You have an identity. I’m not talking about your name or social security number. I’m talking about how you see yourself. I guarantee it’s different from how other people see you. It’s very different than how God sees you. How do you identify yourself?
Who are you? When you get asked that your first thought might be husband, wife, girlfriend, or boyfriend. Maybe it’s construction worker, nurse, businessman, or athlete. You might see yourself as a cancer victim (or a cancer survivor). Are you German, Italian, Native American? Are you a Republican, Democrat, or Independent? My guess is you would describe yourself in many different ways. I hope one of the identifying titles is a child of God.
When you’re an orphan or have been abandoned to the system, that identifying title can leave deep and profound emotional scars. Many children go through their lives, knowing only that they were the one that was thrown away, that they have no value. That is a hard belief to overcome. When you’ve been thrown away, it clearly shows you your place in the world.
When a child comes into a home too young to know what’s going on, it has its own challenges. When a child comes into a home and is old enough to know what’s happened to them, it’s an entirely different issue. They know they have been thrown away. A child knows that to their parents, the drugs or alcohol were more important than they were. Even if it wasn’t substance abuse or, worse, sexual abuse, a child alone in the world sees themself in a distinct way. The strongest identity this can give a child is “victim.” This identity can take years of healing to overcome.
Unfortunately, in many systems, both orphanages and foster care, the identity of “victim” is reinforced over and over again until it’s set in stone. By treating a child like a victim, like someone who is defined by what’s been done to them, we can reinforce that victim mentality over and over again. A child will see themself as others see them. We need to do better. If we only see a child as a victim, that is what they will believe about themself.
I’m not saying that when a child comes into a home, you don’t acknowledge what’s been done to them. There is a vast difference between acknowledging an act, and dwelling on it. To use an extreme example, if someone is the victim of sexual assault, they might at first see themselves as a victim or even the one at fault. The hope is that, with time, they will see themselves as a survivor, and with more significant time and healing, see themselves as a valued person who happened to have a horrible thing done to them. This is an important distinction. It’s not who they are; it’s not their identity; it’s just something that’s been done to them.
When working long term with orphaned and abandoned children, our goal has to be more than just keeping them alive. We need to work to change their identity from the victim and re-shape it into what it needs to be. They need to see themself as a loved, valued, child of God. They need to see themself as God sees them: a beloved son or daughter, healed and adopted into the family.
So how does one foster healing? One day at a time, for a very long time. Consistent love and acceptance are essential to the long-term healing of a child. You can tell them they have value, but only through showing them their value will it begin to change their mindset. We do this by spending time with them, by listening to them, by getting excited about the victories in their life.
One of the many ways to show a child their value is by allowing them to impact others. If all they do is receive, they become dependent. If a child learns how to give, they begin to see themself as someone with control and impact.
Even if it doesn’t seem like a child is ready to help others, it can have a profound impact on their self-worth if they can help someone else. Its what a healthy person does. It can be awkward at first, as the first day in the gym. It doesn’t feel natural, and you don’t see results right away, but over time, you begin to change. Simple acts of service begin to change a child for the better. Service to others is healing, service to others is good for us. Service changes us.
There are countless ways to show a child how to help others. One example we tried in the past with great success is having a small group of our kids purchase supplies for another orphanage. We gave them a budget and turned them loose in Costco. They spent a long time talking about the best way to spend the money. “Rice and beans or candy?” “They definitely need a soccer ball!” “What about shampoo?” By letting the kids make the decisions it gave them power, it gave them control, and it showed them they have something to offer of value.
Moving an orphaned child from victim to victor is not a quick or easy process. Volumes have been written on this subject, and no one gets it right all the time. But healing needs to be the goal when dealing with broken children, or broken people in general. By showing them God’s love, God’s acceptance, and God’s healing power, we can lead them to a better place. God can build a new identity. Allow those in your care to see themselves as God sees them. Change the identity.
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