How to compile a life story book for an adopted or fostered child

life story booksJoy Rees, author of Life Story Books for Adopted and Fostered Children, gives her advice on how best to compile a life story book for an adopted or fostered child.  Working chronologically backwards rather than forwards, she explains how such a format reinforces the child’s sense of security and promotes attachment.

A Life Story Book tells the story of the child’s life and is often described as an ‘essential tool’ to help the child gain a sense of identity and an understanding of his or her history. This was the emphasis when I wrote the first edition of this book, Life Story Books for Adopted Children, – A Family Friendly Approach, some 10 years ago.

This approach evolved from my work with adoptive families, and from a growing awareness that most of the books I read at that time were simply not ‘fit for purpose’. The language used and the details given about the birth parents’ history was generally not appropriate or helpful. The books were just not child friendly. At best many of them were complex and confusing and it was difficult to follow the child’s story in them. At worse, some books inadvertently fed into the child’s sense of self-blame and shame about their early experiences. Others risked adversely affecting placement stability by impeding the vital claiming and belonging stages of the attachment process.

My approach to life story books had a different prospective.  They aimed to raise self-esteem and to promote trust and attachments with the primary carers, and emphasised the importance of incorporating plenty of positive subliminal messages, i.e. that the child is lovable, loved and valued, before helping him or her to understand and process the early history.

These key messages are reinforced in the updated book, Life Story Books for Adopted and Fostered Children. As the title reflects, the approach has been expanded and contains links to sample books not only for children who are adopted (into a range of different circumstances such as transnational adoption), but also for those in long term foster placements or living with kinship carers or Special Guardians. The suggested format, present – past – present – future, is appropriate for all of these children.

Here are some tips for compiling a life story book:

  • It must to be an honest account but ‘child-friendly’ – social work jargon should be avoided.
  • It should be appealing and colourful and contain scanned photographs and clip-art
  • It can be divided into short sections so that it can be shared in ‘bite-sizes’
  • It should engage the child by gently and playfully inviting him or her into their story
  • Writing in the 3rd person is generally more appropriate for young children
  • Positive subliminal messages should be threaded throughout the story
  • It should be a celebration of the child’s life and leave him or her with a sense of a positive future

Suggested format:

Present:

The book should not start with the child’s birth and the birth family. It should begin with the child now and the current primary attachment figures – adopter, permanent foster carer or Special Guardian. Information should be fun and non-threatening. Include details of child’s hobbies, interest, talents, the current home and family, friends, pets, nursery or school before moving into the child’s early history.

Past:

Begin this section with factual details of the child’s birth: date, place, time, day, weight, length, origins of name, if known. With increased use of social networking sites be wary of including surnames or previous addresses. Consider the risks. This information can be given at a later stage, when then child is considered mature enough to make a more informed decision about tracing and contact.

Introduce the birth mother and birth father if known, and again, if the book is for an adopted child, it is best to use the first names only, with age, description, ethnic origin, religion, health, interests and employment. Details of siblings and any other significant family member would also be included here.

Remember, the book is the story of the child’s life, and not the birth parent’s lives, so do not overwhelm them with too many details. The child should not have to own the birth parents’ troubled history.

There should be an accurate but simple account of events leading to the placement in foster care. The underlying message for the child needs to be that ‘None of this was your fault!’. Give details of foster carers. If a child has gone through more than one placement, provide an explanation for each move, emphasising that this was not because the child was ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’.

A simple account of the decisions made by the social workers, police or judge should be given. There is no need to list all of the conferences and meetings or give dates. This is too confusing for a young child and could detract from their understanding of their story.

Present:

The book should bring the child back to present with meeting their permanent family, and moving into their current home. Include Court Hearings and details of the Care Order, Special Guardianship Order and, if applicable, Adoption Order and Celebratory Hearing. A sense of permanency or ‘the forever family’ could now be reinforced.

But do not end the book here.

Future:

Give the child a sense of a hopeful future. Mentioning family rituals, familiar routines and adding more family photographs are grounding and can strengthen the child’s sense of belonging. Include family plans, perhaps a holiday or the child’s hopes and aspirations. End on a positive note and by reminding the child that wherever they go and whatever they do they will always be loved, are part of this family and will always be in the adopters’ or carers’ thoughts.

Having a sense of one’s history is important, but to enable children to move forward to the positive futures they deserve, this alone is not enough. A sensitively written book can lay the foundation for healthy attachments with the primary carers and can reinforce a sense of belonging and security. It can raise self-esteem and help the child to feel loveable, loved and valued.

These are the aspects that truly make a Life Story Book a powerful and ‘essential tool’.

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