How NOT to do Life Story Work in Adoption

After many months of asking on our side and promising on the Social Worker’s side the day finally came; she brought the complete Life Story Books with her for both boys. I knew about it of course, but the boys were unaware and were very secretive about it and didn’t want me to come into the room. So, I waited outside for the inevitable crying that was sure to follow…

For birth children parents can fill in the gaps, tell stories and show pictures to their children from the time they were babies and through pictures they can help the children create early childhood memories. I know they are not really memories as we wouldn’t remember things under 2 anyways, but with the help of pictures and anecdotes repeated enough times they become ‘real’ to the children. Except if you are adopted… Then you don’t have your birth parents around to help you build these memories. That’s when the Life Story Book becomes invaluable.

Feelingmumyet How not to do Life Story Work in Adoption two boys lying on the floor reading with Social Worker

My boys reading their Life Story Book for the first time…

Life Story Book

I think you can imagine what might be (should be) included in such a book. This article titled ‘Life story books giving adopted children memories of their past‘ describes some of the challenges adopters face when it comes to using these books. Normally it should have photos of their very first days (that is if the SW can convince Birth Mum to give some), pictures of where they lived, some people who were important to them. There should be a section about Birth Mum, Birth Dad, some nice things they said or did and the children’s favourite things, toys, food…etc. There should also be a section that describes why they could not take care of the children, how the SW was concerned and why they have asked a judge to let the SW find the children a new mummy and daddy. I would also put in a part that explains it is normal for some children not to live with their birth parents…

The second big section should include life with the Foster Carer(s). During this time many children continue to have some kind of Contact with their birth family and hopefully there are some pictures to document these supposedly happy moments. It is common to move to a different city so – especially if the children are older like ours – pictures of friends, school, class uniforms and class photos should be included, too. Then the section about a Family Finder looking for the new family… with the good news that the new family is found, then Introductions, first meetings and moving in. Perhaps some photos of the ‘Happy Ever After’ with new mummy and daddy and BOOM, it’s done.

How to start Life Story Work?

I have spoken to my SW friends and also sought wisdom on Twitter about what to expect. ‘Not much when it comes to quality‘ was one comment. Somebody else said ‘Done well, it should be a non traumatic process really. Good practices will go slow, let children lead and let them take the narrative. A good practitioner would also not be mentioning scary names in a first session and would have mummy in the session too!’ I suppose from this last comment you can deduct the fact that I wasn’t invited to attend the session! 😦 (PS I am still livid about this!)

It is also good practice to show the book first to the adopters…

SW practitioners also agree that depending on how much a child can manage in 1 session, it should be limited to a few pages (life stages) per session. Well, you guessed it! Our SW just rushed through the entire bloody book for both boys in 2 hours! (more on this later)

The whole point of this is to help them process all the bad things that happened to them! Sufficient time should be allocated to each life event so the children have time to take it all in; to cry and grieve about the terrible facts they hear, to understand the circumstances, to help them understand it was NOT their fault that their first family couldn’t look after them properly. It is expected that lots of memories will rush to the surface with each mention of an old house, an old name, and old picture… Trauma that is not dealt with can and will cause distress again and again. I am realistic in knowing it is a deeply distressing experience for any child and tears, sadness and some level of dysregulation is ‘normal’, but ultimately this shouldn’t be a traumatic event!

How did it go for my boys?

Well… in short: not well! On the surface they were happy to see some pictures and have an entire book just about them. But right under the surface their distress grew minute by minute. I wasn’t in the room when they started. I was sitting in the kitchen listening. Very early on I heard 8 crying. His younger brother was puzzled and asked SW why was he crying. Then I heard the SW say ‘he is  just upset… it’s ok… oh, look at this picture’. I was so upset that I couldn’t be there to comfort my son! Luckily he came out to show me a picture of him as a baby and invited me in.

That was the first time I saw the complete Life Story Book. On the outside it looked lovely! Lots of pictures, drawings, funny font, stickers, glitter…etc. But on closer inspection it was a different story! I had quite a few problems with it, it’s hard to know which one bothers me the most…

The entire album has 30 pages. 26 of them are filled by the Social Worker. What’s shocking is that out of the 26 pages, 10 pages are filled with things I HAVE SENT to her. Pictures I took, memories hubby and I created with the boys!!! The book should have had information up till the placement with plenty of room left for us to select pictures and memories together, as a family of four!

I have seen and read a few Life Story Books plus I know pretty much everything there is to know about the boys’ past so I had a general idea of what will be included. Since we do indirect contact (letters) with Birth Mum with photos, I am not phased anymore by seeing pictures of her. For the boys, however, it’s an entirely different question!

For 7 it was great to see pictures of her, but when he found out one of the pictures were taken VERY recently he was shocked. He thought his birth mum was dead! In a way I can understand; in his head that’s how he made sense of the fact that he was not living with her anymore. To him, she was dead! So naturally it was upsetting for him.

For 8 it was a different experience. While he loved seeing photos of himself as a baby, seeing his younger self with that woman brought back many traumatic memories. He was shaking, lips trembling and suddenly he was transported back to the time those pictures were taken. It was heartbreaking to see it! SW was just looking at him without a word! I enveloped him into the biggest hug I could muster and my usual mantra kicked in (‘you are safe, you are loved, mummy is here, everything is ok’) Eventually he settled so the SW said ‘so, about this next picture…’

There were some very specific issues that I don’t want to discuss here, sufficient to say I thought it was very poor judgement on SW’s side to include some stuff. When I raised it afterwards she told me off saying ‘I can’t just pick and choose what I put in, if it’s part of his story’. True, in principle I agree. However there are different ways of saying things and more information is not always better, just the opposite!

When we got to the part about their several Foster Carers 7 was conflicted. He wanted to say ‘oh, I love them‘ but he caught himself mid-sentence and looked at me with worry in his eyes! He didn’t feel comfortable saying in front of me how he felt! SW was again quiet. I had to reassure him that ‘it’s OK to love more than 1 adult at the same time, I am not upset, I know you have a big heart and there is room for more than just me and daddy in there’.

Then we got to this extra part that most adopters don’t have: discussing their first adoption that ended with a nasty adoption breakdown. Again, 8’s brain was flooded with terrible memories and another traumatic distressed period followed. By this time I thought we had waaaaay too much for one day, but SW kept on pressing ‘here comes the good part’.

The next page was about their last Foster Carer and it included the very first photo we took together in her home when we had the first day of Introductions. It was indeed, a happy memory for everybody. According to the SW the last 10 pages were there to show them ‘their sad start had a happy ending’ and ‘look how many happy memories you have already made with mummy and daddy’. Again, I do not disagree with this statement per se, but this should have been our job to do together!

During the 2 hours she spent in our house I had the nagging feeling that she just wanted to rush through the whole book and treated this as nothing but a tick-box exercise. On one hand I understand she didn’t want to ‘linger’on the horrible events of their early years, but that is supposed to be the whole point of the Life Story Work and in my humble opinion that should be the very reason why you can’t do this in one go!

By rushing through the book she minimised the impact of those traumatic memories and didn’t give sufficient time for my sons to grieve. I feel that my boys are now not healed, just the opposite! She left them re-traumatised and as usual, we, adoptive parents have to pick up the pieces and live with the ramifications!

And to top it off, she is now off for the next 2 weeks, which I frankly find totally unacceptable. Good practice says she should be available for the coming days to come back, spend more time with them and help them process it and taking it all in. I believe it was poor judgement on her side to do this piece of work right before her holiday! She delayed bringing the Books several times, surely it could have waited 2 more weeks in order to come back again very soon to continue with helping the children make sense of their past should they need it – and clearly they DO need it!

Today on the phone she kept on saying to me ‘you need to keep reassuring the boys‘ , but I can’t reassure them if they feel they can’t tell me every part of their past! I can’t continue looking at their Life Story Book with them if it causes them massive distress even just to hear certain names! Baaaah, I feel so helpless!

Needless to say, the boys had a difficult night last night with Night terrors (worse than usual) and presented with very challenging behaviours in school today…

I contacted SW’s manager, not to get her into trouble, but I recommended more training for her to avoid another family going through the same traumatic experience with disastrous outcome. I bet it won’t help our working relationships…

Feelingmumyet How not to do Life Story Work in Adoption

54 thoughts on “How NOT to do Life Story Work in Adoption

  1. thommcox says:

    So sorry to hear the boys have been a little upset by this. I know first hand about the life story book, how important it is and unfortunately how much attention doesn’t seem to be paid to it by LAs. Hope you’re all ok and you will ride through this. Sending love x


    • feelingmumyet says:

      Hello and Welcome. Thanks, yes, I fully agree, it’s really upsetting as it would help kids settle, get over the past and move on with their life free from the trauma of the past… Thanks for reading and commenting!


  2. Gorgeousgsmama says:

    I genuinely didn’t know about this side to adoption. It really doesn’t sound like the SW handled it very well at all. I hope you can get some additional support and advice to ease your boys trauma.

    Thank you for sharing x


    • feelingmumyet says:

      Hello again! Thanks. Yes, this is a very important part of adoption if we want our children to make sense of their early life and heal and move on from it. I hope too that we get more help with it! Thanks for reading and commenting

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gorgeousgsmama says:

        You’re welcome. My hubbies uncle actually adopted two boys from babies who are now in their teens. I’ve learned more about the process from your blog than they have shared with me. It’s something myself and hubs have never ruled out so we have always been interested in the process from a real person’s perspective. Thanks for sharing. x

        Liked by 1 person

  3. SallyC says:

    That sounds appalling. Why is it so hard to trust we know what is right. I have learnt (the hard way) that actually social workers are not the experts in dealing with adopted children. They may have read the books and passed the exams and even claim to understand, but the fact that this was done to get it over with shows a shocking disregard for what is best for them. And for you to not be in the room is frankly bizarre, this is your family story as much as theirs (and you have to live every day with the consequences).

    Ours took six years to be completed, and actually looking back I don’t think that was wrong. When we did get them, they were then in a cupboard for two years and left until the children asked about them. We then did, exactly as you stated, a couple of pages at a time, or a quick look through the pictures and came back to it when THEY were ready.

    I would put them away somewhere and tell the boys they are there and safe, but in this family we are kind and love each other so lets spend our time doing that.


    • feelingmumyet says:

      Hello Sally and welcome to our neck of the woods. Thanks for your deep and insightful comments! Sadly I can’t take it away now, they treat it as super precious treasure. I found them both looking at the pictures constantly, I don’t think they do read the heavy bits though! 8 wanted to take the book to school to show everybody, I get he is so excited about some parts, but I fear for him and his classmates not getting it so we keep saying no. 😦 I requested teh SW come back as soon as back form holiday on a weekly basis to deal with this mess she created. Let’s hope for the best! Thanks for reading and commenting! xo


  4. mealsandmakes says:

    This sounds like an extremely delicate and difficult (but important!) process to go through. Im sorry you have not had the support from the Social worker that you need. Its a very good thing that your boys have you to help them through it. #FabFridayPost


  5. lyliarose says:

    Crikey, this sounds very rushed and too much for them, like it needed to be a gradual process over a long period of time #thelistlinky


  6. Emma says:

    Lifestory needs to be written with the family as part of the adoption and support process. Let us use our language and styles to bring it alive and weave together the past, present and future in a way that is meaningful the whole family. I’m shocked to read that social workers took this out of your hands when helping your child to learn and understand their past is fundamental to your attachment.


  7. Mainy says:

    Sort to hear the boys and therefore you as well have not had a good experience with the life story book. I agree the timing doesn’t seem that good for the SW to deliver such an impactful piece of information. Hope it gets easier for you. I think you were right to raise this with their manager as a learning exercise for them.


    • feelingmumyet says:

      Thanks! Manager wrote back ‘I will consider what you said blabla’ so I don’t expect any change sadly but hey, let’s hope I am wrong… Thanks for reading and commenting


  8. Matthew Blythe says:

    Hi there! We have fairly comprehensive Life Story books. I insisted they were given to my two before they came, and that work was done around it too. I was incredibly lucky to have had an excellent support worker at the time, who spent a great deal of time going through it with the boys. Looking at it now it is very primitive, and quite amateurish in places. Life Story books are one thing, how they are used and how the children are presented with them is important. We were lucky I suppose. Good for you talking to the manager, but wonder what good it will do. Life story work should be seen as an on going process, as the children get older their cognition increases.
    Hope things calm for you and them x


    • feelingmumyet says:

      Oh hello minimees! I always smile at your profile pic! 🙂 Well, it’s done now, I hope manager will do something, but I don’t hold my breath… 😦 8 and I went through the first few pages yesterday instead of doing his reading homework and it seemed ok, but who knows really… fingers crossed for them! Thanks for reading and commenting

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Twin Mum/Dad: Emily (@Twinmumanddad) says:

    Oh my goodness me. Those both sound like they’ve been through so much. The least SW could have done is to involve you and take it slow. Allow time for the boys to digest what they’re seeing/reading/hearing and give them time emotionally to process it. Rushing through it all in 2 hours doesn’t seem right. I also think you were right to contact the SW’s manager, I would have done the same. Thanks for linking up to #ThatFridayLinky


  10. thetaleofmummyhood says:

    I think you did right in informing the manager, it’s just not on to cause so much hurt and upset when there are ways to work around it. Thanks so much for sharing with #Blogstravaganza xx


  11. diynige says:

    Sorry to hear this hope it all works out ok for you Thanks for linking to the #THAT FRIDAY LINKY come back next week please


  12. says:

    Oh dear! This doesn’t sound good. Clearly SW need to be retrained. It feels like she is rushing through so she can go on holiday. This makes me rather angry with SW. Poor babies – they have to go through that trauma again without a resolutions to it. I’m so glad you are there for the boys. xx

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with us on #FabFridayPost


  13. Lucy At Home says:

    Oh this is heartbreaking. This should have been a time of reflection and exploration – a time that your boys could ask questions and try to deal with the horrible parts of their past. I can’t believe it was handled so badly. I hope that you are able to take some time to look at it with them and discuss it but it really should have been done properly by the person who supposedly has training on it and experience. So sad #blogcrush


  14. Accidental Hipster Mum says:

    That sounds like it was shockingly handled, your poor kids (and poor you!) I think it was the right
    thing to do to suggest more training, she can’t carry on like this!



  15. ljdove23 says:

    Gosh this sounds as though it was handled very badly, I’m sorry you had this experience. I know very little about adoption other than the fact it is a lengthy process, my friend recently adopted two little girls. #fabfridaypost


  16. Mummy Times Two says:

    Sending so much love to you. It sounds as though she really should have known better on all counts. I am so sorry that this has caused the boys more heartache #PostsFromTheHeart


  17. Inclusive Home says:

    The Life Story book sounds like such a fantastic idea, but I can totally see why you are upset by the way it was handled, from overwhelming the boys with everything at once and then ‘disappearing’ off on holiday at such a critical time. I hope the shock of it doesn’t have too much lasting impact on the boys. #PostsFromTheHeart


  18. Mrs Mummy Harris says:

    I am so sorry this was not done correctly by the SW. Something this important really should be done with time and attention. I agree with you that the SW should have just waited until they were back from holiday. I’m sure you’d prefer to wait longer and have it done right then to have it done how it was. I hope the boys have settled now.
    Thank you for sharing this with us at #TriumphantTales. I hope to see you back tomorrow!


  19. HC says:

    It’s so inconsistent isn’t it? For my son I got emailed largely a cut and paste of formal reports which didn’t follow any good practice (e.g. Birth family were ‘mum’, ‘dad’ etc, I was referred to by my name when it bothered to finally mention me) and was done by a student who’d met my son once and birth family never. We’ve done our own which we’re very happy with but I really wish social workers could see the importance of it. There so much out there on how to do it well – it really isn’t rocket science!


    • feelingmumyet says:

      Oh dear, that sounds horrible! SO sorry you had such a rubbish first experience! I totally agree, even without training, just with common sense you should know not to say things like ‘so finally your new mummy and daddy agreed to take you in!’ Oh, still livid! I scanned in the whole thing to have the pictures and will do our own with the boys! Thanks for reading and commenting!


  20. Someone's Mum says:

    Ohhh goodness. That sounds like such a tricky but important thing to get right and it sounds like they have not quite managed it. I am so sad that it upset them. I really hope they come to terms with it quickly. You are clearly doing wonderful things for them. Thanks so much for joining in with #spectrumsunday. We hope you come back tomorrow


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