Tough Stuff Plan for Sharing The Hard Stories

Each birth, foster or adoptive family of children who have been fostered or adopted are going to have things that are hard to talk about or understand.  But, research has shown us that is really important for young people to have access to their past, have it be okay to talk about it and the chance to understand it in the context of their family.

The Tough Stuff Plan is our response to both facts.

A Tough Stuff Plan will ideally be completed by a team of the birth parents, the parenting parents (foster/adoptive), the therapist and worker of a specific child or teen.  When completing this plan, they will consider the placement status, age and development of the child. And while this is a plan is completed by adults, at all times, they will follow the child’s lead, curiosity, questions and build on their previous knowledge.

A Tough Stuff Plan aims to make the hard things to talk about more tangible and bring them into the open, so that they can be talked about freely and then a PLAN can be made in which they will be discussed WITH the child.

We loosely follow the SMART goal format for this plan, so if you are unaware of what that is, you can watch this handy Khan video about SMART goals.

List the “tough” stuff

The first step will be to list all the things that might be hard for this child, to hear, to process or hard for to be shared.   Each person in the team may have different things they feel are “tough stuff” and that is okay – put them all on the plan.

  • For some sharing with the child that they were adopted, might be “tough stuff.” 
  • For others it might be circumstances around their conception.
  • Abused they suffered before coming into care.
  • Experiences while in care.
  • Experiences in utero.
  • Health status of birth family, or their own health status.
  • Along with many other items.

Once you have brainstormed in a team, and have a complete list of those things are identified as “tough”, then ask the following question for EACH individual item.

Why NOT now?

What are the reasons for not sharing now. Remember that the reason for NOT sharing now might be different for every member of the team. It is so important to understand each members hesitancy and concerns.

Common identified reasons listed to not share/wait to share:

  • Age
  • Developmental ability of child
  • Trauma
  • Mental health status of child
  • Parents comfort
  • Not being able to find the right words

What additional info is needed?

For each and every item, think through what information is currently available?  Are there any news articles about that specific event?  Any child focused books about this topic, any experts to be pulled in?  If they are not already part of the team, can former parents be asked to share more information or give suggestions on how they might want this hard thing shared with the child?

What needs to be understood first?

Then you need to consider if there are things that need to be understood, by the child, or by the parenting parents – as they are the ones who will need to follow up with child.

  • By child – What needs to be understood by the child before sharing.  If a child was conceived by an assault, they would first need to understand what sex is, that it can occur outside of love or a relationship, outside marriage, they need to understand consent and that it can be violated.   If they don’t understand those things yet, those need to happen first, before you share.  Otherwise the information won’t make sense.
  • By parents – Parents also need to understand (and be comfortable with things) before sharing.  For this same scenario, a parent would need to understand how someone could be at the point where they would assault someone, what the emotional and legal process looks like after an assault, their own feelings about the child they are parenting being conceived by rape and all of their OWN feelings about it.

Action steps?

What are we going to DO to get the additional information and understanding for everyone who needs it?  And WHO is going to be responsible to do it?

  • Will the parent google some things, attend some focused trainings, read some books, visit their own therapist?
  • Will the worker make some phone calls and request some additional records?
  • Will the therapist focus differently in sessions?
  • Who will follow up when the timeline is closing in to check on progress?


Once everyone has a good understanding of what is needed for this this situation, think about which “tough item” it makes sense to focus on first, and then put a time frame around EACH item. This is so important as it reduces the likelihood of it being set aside or waiting until adulthood.

Holly Van Golden, above, recommends that kids understand the majority of their history,  by the time that they are 12.  If the child is younger than that, 12-years-old is a great goal

If they are 16, the 12-year-old window was missed, but you can still look at the action steps, and how long it might take to get the additional information and understanding in place, and work backwards.

Below is a copy of the Tough Stuff Plan that we use at Power of Story. You are free to use it with the families and young people you work with – just let us know how it goes and how we can make it better.

IF you appreciated this article, please share with your networks!

Each birth, foster or adoptive family has challenging items in their child’s history, that can be hard to talk with kids about. Check out this Tough Stuff Plan, and make a thoughtful plan for conversations.

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