Recently, a colleague of mine 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 their 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 they are 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 them, pay attention to what they say about the situation. Are they angry at mom/day? Are they scared or confused? Are they feeling guilty? Really hearing what the child is telling you will likely reveal the answers to these questions, without them explicitly having to tell you. Recognize and validate whatever feelings the child may be having. This shows the child that you care and are genuinely interested in them. 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 mom/dad, when will I be able to go home, when will I see mom/dad again – provide an answer that is both genuine and appropriate for the child’s age. “Mommy loves you very much and wants to be the best mommy she can be to you. But sometimes, parents need a little help to be the best parents they can be. While mommy is doing this, you’re going to stay with me.” 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 they are 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 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.
And remember, the child’s case worker and/or social worker can help you through these important conversations. You don’t have to go through it alone.
For more tips on answering questions of children in out-of-home placements, click here.
Kids Matter, Inc. “Talking to children about foster care.” Available at: