Ask AF: How to Ask My Children About Trauma in Their Past?

I know that my children's birth siblings were abused by their birth parents, but my children don't talk about trauma in their earlier lives. How should I talk with them about this?

Q: The children I’m adopting from foster care have older birth siblings in another pre-adoptive home. I spoke with the woman who’s adopting them and she shared some of their history, which includes horrific abuse at the hands of the birth parents. (Some background: The children were separated by the county and are not in contact now because these older children, in turn, used to beat my children.) My children don’t seem to remember much, or, at least, don’t talk about, trauma in their earlier lives. Should I ask them about this? Ask the other mom to ask her kids? I don’t want to hurt my children by dredging up painful memories, but do want to give them the chance to heal. Please give me your honest opinion!

Members of respond:

“Start educating your children about abuse in age-appropriate ways, and, as they get older, the conversation will eventually lead to more specific truths about their history. Take it slow and gradually; let them pace themselves. If they are old enough to ask the question, they are old enough to hear the truth in an age-appropriate way.  Also, during these conversations, never ever say anything negative about anyone in their birth family, no matter how they behaved/how abusive they were. My kids have been with me for more than 10 years now, and were extremely traumatized at the time of placement. They (and I) were allowed to be mad at their birth mom for her actions, but were never allowed to say anything disrespectful about her at any time.”

“This is a sticky situation, isn’t it? All foster/adoptive parents struggle with how the decisions we make now will affect the future. I think you have to think of what’s best for your kids now and let the chips fall where they may. There is plenty of time later for talking to them about ‘the hard truths.’ Our social worker didn’t give us any idea what our children had been through, and the big picture was revealed slowly through bits of info here and there. Also, I wonder whether you have any contact with a biological grandparent or an aunt or uncle? In my experience, they were the ones who had no problems telling us what had gone on in the birth family’s home.”

“Your children remember more than they can vocalize at the moment. We started our daughter on trauma therapy when she was four. The therapist had us write her life story and read it to our daughter. Of course, it was a sanitized version and simply stated that her first dad and his girlfriend hurt and could not care for her. There was also a kidnapping, and that was touched on in a light way. Basically the story skimmed her past in an age-appropriate way and was meant to let her acknowledge what happened. As she gets older and asks questions, we’ll fill in the details. I also wanted to add my opinion that not having any contact with the older siblings might not be your best solution. The older siblings were taught the abuse by the first parents. Perhaps you could plan a visit once a year at a restaurant or another public place with all the adoptive parents. Each set of children will see that their new parents can and will protect them, and the children will be able to connect in a non-abusive way. Even with large age differences, sibling bonds are important and, as their new parents, it’s your jobs to teach all these kids about healthy relationships and to help maintain that bond.”

“I think they remember more than you think. Trauma memories are buried deep. They may not talk about the siblings or bring up the past, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think about it. You could bring it up by saying things like, ‘Your brother was very hurt physically by ____. I don’t know if anything like that happened to you.’ The older kids could be a good resource about what happened, depending on how easily they can talk about it. You can also ask the custodial agency for a review of the case and they may be able to tell you more. Since you are now the parents, you can access old medical records, as well, if you know where they were taken for care. Finally, are your children in therapy for trauma? If so, maybe the therapist can help you talk through these issues.”

“Sometimes the best way to help your children through a difficult past is to create an environment that is conducive for them to talk about their trauma whenever they are ready. This is rough for me because I want to help people right away, but find that simply being available is a great support to my children. I also find that reading certain books or watching certain movies can create an atmosphere for us to ask questions about characters who are experiencing the same emotions or situations as our kids. Talking about characters in media is great because you can talk about the character and the conversation need not be directly about the child.”



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