Helping Your Child Say Goodbye
Strong connections to the past will allow your child to embrace the future.By Kathy Sullivan
Helping your newly adopted child say goodbye to his foster family, birth country, or old neighborhood can open his heart to his forever family. In adopting a waiting child, you are offering a loving family, safe home, and opportunities for happiness. While some children are excited about new possibilities, most are afraid to leave behind what has been familiar. Even the most difficult of environments offer moments of happiness. Leaving these behind can be scary and saddening for a child.
Collecting the Pieces
To say goodbye to the past, children need to take some of it with them. Here are a few ways you can help your child collect mementos of the life he is about to leave.
- Take pictures.Send a disposable camera to your child for taking pictures of his school, teachers, and friends. If the child is too young to operate the camera, ask the social worker or foster parent to help him.
- During a visit, ask the child to show you his favorite places. Use a video recorder or camera to capture the locations and people your child shows you. Not only will this activity produce memorabilia, it will also show the child that you are interested in who he is.
- Collect a few items from the child’s neighborhood or birth country, such as pamphlets from tourist locations or newspaper clippings about local events.
- Fill a photo album or scrapbook with photos and mementos you have collected. Putting the album together can be a special activity for you and your child. Or you may choose to give a completed album to him as a gift.
- Make a collage. This is similar to the memory-keeper above, with the added advantage that it can be framed and hung up. When you identify a piece of your child’s past as special, you help him feel better about himself.
- Give your child an autograph/address book before he moves, so that he can have friends sign it. You may want to use pages from this book for the collage or scrapbook.
Continuing the Connection
Most adoptive children want to keep in contact with friends, relatives, and foster parents after they have settled in their new home. The need for contact with familiar people can be intense at first, but it will subside as your child makes new friends, enjoys new discoveries, and begins building a storehouse of happy memories.
- Include loved ones, old and new, in mealtime grace or bedtime prayers. Allowing a child to lead grace or prayers will show you whom he wants to remember and stay connected to.
- Regular phone calls with loved ones are a good idea when the relationships are positive and supportive.
- Holiday greetings—a handmade valentine, for example, or an annual letter describing the child’s accomplishments—can be sent to loved ones in the birth country or the old neighborhood.
- Put together a photo album or copy a sheet of photographs to send to someone who has been important to the child. Sending a special item to someone from the child’s past shows that you are not afraid to keep the connection alive.
- Use the address book mentioned earlier to help the child send postcards or letters to friends and family.
Opening the Discussion
Children adopted at older ages have complex feelings of grief as well as happiness at having finally found a family. Their feelings can be confusing for the adoptive parent as well as the child. Parents can take action.
- Read about the common emotional responses of children adopted at older ages. This will help you understand the depth and complexity of their feelings. “Books to Check Out” (below) offers some suggestions.
- Forge a positive relationship with your child’s foster mother, social worker, or former guardian when possible. They can be important sources of information about fears and anxieties unique to your child.
- Discuss your child’s homesickness with him without being defensive. The fact that your child may be grieving his former life does not mean that he wants it back. He needs to know that you love all of him, past and present, and that you will help him bear his loss.
By cementing the child’s connections with his past, you are laying groundwork for him to move forward.
- Prior to placement, enlist the child’s urrent guardian to help with the transition. It is important for a child to hear that it is O.K. to move to your family. Children are sensitive about betraying the ones they care about. Knowing that the move is supported by the adults in his life will help a lot.
- Create a transition ceremony. In the foreword to Creating Ceremonies, Sharon Kaplan Roszia writes, “Rituals offer the possibility of healing, clarifying and bridging, as well as the gift of continuity in our lives from birth to old age.” Transition ceremonies can range from scripted exchanges to candle lighting to anything in between. They can be as simple as giving a child two gifts, one representing the life she has known, and the other representing her new family. If circumstances make it impossible to have a ceremony at the foster home or orphanage, it is perfectly fine to have one when you reach your home. Do not be concerned that you have “missed the moment.” It is more important to choose a calm time to have a meaningful ceremony than to mark the exact moment the child transfers into your care.
- Make new memories. Scrapbooks, photo albums, and collages of your child’s new friends, activities, and accomplishments will help him move forward into his new life.
The more secure your child is in the knowledge that she will not be forgotten, that those she leaves behind still care for her, the more confidently she forge new bonds with the family that is waiting to love her.
Kathy Sullivan is the mother of five children, three of whom were adopted out of foster care.
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