sometimes need to be reminded that they, like everyone else, began life at birth.

Another way to promote life book truth is to involve the child. After all, this is his or her story. Grab some pencils and markers, and find a quiet space. Younger children may enjoy dictating as you write; pretend they are guests on a talk show and interview them. Other children may want to write their own words, and have you turn them into beautiful, printed pages.

Some truths are difficult to explain and accept. But if an event is an important part of the child’s story, include what you can in a developmentally appropriate way. A teenager may be able to understand “sexual abuse” and a birth parent who was “addicted to cocaine and alcohol,” but a younger child may better understand phrases like “bad touching” and “couldn’t stay away from bad drugs.” .”

Passes tell a child that things are so bad that they cannot be shared. Then the child can fill in the blanks with much scarier imaginings and feelings of guilt or shame. Truth leads to healing, and disturbing past events, over time, can fade into “just the way it is.”

Family History

Think about your family for a minute. Which relatives do you take? Whose athleticism matches yours? Whose laughter echoes yours at the same jokes? Whose nose is (for better or worse) stuck on your face?

A large part of our identity comes from being part of the generations that came before us. Children who live with their birth family can see the characteristics they share with relatives. They also hear and relive family stories at dinner, at family gatherings and through shared memories.

Children who are adopted from foster care may have vivid memories of their birth family, but relatively few positive stories or happy shared moments. Once the birth family is out of their lives, they lose important connections.

Can you imagine going through life without meeting anyone who looks like you? Imagine how it feels to go through a significant life event – having a baby or being screened for cancer – without knowing your family medical history?

Life books can help answer questions that keep children, teens, and adults up at night. Adoption social workers often have access to detailed social histories, old medical records and other social workers who once worked with the birth parents. If visits with birth parents are still happening, you have a golden opportunity to gather important facts and pictures.

In my opinion, any chance to get information or pictures should be considered as a last chance. Additional family photos and details about the birth family will be a treasure for the child–and for those who parent the child for the rest of their lives.

And let’s not forget siblings; they have a special magic all their own. A simple page with names, ages, pictures and locations of siblings can do wonders.

Asking Why

One of the hardest and most critical parts of life books is answering the question: Why don’t I live with my birth family?

It is unwise to tell a child that their birth parent was sick (unless it is an honest part of the story). Don’t sick people usually get well? And if mom gets well, shouldn’t the child go back home? And if mom doesn’t get well — is she dead or dying? Why give the child this care?

I tell children that their birth father, birth mother (or other caregiver) had problems growing up and couldn’t take care of themselves. In fact, the caregiver took such poor care of himself that he/she could not possibly care for a child — any child — at that time of his life.

By putting responsibility squarely on the adult, we can help children work through nonsensical thinking evidenced in rhymes like: “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back.” Many children with abuse histories believe they were bad or somehow responsible for being taken from their birth families. As social workers, we must ensure that children do not carry this burden of false guilt throughout life.

I often ask children directly, “Why do you think you don’t live with your birth family?” In 10 minutes, I get more information from this question than most therapists do in 10 sessions. Depending on the circumstances, I will then discuss each child’s specific situation.

Placements

Placements pages are often the simplest. Start with here and now; make a page about the child’s current school, favorite foods, good friends, sports and favorite activities. Get any photos you can. Do the same for past placements in foster homes, group homes or emergency shelters.

If the child is about to enter an adoptive placement, a favorite page can be one remembering when the adoptive parents and child first met. Interview the parents and child separately, and then share their quotes. Now you are accumulating text for the book of life.

Look for school report cards, awards and positive quotes from teachers and foster parents. Rewards and praise can help children feel good about who they are — a feeling that can give them the ego strength to deal with difficult transitions.

Beno’s Work Page

As a social worker, you have probably worked with this child for months, if not years. Just before the child is put up for adoption, take time to write one page for the end of the life book. Talk about the child’s strengths and what you think is special about him or her. Include a funny story or thought.

It is important to give a child permission to move on and be happy. This is a powerful message for years to come.

Doing it

A team approach to life books can be most rewarding. If foster parents can capture a few moments of the child’s life–perhaps capture a picture of the birth family and also share a picture of the foster family–then the book of life has begun. Social workers and therapists can add to the record.

When the child is adopted, carefully transfer the book to the adoptive family. Train adoptive parents to keep the life book somewhere special and safe. If the child wants the book in her room, make a copy of the original for her to keep. The child should decide when the life book comes out and parents should never share the book without the child’s permission.

It may be that the book will become part of adoption anniversary celebrations, help with a school family tree, open the door to conversations about adoption and identity as the child grows older, and help the child cope with the painful loss of his birth family. Also, it can be something that the child can appreciate only after he starts his own family. The life book must be available when the child is ready.

Shortly after I began working on life books for children, I heard back from families whose children had my first simple, typewritten efforts. To my delight, they reported that the life books became more valuable over time. Lifebooks give foster and adopted children crucial, life-affirming information: basic factual data about themselves, as well as an understanding of where they came from and why they have a new family. It also gave them permission to remember and mourn their losses and better bond with their new families. What a gift!

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