Part One of a Series on Talking to Kids who are DHS/Court-Involved
As a guardian ad litem (“GAL”), I work with kids in a wide range of ages. Some of the things I say are the same regardless of age, while others are specific to younger or older kids. Some are things I learned on my own, while others are things I am totally stealing from a rock star school-based therapist named Amy Murray (working with elementary-aged kids). It gives us a way to talk to kids about things they likely know nothing about by analogizing them to things they do. But it also gives them permission to not talk about certain things. Finally, if I am using the same “language” as the therapist (and the teachers, fosters, etc.), it’s easier for kids, because it’s a consistent message.
At the beginning of the case, when I first meet the kids, I tell them who I am and what my job is. And then we have a conversation about telling the truth. Lots of people have conversations with them about telling the truth (e.g., DHS), but others may be persuading them to not tell the truth (e.g., parents). This, of course, puts kids squarely in the middle, which means they are going to side with their parents (though they may inadvertently “tell the truth” about something that gets them removed, which then means that they will berate themselves and blame themselves for their family being “broken”).
I take a little different approach. First, I tell them that I will always tell them the truth, even when it’s a hard truth. I clarify that this doesn’t mean I will tell them “everything,” because there are some things that are just for the grown-ups to work on and talk about. But whatever I do tell them will be the truth. Sometimes that means I have to tell them that “life just stinks right now, and it’s going to for a while. But not forever.”
Then I tell them something like this:
It’s also really important that you tell me the truth. But sometimes I might ask you a question that you don’t want to answer truthfully. When that happens, “some kids” (more on that in a minute) don’t want to answer the question, but feel like they have to, so they lie. I don’t want you to do that. If there is something you don’t want to tell me, just say, “I don’t want to tell you that.” And I won’t make you. But if you will do that, then I know that what you do tell me is the truth.”
And I ask them to agree to that, which of course, they do. And I have had kids use that strategy. Now—when they say, “I don’t want to tell you that,” that doesn’t mean I don’t try to find the answer somewhere else; it just means I’m not going to put them in the position of telling me something that makes them feel disloyal to their parents.
Back to the “some kids” phrase. I use the phrase “some kids” in a variety of situations, for a couple different reasons. First, if I say, “some kids,” instead of “you,” it’s easier for them to hear. They don’t get defensive because it’s not, technically, about them.
The second reason I use it is so that if it is them, they realize that it’s not just them that feels that way; there are other kids who feel the same way they do, or behave the same way. When I don’t know exactly how they are feeling or why they are behaving in a particular way, I may go one step further. I may say, “Some kids…but other kids…” I do this because if I am wrong with the “some kids” piece and stop there, the child I’m talking to may think, “I don’t feel that way! Is there something wrong with me? Should I be feeling that way?” By adding the “other kids” piece, it helps them realize that there are often several different ways they might be feeling.
When kids learn they can trust you to tell them the truth, they will trust you with the truth as well.