LifeBooks: Every Adopted Child Needs One

Information is gold when you are adopted. Every tiny piece is precious, whether it’s a photo or quote from the orphanage staff. LifeBooks help put all the information pieces together in a way that helps your child make sense of, and ultimately feel good, about his/her history.

People often ask me, "What is a LifeBook?" I will respond, "It’s the best gift you can ever give an adopted child." A LifeBook is a record of an adoptee’s life that uses words, photos, your child’s artwork, computer graphics, and memorabilia."

But it’s more than a life story. It is a unique opportunity for parents to honor every minute of their child’s life. A LifeBook is an adoption security blanket. It makes talking about adoption feel like everyday conversation. Putting your child’s life story on paper is such a simple concept. Who would have guessed that the benefits are countless?

"…my daughter’s LifeBook only brought us closer and increased her trust in me…" Mary McGuire, adoptive mom of seven- year-old Cassie, adopted from China

Yes, the concept is simple. Is a LifeBook therefore easy to write? Maybe--maybe not.

The stories and photos abound once a child enters his/her family. (How many boxes of pictures do you have stored away?) But that’s not the child’s beginning. Imagine a picture of someone that gets cut off at the knees. This is what it feels like not to have or to discuss your history. Adoptees end up with a floating or numb sensation with no roots to attach to.

I should know. I spent my first five months in foster care before being adopted. I listened carefully to the silences around adoption during my childhood.

Some families are reluctant to consider a LifeBook. " We have no information-- how can we write when we know nothing?" There are now a number of creative ways to work with little or no information. Ironically, it becomes even more critical for the child with little biographical data to have a LifeBook. Just because a child doesn’t talk about "it" doesn’t mean s/he isn’t thinking about the other parts of his/her life. Often it’s that pre-photo period, which adoptees crave to know more about.

It’s that sense of missing pieces that can affect attachment or concentration for adopted children. LifeBooks can fill in the missing pieces with words, artwork, and photos, if available. The words will create pictures when none exist.

…. my Mother is a social worker who now uses LifeBooks in her work. I wish LifeBooks were available 22 years ago…maybe I wouldn’t have so many unanswered questions…Kate age 22, adult adoptee from Colombia, herself a new social worker.

Adopted children often have secret thoughts about why they were adopted. Many believe that somehow they are responsible for the separation from their birth family. At the age of six I decided that my birth parents died in a plane crash in Africa. I didn’t tell a soul. Then I changed the story. It was always death. It’s the power of magical thinking.

LifeBooks help reduce magical thinking and fantasy. They free up an adoptee to pay better attention in school. Or to be more available to focus on talents and interests. Better for a child to be out playing soccer or painting a picture than to be fantasizing endlessly about "what happened."

If your child comes from another country, be aware that it’s important to discuss the country’s conditions and/or rules for adoptions. Often this is the only explanation a child has as to why s/he was placed. LifeBooks are the ultimate teaching tool and they can save hours of therapy later in life.

Remind your children of the ways they are connected to their adoptive family, despite not looking like you. This may be in the form of similar voice patterns, talents, food choices or interests. It took me 45 years to figure out that I got my dry sense of humor from my adoptive father. (OK, so I was a little slow) Never assume that your child doesn’t want to be reminded of these connections often. They bear repeating.

In his/her story, make your child the star and celebrate both their resiliency and survival.

…. Sara’s StoryWhat better way to welcome her than by preparing and preserving her history with a LifeBook?…Mimi Robins, adoptive grandmother of 4 year-old-old Sara, from China

Help your children to feel proud of their own strengths and the strengths of their birth parents. As Corinne Rayburn, LCSW, LMFT Co-Director of the Center For Family Connections says, " birth families are like in laws…you didn’t pick them but have to [accept] them." If you don’t have any information, then look to your child’s talents and wonder if perhaps they got their artistic talents from that unknown birth father.

The "birthparent page" of a LifeBook really helps out with those tough adolescent years when identity issues begin to peak. The more your child knows, the more that s/he will feel "real."

Some would argue "Our family is very open and always talks about adoption, so why write it down?" Because a book that you and your child can pick up and hold, gives the adoptee control over his/her own story. A child can look at it when the urge hits, without having to ask. It becomes symbolic for adoption discussion.

" Mama read me my LifeBook." Or "Where’s my LifeBook, I want to show it to my friend"…. The older a child gets, the more tools a family needs to communicate on adoption issues.

If you are starting to think that LifeBooks are very powerful, you may be wondering where to begin. Here are a few suggestions from Dr. Vera Fahlberg, national adoption expert:

I like to include the original birth certificate (if available). This official record always fascinates children of any age. Court papers or official records will suffice if no birth certificate is available.

Once you have laid the foundation with birth history, then add the fun part, the time when they joined your family. Don’t get caught up in creating the "perfect" LifeBook. LifeBooks become worn and torn and more beautiful with age. The only real mistake you can make is never to begin.

The ultimate MAGIC to creating a treasured LifeBook is to start it, work on it as a family, and give it your child. Even if it only has five pages, it is tangible proof to your child that s/he is precious enough to deserve this treasure.

By Beth O’Malley M.Ed., former foster baby, adoption worker, author of LifeBooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child 1 800 469-9666 or email her at copyright 1/1/01

440 Revere Street

Winthrop, Mass. 02152

Telephone 1 800 469-9666

Fax: 671 846-6718

Email address:

Ms. O’Malley spent her first five months in foster care before being adopted. This experience has become a driving force in her life. Beth’s mission is for every adopted child to have his/her own LifeBook.

Ms. O’Malley has worked over 18 years as a social worker. She is married and lives on the ocean outside of Boston.