The Secret Ingredient in Life Books

By Donna Barnes

donna barnesNo one talked about "life books" back in the 70's. That's when my husband and I began our adoption journey. Armed only with resolve and love, we walked the whole nine yards (and then some) through four challenging adoption without a single life book.

Our best attempt was a photo album for one of our daughters. It included the only two photos that we were given when she arrived at the tender age of six months and we added many more as she grew up. By age four, she enjoyed "reading" her photo album . . .

"This is how I looked when I was a little baby on a blanket." (Turn the page.)
"And this is my first home …and my foster family." "What's a foster family," mommy? (Turn page.)
"There you are, mommy…and daddy is hold me." (Turn page.)
"Here I am on my ‘dopshun day. Everyone is looking at me." (Turn page.)

On the next page was pasted a letter of congratulations from the judge who had legalized our adoption of this special child. He expressed his pleasure at being part of this happy event. When our daughter reached this page, she would always say . . .

". . .and even the judge was happy!"

Did our kids survive without life books? Of course! 
Would life books have been helpful? Absolutely!

Today, "LIFE BOOK" is the buzzword among professionals and parents alike. And rightly so, because a life book, when done well, should provide a child with a key ingredient - - the TRUTH (as much as is known) - - about his/her "story." It should contain the WHO, WHAT, WHERE AND WHY information that kids need to answer their questions and unscramble their lives. In short, it is . . .

more than a photo album, although photos are vitally important. 
more than a "baby book," although the "baby information is also vital to include if available. 
more than a scrapbook of achievements. 
more than a book that chronicles all the happy, fun times. 
(A foster parent told me that she didn't like to do "life books" because she felt that a life book should only reflect the fun, happy times in a child's life. This is tunnel-vision at best.)

Adopted kids, and those who grow up in foster care, have difficulty building self-esteem without uncovering and processing the truth about their lives . . . And now, we have the secret ingredient, p-r-o-c-e-s-s-i-n-g! In addition to providing statistical information, life books are a means for kids to find out that they were not responsible for the problems in the family. This puts a different slant on everything.

A life book should help kids process their feelings!

In most cases, the child will need help with the "processing" part. If you are helping a child put together a life book, you have an important role – to think like a therapist. You will need to do the following:


  1. Anticipate difficult questions; give answers to the best of your ability. If you can't "fill in the blanks" on a particular subject, tell the child you will do your best to find out. Keep your word! Take it slowly. Hyper kids will need frequent breaks. Choose a relaxing activity when finished. Sense any mood change in the child. Recognize feelings of grief or loss. Be ready to "mirror" the child's feelings. (Example below.) Put information into perspective for the child. "Probably your birth mother felt (scared, alone, …… when she …." Correct any misinformation the child might have. "It would be cool to have a dad who was a famous . . . Actually, your birth father was a carpenter - that's probably why you are so good with your hands." Be sure that the child does not feel to blame for the separation from his/her parents. "Your parent(s) had grown-up problems that were not your fault." Explain adoption/foster care as something that is not unusual so child will not feel "set apart."
  2. Keep the book in your possession for safekeeping.


To facilitate "processing" the child's feelings, the child needs to be involved in its creation. Remember, there is no therapeutic value to the older child if you do it for him/her. (NOTE: Do not give blank pages to a birth parent to fill out because they may not be returned.) As the adult, part of your task is to discover what the child thinks is the truth about his/her life. If the child has a distorted view of events that shaped his/her life or fantasies that stick in his/her mind as the truth, gently, but honestly, bring truth into the picture. The information that you provide should be age-appropriate and will need to be retold as the child gets older and has more in-depth questions. You will then need to help the child process his/her feelings about the true "story."

Where to start? Logic might suggest starting with birth information. Consider, however, if that information is very negative or hurtful, it may set a negative tone and discourage the child from wanting to continue. Often, it works best if the first page/chapter is simply personal information about the child at that point in time . . . age, height, weight, eye color, favorite this and that, what he/she want to be when grown up, etc. This gives the child some much needed time to just focus on him or herself and have a fun first experience with the life book journey.

Next, introduce a page/chapter about the birthparents with as much information as you can acquire. Include birth certificates or copies of birth certificates if available (original and/or amended). Letting the child write a letter to the birth parent(s) to place in the life book is a therapeutic thing to do. Make sure child knows that no matter what he/she wrote, it is a safe place to keep this message.

As the child progresses, certain subjects may bring an emotional response from the child . . . joy, anger, tears, melancholy, etc. Give your support and understanding, validating the child's feelings. The child needs to feel that sharing feelings with you is a "safe" thing to do. Never say, "You shouldn't feel that way." Rather, be a mirror; reflect and identify with the child's feelings. "I'm sure you felt very sad when your mom/dad didn't come back for you. It still makes you sad to think about that doesn't it. It makes me sad, too."

If a page or subject brings out happy memories, let the child tell you what happened to make that a fun time in his/her life.

  • A life book needs to be inclusive regarding experiences. Don't forget to include information about
    • siblings and pets
    • stepparents
    • relatives and/or foster parents with whom the child lived
    • social workers or therapists
    • hospitals, group homes

    Each will bring forth a different memory and the feelings attached to each will need to be processed. Including a visual time-line of life events is helpful for many children to actually see how their life evolved.

    What about the unknown? Often grown ups think that since the child doesn't know who his/her birth father is that a page for "father information" is not necessary. Actually, any page with unfilled blanks is an opportunity to help children process feelings about what they wish they knew. THERE WAS/IS A BIRTH FATHER! Therefore, the "father" page is an important one in the life book whether filled out or not.

    Don't have a baby picture or other early photos? This is regrettable, but often true. If the social worker cannot obtain one (or make a copy of one), let the child find a picture of a baby in a magazine. Use it as the "baby picture."

    Caption: "When I was a little baby I was about this size" or, "I weighed about as much as a sack of sugar and I was just as sweet!"

    No photos of birth parents? Let the child draw what he/she remembers or, again, select something from a magazine.

    It goes without saying that photos should be plentiful when the child is in your care. Make a point of having the camera handy. Record birthdays, holidays, special moments, etc. Find excuses to take the child's picture. Each photo validates the child's worth. (Displaying child's photo around the house is also an esteem-builder.)

    If you have never helped a child create a life book, you have several choices. Make your own or find a fill-in-the-blanks book, preferably one that is designed for use in a three-ring binder. This allows the flexibility to add additional pages. Some life books, such as "The One & Only Me," include "Keepsake Envelopes" for mementos i.e. awards, photos, school papers with smiley faces, etc. The child's current social worker should be the link to collecting past information. Ask him or her to explore files, make copies of photos, track connections to the birth parent and leave no stone unturned to gather information.** Yes, social workers, are overworked, but this is part of their job and you need not feel that you will push them "over the edge" by asking. In essence, making a life book is a "team effort."

    If you are creative, you will add flavor to the book. Avoid overdoing it, however. Some parents get so carried away that the life book says more about their own creative skills than it does about the child. On the other hand, if you are "creatively challenged," the child likely can help out with that. After all, it is the child's book, not yours. It need not be perfect to have value to the child. At the very least, it is a memory-making adventure for both child and adult; at best, it is a treasured possession. Children in group homes often drag their "dog-eared" books with them wherever they go. Sometimes, it is all they have to hang on to.

    Is making a life book work? Does it take time? Is it worth it?

    Yes, yes, and yes!

    Don't be overwhelmed, however. Even basic information assembled in some logical order will help. A box with a lid in which you keep information and mementos will help. If the child leaves your care, just make sure that this information travels with the child.

    Back in the 70's, our humble attempt to keep some record for our daughter was little enough to do. But knowing that "even the judge was happy," made her want to "read' her book again and again. Today, it is all she has reflecting her childhood.

    **My Family Connections Booklet is a valuable, parent-friendly tool to help social workers obtain information and a few photos from the birth parent when a child is first placed in foster care.

    About the author: Donna Barnes is a birth/adoptive/foster parent and free/lance writer. She is also a co-author of "The One & Only Me' life book and "The Real Me" teen life book.