Let Them Tell Their Story, You Both Need It

When we entered foster care we really weren’t prepared for certain parts of the journey, no one is. You can’t be. One of those areas was learning the kid’s story. It didn’t take us long to figure out that piecing together the child’s history would land somewhere on the spectrum from this child is a complete stranger to I think I know more than I need to. At any rate, you always want to know … you are curious. The truth is, though, sometimes the caseworker’s don’t even know all the details.

Apparently everyone else wants to know, too. We get silly questions like, “were they from a bad situation?” or “were they … you know … abused?” Sometimes that is born of simple curiosity, sometimes out of genuine need. Regardless, the simple fact is, we may not know. Truthfully, if a child is in CPS care at all, they came from a bad situation. It really is something you can assume to be true. They’ve seen some hard places.

What we do know is they need to talk about their past. This is why most children in foster care are in counseling of some sort. They have a lot to deal with. The young ones don’t have the capacity to understand all that is going on around them, and the older ones are often so jaded, they don’t care.

It is a beautiful thing, though, when they finally feel safe enough to tell their story. We’ve learned this isn’t something you sit down to family meeting about, though. It isn’t a question and answer session at intake. This is something they have to do on their own time, under their own circumstances. Our job is to provide an environment conducive to the outpouring; a safe and loving one. They will disclose in their own time, and we’ve found it is often at odd times.

Sometimes it happens at home. Sometimes at school, or church, or a friends house. You never really know when it will happen, or if it will happen at all.

foster care relationship

It happened for us yesterday as we piddled around the house, cleaning out the shop, airing up bike tires, and carving on scrap wood.

When my biological kids were young they often wanted to hang with dad in the yard or on a project and would ramble on and on and on about meaningless stuff. Sometimes I let them ramble on, sometimes I needed a moment of silence and put some breaks on it for a set amount of time.

Honestly, yesterday, this was my first inclination. The senseless rambling was droning on and on, details of insignificant events totally discombobulated and without any recognizable trend or connection. That’s when it hit me. The connection.

It wasn’t a place, a thing, or even a person, per say. It was a feeling. A feeling my son was trying to articulate. I noticed almost every story started with a variant of “my dad used to” or “my mom used to” or “my brothers used to.” That ‘s when I realized he was sharing his story. In his way, on his terms, and with his vocabulary. He was trying to tell me he was once afraid and uncertain, but he isn’t anymore.

So, I listened. More than I usually do, I listened. Parents have a unique ability to drown out the long ubiquitous stories of their children while nodding and feigning interest with the occasional “mmm hmm” or “that’s awesome, buddy.” This time was different. This time he needed to talk. And I needed to hear him.

When a foster child, adoptive child, or any child who has experienced early trauma finally begins to openly share their story and things that happened to or around them, it usually means one thing: they finally feel safe.

Maybe they feel safe for the first time in their lives, even though they’ve been with you for some time. For most foster children, they learn secrecy is their weapon of choice for survival. People can’t beat you for things you don’t tell and no one comes to take you from your home unless they know what is going on, so you don’t talk. You don’t tell. You survive.

Then, one day, they realize they are safe. No one is coming to snatch them away. No one is going to abuse or neglect them, and they start talking. They may tell you things you don’t want to know, but they need to say it. Let them. Feel for them. Hurt for them. Reassure them you love them and so does God. Pray with them.

Then give them new memories. New things to tell people when they are idling scraping a piece of wood in the shop. Things that start with “Man, I loved it when … “ or “You know what I want to do again?”

Today I was reading in Job and seeing him in his despair. He cried out to God and asked why. He didn’t understand why he it seemed God had set his face against him. I can only imagine that children from hard places feel the same despair. As we give them a safe place to live, a warm bed, and good food, we must also give them some space.

Space to talk, to feel, emote, and explain. I promise, it will help you understand why they do what they do, why the feel what they feel, or see the world the way they do. I promise, it will change your heart and make it soft. I also promise it will knit your hearts together in ways I can’t explain. Let it. It’s a beautiful thing.