Should I Talk About My Child’s Traumatic Past With Them?

Some see it as a taboo topic. Other’s share freely with detail. Still, there’s a debate over whether or not you should talk about your child’s traumatic past, or their current diagnosis, with them, or in front of them. Here’s where we land…

Mother with son

It was a normal summer night a few weeks ago when we sat down to dinner as a family. Actually, I should say, we FINALLY sat down to dinner as a family. Let’s just say, the summer was long, and we were running in at least 5 different directions every day since the end of the previous school year. As much as we filled our minds, and calendars, with lofty ideas of how the summer would play out, it all became delusions of grandeur.

“Oh my gosh, stop eating like that…it’s not like you’re starving!” belted out my daughter, as one of my sons shoveled spaghetti and meatballs onto his spoon, and into his mouth, with barely a breath in between. Spaghetti and meatballs has always been one of his favorite meals. That explained some of the ‘shoveling,’ but not all.

“Why are you talking to him like that?” Kristin asked calmly. My daughter paused and stared in my wife’s direction, searching for an answer. None came.

“Do you know what’s happened to him?” she continued gently, while my son continued to eat. “Do you know what he went through in his early life to cause him to eat like that? He doesn’t do it on purpose.” My daughter nodded as Kristin calmly explained my son’s traumatic past to her. She then softly reminded my son that there’s plenty of food and he wouldn’t go hungry. A little while later, we explained a few things to my daughter. “It’s like you forgetting things repeatedly,” I said. “Do you know why that happens? You’re forgetful but you also went through some pretty hard stuff a long time ago that has affected the way you think at times.”

For the next several minutes, we sat together around our dining room table and talked openly about where she’d come from and the trauma she went through before coming into our care at the age of 3. Understanding washed over her face like a spring rain covering a window pane. It was healthy. It was affirming. And it helped our child know that we were in this fight with her, not against her.

Should We, Or Shouldn’t We?

It’s a conversation we’ve found ourselves in quite often. Many parents believe it’s not a healthy topic of conversation to have with or in front of your children. Others lean on openness and honesty. We lean that way too, but with one big question first….

  • Will an open conversation with my child, about their traumatic past, help them or become a trigger? 

It’s a question only you can answer because you know your kiddos better than anyone. You know what sets them off, what causes anxiety, depression, or rage. Proceed with caution. If you’re unsure how they’ll respond, consider waiting, or approaching the topic (whether they ask you, or you bring it up) in a more general manner than diving straight into the deep end.

With that question above in mind, here are some rules we follow when we’re discussing our child’s diagnosis, or traumatic past, with them, or with them in earshot…

  • RULE #1: Be honest, but cautious with details. Obviously we’re honest and open people. That may go without saying unless you’re new to the site. We are equally honest with our children when they ask questions. We talk about what they went through. But, we proceed with caution when it comes to specifics, keeping in mind their age and stage of life, and silently asking ourselves if they are ready for these kinds of details.
  • RULE #2: Be honest, but respectful of birth parents. We are BIG on showing our birth parents respect, and talking about them with dignity and honor to our children. And we believe you should too, even if they’ve made choices in the past that are less than desirable. Fact is, they’re human. So are you. So are we! In that light, as you are talking honestly, make sure you’re respectful of people who may or may not be present to speak on their behalf.
  • RULE #3: Be honest, but encouraging & forward thinking. We believe with all of our hearts that a person’s past DOES NOT define their future. Period! We believe grace changes all of that. We don’t believe our son’s FASD diagnosis (while shitty and really dark at times), defines who he is today or who he’ll become tomorrow. When we have these open discussions, we always try to leave the conversation with encouragement and a glimpse into a promising future (even if current circumstances don’t seem all that promising). Encouragement, encouragement, encouragement! I can’t say it enough. You must wrap your honesty in a blanket of encouragement. For your kid’s sake, but also yours as their parent!

So, where does that leave us on this topic? Another question…

Whatever Brings Dignity.

At the end of the day, ask yourself a similar question as the one I posed earlier: Am I bringing dignity to my child through the words I say to them, or in front of them?

Do my words encourage and uplift, or are they confusing, discouraging or negative? Listen, we get it- you’re immersed in this. We are too. You’ve been to a billion and 4 therapy appointments and left defeated. You’ve dealt with misunderstanding (or condescending) pediatricians who don’t believe a word you say about the diagnosis your child has. You’ve got a case manager who makes you feel like the enemy….you name it. You’re exhausted. You’re fed up and tired of the games.

That makes you want to cuss. Loudly. Maybe you do. But more than that, it makes you want to dump your truck of emotions. Sometimes that happens in front of your kids. We get it. You’re human. You make mistakes like we do.

But, here’s the kicker….you must pay close attention to the things you say in front of your kids. AND to them about them. Particularly when it comes to where they’ve from, or their diagnosis, or their current struggles. If you’re frustrated, that’s okay. We all get to that point. You must must must find another outlet. A close friend who gets it. A fellow adoptive parent, who’s in the trenches with you. Us. Our team. We’re here to listen.

For your health as a parent, but also your child’s health as they work through the past they’ve come from!

Question: Where do you fall with this? Openness and honesty, or a non-topic of conversation? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Share with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

 

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  • Monica Hall

    We are incredibly direct, open and honest with our children (in love) and it has brought them much freedom and healing. Open communication has taken the shame away (to a point) and opens the door to establishing what happened was wrong and they didn’t deserve it. We do vilify the parents (they both should be in prison) and we have established in therapy that they are not destined to become like their parents. Big stuff.

  • Lisa Wigham

    I can related full to all of this and I am a single parent. I feel like I have become a prisoner in my own home though as I cannot even call to speak to friends as my daughter follows me around the house. I really feel for my own health I need to offload to someone but my daughter is very perceptive and has told me that I must not tell anyone about her problems. I have a good friend and right now my daughter is with her for the weekend to give me a break as my daughter has spent the last 4 nights verbally abusing me and destroying things on the house that are African because I have no right to have anything African in my house. She is struggling with the transracial aspect of adoption. I have tried to do everything to help trespect and acknowledge her cultural background but she seems even more angry that I have done that. I just don’t know what to do. Does anyone have any advice on how to deal with this and how to cope myself with the constant verbal abuse and that she directs all her anger and frustrations onto me including the comment ” you are not my mother!” And trying to control me. I have coped for so long but feel nownibhave been so down trodden that I can’t see reason myself anymore as I am exhausted . Thanks
    Lisa

    • Hi, Lisa. I’m so sorry you are struggling so much. I’m thankful for you that you have this kind of friend to step in for you when you need rest. There is actually a term for this. It’s called “mixed maturity.” We had 2 of our kids evaluated by a neuro psych and he used this term. It’s when academically, they might be on target, mentally, they are years ahead (street smarts) and emotionally very delayed. It’s what trauma has done to their little brains. Have you had your daughter officially diagnosed? This could be a good beginning and at least give you some direction. And keep up with your friend giving you some respite. Maybe it could be a monthly thing so that you have an end in your mind. Take 5 minutes every day for you. And boundaries, boundaries, boundaries with your daughter. Don’t let her push the boundaries. I know it’s easier said than done. You are not alone.