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July 2000  -  Volume 3  -  Issue 5

Children: Grief and Loss in Foster Care
By Holly Martinac

Picture yourself sleeping in your own bed in your own home with your own family. In the middle of the night people come into your home, wake you and, if you lucky, let you fill a garbage bag of what you can before they take you to a foreign place, say maybe France, and leave you with your small garbage bag of clothes. You are then taken to a strange place and given a room with four walls, a bed, a dresser and access to a bathroom. You are told when to get up, when to eat and when you can use the bathroom, when to bathe and when to go to bed. The people around you speak some English, but no one will tell you what is going on, why was this is happening and what did you do wrong to deserve this. What would you do and how would this make you feel?*

This scenario hopefully points out the importance of communication and support to children who come into placement. No matter how bad their situation may have been prior to placement - no matter the concern of their safety, it was still home. Now they are in a new place with adults that are the foster parents, the biological children and possibly other foster children.

Children in foster care suffer similar effects of grief and loss that a child who is losing a parent through divorce. A child can be expected to go through some phases of grief that resemble that of disorganization, transition, and reorganization. Each and every time a new child is placed into your home, and no matter how hard you try to be prepared, the household ends up in crisis until the adjustments of this new person with his or her own history has found some Nitto to fit in within your home.

There are many types of reactions that children may display as a result of this traumatic event. Sort term or long term may depend on the factors surrounding the child’s removal from their home, the age and developmental level of the child, the child’s personality and the level of support available to the child. In the context of foster care, there is almost always the factor of abuse, neglect and abandonment that make the adjustment phase much more complicated, confusing and often heart breaking.

Providing support to a child who has suffered the loss of their family is a difficult task and as in the article by Ron Huxley, you as foster-parents are surly faced with the challenge of "loving someone else’s child". Foster children are someone else’s children – and more often than not, those families will continue to be involved.

It is our job to support them and help them through the disorganization to the adjustment and hopefully to reorganize themselves – all a very long process.

We can provide them support by:

  • Listening to and supporting their right to have feelings about what is happening in their lives. Helping them find safe and healthy ways to express these feelings.
  • Establishing a sense of security through providing structure, consistency as well as lots of love.
  • Supporting their relationship with their biological parents.

In an article written for Adoptalk, a publication of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, by Dee Paddock , M.A., NCC, a psychotherapist, consultant, and adoptive mother of three who specializes in "Families With a Difference", she shares her experience as an adoptive mother of Cody whom they adopted from Korea. In working with helping children survive the effects of their traumas, she recommends the following:

Put the Adults in Charge

Our initial goal as parents should not be to have traumatized children fall in love with us; we first need to help them feel safe. When children don't believe that even their basic physical needs will be met, there's no room for love and trust. "To be rooted is probably the most important and least recognized need of the human soul," writes author Simone Weil. Our kids have had their roots torn; they haven't been watered or fed. Children like Cody have no idea what normal life means . . . what love means, what trust means . . . because of their early experiences.

So we must start immediately to contain the acting_out behaviors . . . and stop worrying so much about how our traumatized child "feels." Bad behavior is not okay because it makes people pull away from our children. Parents should create a more rigidly structured environment that is predictable and consistent. My generation was raised to have a lot of choices, but traumatized children often can't deal with choices. They're desperate to know that adults are strong and brave enough to take charge, but they're going to test your determination every step of the way.

We have to teach traumatized children how to be more verbal and how to negotiate with adults for what they want and need. For instance, they may steal things because they believe that's the only way they'll get them, or become aggressive because they don't know how else to express their anger. So push your children to tell you what they want and need. Reward the words, rather than the behaviors. Tell your children that they will not get what they want by acting it out. Be sure to reward the verbal expression of wants, needs, or feelings, even if you can't grant the requests. Parents must become skilled at decreasing the trauma response in traumatized children. Give your children small, manageable elements of daily control that will increase their sense of mastery and competence. Give them therapeutic information; teach them a normal response to life's stresses each time they act out a trauma response. And most important, don't lie to your traumatized children. Don't lie about their past, don't lie about the trauma, and don't lie about the challenges of healing from trauma.**

Some activities to help young children deal with these complicated emotions, here is a list adapted from "Breaking the Silence: A Guide To Help Children With Complicated Grief: Suicide, Homicide, AIDS, Violence, and Abuse"

  • Read stories to children that allow them to project their feelings onto the story characters. This opens a dialogue with a child in a way that is not threatening.
  • Allow children to visualize their hurt, fear or pain. Then can then draw, make use clay, or imagine these symbolic feelings being able to talk. If the hurt could talk, eight year old Nancy explained, it would say "Why me?"
  • Invite children to make a Loss Timeline, filling it in with people and dates in chronological order according to when they died. This Loss Timeline becomes a concrete representation of all the losses one has experienced.
  • Create with children a geneogram of family tree using a circle and square to represent those people still living and those people who have died in their life. Kids can not only see the extent of the losses they've had, but the support system of the people that are still remaining.

"By helping children put their feelings outside of themselves we can facilitate their healing. Sharing feelings diminish the hurt." Breaking the Silence (1996)

Editor’s Note

* This was part of Bonnie McNulty’s "Direct-Child-Care 101" that I remember while working in the group home. It still echo’s in my head whenever we discuss the struggles of a new foster child coming to Presidio.

** For the complete article "Going and Growing through Grief and Loss: Parenting Traumatized Adopted Children" written by Dee Paddock, visit the Foster Parent Community website at  

*** For more about "Children: Loss and Grief", attend Presidio’s July training presented by Diane Baird, LCSW

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