Why We Don't Tell the Truth
Adults are afraid to be honest with children. We fear we will do more harm and increase
behavioral problems - potentially making our own lives more difficult. Lying or omitting the
truth to children is a protective measure that starts with good intentions and ends with dire
consequences. If a child is questioning their basic needs for safety, a home, and the love of a
parent, he will likely feel anxious, angry, and untrusting of adults. This constant state of hyper-
vigilance can impact the way his brain develops, causing long-term mental health disorders. A
child who is separated from a parent is exposed to adverse childhood experiences that could
manifest as symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if the child does not receive
proper mental health care. Learning the truth about his life from you can be the first step toward
interrupting this dysfunction and allowing trust to build with a safe adult.
Being honest might initially seem counterintuitive, but the real truth is that children can handle
an age-appropriate level of the facts. According to Dr. Daniel J. Seigel in his book The Whole-
Brain Child, children who know the truth can regulate their emotions and integrate their
memories into a realistic narrative, and this helps them make sense of their world.
The Impact of Broken Trust
We know from the work of psychologist Dr. Erik Erickson that forming trust and attachment
with others is a critical component of healthy childhood development. If a child is neglected or
abused, his ability to trust others and the world is impaired. According to Fonagy- Luyten,
2009, the child's mistrust keeps him in a state of epistemic vigilance; or a high state of arousal
where he is continually scanning the environment for who he can trust. Prolonged states of
epistemic vigilance can lead to various mental and emotional disorders, typically observed in
children exposed to trauma. A child who feels unsafe in the world will usually display
challenging behavior at home or in school as a tool for survival. It might look like manipulative
behavior to an adult, but to a child, it is a defense mechanism to keep others at a distance so he
can feel a sense of control and safety in his life.
How to Tell the Truth to a Child in Foster or Kinship Care
I want to be clear that telling the truth does not mean the child needs to hear every detail about
the mistakes and problems in his parent's; lives. It is essential to be sensitive and use good
judgment when sharing information about why a child is in foster or kinship care. Being
confident, straight-forward, and matter-of-fact will go a long way. Young children can be
satisfied with a three-sentence explanation. All you need to provide is enough information to
quiet their restless minds about why they are not with mom and dad anymore. An initial
conversation with children as young as two and as old as eight can be a simple as the following,
and they will need to hear it several times before they absorb it completely.
"Your parents are unable to keep you safe, and kids need to be safe. It is my job now to keep you
safe. You will be safe with me."
This answer relieves the child of self-blame and also does not demean his parents. Staying
neutral about the biological parents at all times is vital because children can internalize any
negative messages they hear about them. They see themselves as a product of their biological
parents. Staying neutral is a way we can protect children from blaming and shaming themselves
for their parents' mistakes.
With older children and teens, you can add on more information slowly, and as they seem ready.
At the beginning of the conversation, let the child know that he can stop, pause, fast-forward, or
rewind the story whenever he wants to. This approach will put him in the driver seat and also
build trust .
The Other Truths Children in Care Need to Hear
2. "This is not your fault."
3. "I will do my best to be honest with you."
Children usually blame themselves for being removed from their parent's care. Explaining that
being in your custody is not their fault will help reframe their experience and improve their self-
worth. Lastly, sharing with the child that you will do your best to be honest with him, and
following through on that promise, will allow trust and attachment to build between you.
Improving trust and attachment will reduce anxiety and increase positive interactions amongst
Knowing the truth about your life, no matter what your age, is a foundational requirement for
mental health. You have the opportunity to be an example of a trustworthy adult in a child's life.
Even if what you have to tell them initially hurts, be the one person they know they can trust.
Beth W. Tyson is a psychotherapist and children's author whose tender-hearted book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan explores the challenges of family separation and kinship care. Sullivan's story is a therapeutic tool for children impacted by loss and trauma and opens the door to age-appropriate conversations about why a child can't live with his biological parents. A Grandfamily for Sullivan and additional mental health resources for foster and kinship families are available at www.bethtyson.com.
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