Recently, a colleague came to me for advice on addressing a very tough question from a child: Why don’t I live with mommy anymore? With roughly 400,000 children in out-of-home placements in the United States, this is a question that gets asked by hundreds of thousands of children every year.
If you’re a foster parent, you’ve probably answered this question many times. However, if you’re a relative taking custody of a child, this question may not be one you’ve prepared for. Instead of anxiously awaiting the child’s question, I recommend being proactive and facilitating a meaningful discussion with the child about the move.
The first step is to figure out what the child already knows and feels about the situation. This can be done by creating an opportunity for the child to talk openly about the situation with you. Ask the child why they think they came to live with you. Let the child’s response be your guide. It will reveal a lot about his or her current perceptions of the move.
If the child responds that they “don’t know” or “don’t want to talk about it,” do not push for a response. Instead, let the child know that you’re there when he or she is ready to talk or ask questions. You may say something like: “This move must be so confusing for you. I understand that you might not want to talk about it right now, but I want you to know that I am here for you when you would like to talk.”
Children who have been removed from their parents can be cautious about trusting others, so allowing the child the space to talk about the situation on their own terms creates an opportunity for them to build trust with you.
However, if the child is ready to talk when you ask him or her, pay attention to what he or she says about the situation. Is he or she angry, scared or confused, or feeling guilty? Really hearing what the child is telling you likely will reveal the answers to these questions.
Recognize and validate whatever feelings the child may be having. This shows the child that you care and are genuinely interested. If younger children are having a hard time verbalizing their feelings, try having them draw a picture of what they are feeling.
Talking about the reality of the situation is an important part of the conversation. I’m a firm believer in what I call “age-appropriate honesty.” This means telling the child the truth in a way that is both understandable and tolerable for the child.
When the child asks the inevitable questions: Why did I have to leave my parents?; When will I be able to go home?; When will I see my parents again? — provide an answer that is both genuine and appropriate for the child’s age. If there will be visitation, tell the child how often they will visit the parent(s) and where these visits will be.
The most important part of this conversation is to make sure the child knows he or she is not part of the problem. Because the move can be so confusing and emotional for children, they may feel like the move is their fault or that they are being punished for something they did. Most children won’t verbalize these feelings to you, but it doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t there. Be proactive and remind the child of this if you notice any self-blaming.
The child’s case worker or social worker can help you through these important conversations. You don’t have to go through it alone.
Kids Matter, Inc. Talking to children about foster care