A child's hands drawing

Life story work for adoptive parents

Blue Cabin’s Local Authority Specialist, Joanne Stoddart, shares her experience on how life story work can help adoptive parents support their children throughout their childhood and beyond.

As a parent of a biological child, you will know everything about your child. For example, their pre-natal history to the date and time they were born; why you chose the name you gave your child; what their favourite toys through their early years were; the song they loved to sing and dance to most at age two; their favourite book for you to read to him or her at bedtime; and, the fact they had an admission to hospital for a health concern as a young baby, and so on. As adults we often seek out answers to questions about ourselves such as: “who do I get the shape of my nose from?” Or “can you remember that teddy I had that I loved, who gave it to me?”. As a biological parent you will be able to answer ‘curious’ questions with ease.

As a parent of an adopted child, the reality can be very different.

At the initial point that you are being asked to consider a child, you may have very little information provided to you. As your link with the child progresses, you will be provided with more information in quick succession including written reports about the child, and verbal information shared in various meetings with individuals including your child’s foster-carer, social worker and medical adviser. You will be provided with as much information as possible but this may feel overwhelming at a time when your emotions may be understandably high.

All information that you have about a child that you may progress to adopt will have been provided by other agencies and individuals, very little will have been provided by the child’s birth family. As an adoptive parent this will be challenging as you may not be able to answer your child’s questions as they naturally arise. In my experience as a Local Authority practitioner it is important that you consider a meeting with your child’s birth parent/s if that is being suggested to you. This will provide an opportunity for you to ask questions that will not be included in the formal reports that you have received such as those referenced earlier. Birth parents are highly likely to want you to have information about them, and their families, and this may be your one opportunity to be able to answer your child’s ‘curious’ questions. If a meeting is not possible, you may need to explore writing a letter to the child’s birth parents to try and seek information from them directly as an alternative. In addition, ensuring that you maintain communication with your child’s birth family in line with letterbox or post-adoption contact arrangements, will mean another venue for you to check out life story work type questions your child is likely to ask you as they grow and their understanding matures.

All children placed for adoption must be provided with a life story book. As most children placed for adoption are under five, life story work will not have taken place with them, instead a life story book will have been prepared. You may be interested in reading an earlier blog that I wrote on life story books and later life letters’ for children with a plan of adoption. This blog discusses why life story books are important, and also references relevant legislation for context.

Good quality life story books are invaluable for adoptive parents to support their child in understanding their journey. Although a life story book is prepared for a child and belongs to the child, it is a crucial tool for adoptive parents in supporting their child as they grow and mature. A life story book represents a realistic and honest account of the circumstances surrounding a child’s adoption. Its format needs to be appropriate to the child’s age and understanding and also accessible for use by the child.

Children placed for adoption will have memories of their early years, or memories of feelings and emotions they may struggle to understand. Their memories and feelings may be fractured and muddled, and they may not be able to process these emotions. This is where life story books and life story work become crucial tools for adoptive parents.

In my experience adoptive parents value a child’s life story book. Children placed for adoption usually have a very complex history and to try and navigate through this is very challenging for adults let alone to enable and support a child to understand at various points in their childhood and young adulthood. A life story book helps adoptive parents navigate through this with their child, and is frequently used as a tool in answering those ‘curious’ questions we all have.

A life story book, and ongoing life story work undertaken by a child’s adoptive parents, will help the child process their emotions and experiences over time. Many adoptive parents dismantle their child’s life story book and rebuild it in line with their child’s interests. Many also build on the original book by starting a fresh chapter following the child joining the family. It is important that as an adoptive parent you are satisfied with the quality and content of the life story book provided for your child. If there are gaps in information, you will need to try and understand if that has been omitted in error or whether that information is genuinely not available. Don’t be wary of asking for further information or seeking clarity, and ensure that you work collaboratively with the child’s social worker, as you all want the same outcome for the child.

Whilst it is uncommon for life story work to be undertaken with children once they have been adopted, it is increasingly common for children and their adoptive parents to need further support in the telling and understanding of a child’s history. As a result many families are involved with post adoption support services including specialist therapy.

As an adoptive parent you may find it helpful to explore some of the creative tools that are provided as part of All About Me.

You may also find it useful to explore the following books, which we’ve selected as some of our ‘Book of the Month’ choices:

Our Creative Life Story Work training is open to adoptive parents, as well as foster carers and social workers. See what’s coming up here. You can also access all our Creative Life Story Work training and resources through an individual membership – find all the details here.

About Joanne Stoddart
Joanne Stoddart is a Local Authority Specialist working with both Blue Cabin, she also holds a role in a regional adoption agency. She is an experienced children’s social worker and manager, with almost 25 years’ experience working in Local Authorities. She has held various roles from children’s social worker to head of service, all within statutory children’s services, with significant direct experience of working with care-experienced children and young people. Joanne has been involved in Blue Cabin’s Creative Life Story Work project over the past three years, and has worked closely and collaboratively with Blue Cabin throughout.