Creative Life Story Work graphic

Talking with children and young people about difficult things

Polly Baynes has worked with children and families for 39 years as a residential social worker, local authority social worker, independent chair, children’s guardian and independent social worker. Here, she discusses some of the reasons we can find it hard to talk with children about difficult things and why it is important to be honest and brave.

Most eight year olds are learning about spelling or how to make a jam sandwich. But children who are involved in the care or child protection system often need to understand more complicated things – like suicide or sexual abuse.

Not talking about things doesn’t make them go away

Some children have no conscious memory of life at home but may carry ‘body memories’ of frightening experiences or remember seeing the scars on their father’s arms at family time. Others will have vivid recollections of experiences – like watching their Mum inject heroin – with no words to describe them. Not talking about these events doesn’t make them go away.

As Vera Fahlberg said ‘the very fact that adults hesitate to share with a child information about his or her past implies that it is so bad that the young person won’t be able to cope with it. Whatever the past was, the child has lived through it and survived’.

Adults may hope the child was never aware of what went on at home. But mostly children do know something because they were there or because they have heard snippets of adult conversation. If they can’t ask questions or talk about this, they may blame themselves, think it is still a secret or fill in the gaps with something worse, perhaps imagining prison a bit like this.

Life story work can give a different picture as this example of part of a life story book – see the download at the bottom of the page.

Explaining things early on

Sometimes new families want to wait until a child is older before they explain things. But hearing difficult things about parents for the first time can be tricky for teenagers who are full of hormones and naturally rebellious. It is better to start early so that the child feels as if they have always known. Even if children don’t fully understand some things at first, they have a chance to grow into the explanation. Waiting for children to ask questions can result in a conspiracy of silence, in which young people don’t ask for fear of upsetting the adults.

Talking about birth parents

Carers can worry that talking about birth parents might threaten the bond that they are building but if children find out later that adults hid the truth, they can lose trust and wonder what else they don’t know. ‘Communicative openness’ – accepting children’s thoughts, feelings and questions about their past – helps build closeness. It confirms they are loved with all their history, removes the burden of carrying feelings alone and reassures young people that it is OK to belong to two families. Openness is also the biggest protection against unplanned, secret, potentially risky contact in adolescence.

It is hard for adults to talk about things like drugs or bipolar disorder. We worry about causing upset or getting it wrong; our own feelings can get in the way too – we don’t want to think about what has happened for this little boy. Sometimes people try to be kind by brushing over the truth, saying that Mum or Dad ‘had lots of arguments’ – when the child’s experience was of terrifying fights and police callouts. Even if the child wasn’t there, these softer explanations can make them worried – will they have to move again if their foster carers have a row?

Being brave enough to talk about what happened

Families of origin live in children’s hearts and minds, even if they never speak of them. Children and young people need professionals and carers brave enough to talk about what happened – and try again another day or in a different way if we get this wrong.

Find out more about explaining difficult things

Book your place for Polly’s online Live Classroom on Wednesday 12 June 2024: This training is designed to help you find the words – and pictures – to make explaining these difficult things easier. Find out more and book.

Read Polly’s earlier blog post about answering children and young people’s questions when they come into care.

Example of a Life Story Work Book

About Polly Baynes

Polly Baynes has worked with children and families for 39 years as a residential social worker, local authority social worker, independent chair, children’s guardian and independent social worker.