Through a Child’s Eyes
Even if you’ve made a scrapbook or lifebook for your child, kids this age like to tell their own stories. Here’s how to help.
By Joni S. Mantell, LCSW
Many parents chronicle their child’s story in a scrapbook or lifebook. As a toddler and preschooler, your child probably enjoyed looking at the pictures and hearing you narrate the tale. But by six years old, a child is ready to explore her story at a deeper level, and what she understands and feels about adoption matters more to her than the facts. Creating her own lifebook will help your child express her feelings.
Parent-created lifebooks cannot, by definition, document or articulate a child’s feelings. Lila, age seven, took exception with one of the captions in her lifebook. Looking at the photo of a caregiver handing her to her new mother, Lila said, “I do not look happy, I look scared!” She began to draw some pictures showing how she really felt about her transition from orphanage to home life.
Matt, age seven, has an open adoption. In his lifebook he drew a picture of his mom feeling sad when he kissed his birthmother. This gave his parents a chance to discuss his loyalty conflicts, and to let him know it was fine to have feelings for both of his moms.
Your role in the project is to provide the materials and help with the writing, if necessary, but not to make word choices. Here are some other suggestions:
• Offer a framework. Children may do better when presented with a workbook-like page (“My Birthparents” at the top, blank lines for text, space for a drawing) or a question (“How did you feel when you were with your foster family?”), rather than a blank page.
• Encourage exploration. You can make a page that begins: “I was placed for adoption. Let me tell you what I know.” Claire, age six, said her birthmother “gave her up” because she has asthma; seven-year-old Avery wrote that her birthmom was “mean” for “giving her up.” Despite your use of positive language, your child may not have understood everything you said, or may have formed her own conclusions. You can suggest that she “draw a picture of what you think your birthmother looks like” or ask, “What traits do you think you have in common with your birthparents? With Dad and me?”
• Supply the right materials. Provide stickers, scrapbook embellishments, and colorful markers or pencils. Let your child paste in copies of photos, or draw pictures. Use clear, plastic page protectors and a three-ring binder, so that pages can be reordered or edited later.
This project gives you a chance to hear some meaningful or amusing differences between what you think you have told your child about adoption and what he has actually grasped. And it will pave the way for future discussions in the lifelong work of processing his adoption story.
Psychotherapist JONI S. MANTELL, LCSW, is director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center, in New Jersey and New York. Learn more about the IACC’s lifebook workshops for children at iaccenter.com.
New QuestionsWhile making his lifebook, your child may ask questions or make comments that startle you. Here are several options for responding.
“I was adopted because I have ____.”
“Actually, your birthmother was unable to raise any baby when she had you. It had nothing to do with ____.”
(Children may worry that they are responsible for the separation from their birth family. Reassure your child that this is not the case. You should also make sure she knows that the trait or medical condition she brings up doesn’t diminish her lovability!)
“Did my birthmother have blue eyes?”
“No, you are of Chinese heritage, and people of this heritage have brown eyes, like yours.”
(If your daughter doesn’t have blue eyes, explain something about genetics and heritage.)
“Yes, she probably had beautiful blue eyes, just like you.”
(If your child has blue eyes, explain that she probably inherited this trait from her birthmother.)
“I wish I knew more about my birthmother.”
“I bet she was very pretty and a good runner, like you. What do you think?”
(Invite your child to muse with you about traits she may have inherited.)
“I understand. Not knowing is hard.”
(Your child will appreciate your validating how difficult it is to live without knowing.)
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