Kris’ Corner – Grief in Kids in Foster Care

February 24, 2022

Often when we think of grief in terms of foster care, we think of the foster parents…and maybe that’s because of the position we’re in within this triad (foster parents – foster children – biological parents).

And while we should not at all diminish the grief a foster family may feel when a child leaves their home (even if it’s for a healthy reunification), the grief I want to talk about today is that experienced by the child when coming into placement.

When a child comes into care, this is a traumatic experience…regardless of the circumstances from which they were removed. Those circumstances, albeit unhealthy and possibly violent and/or neglectful, were all they’ve ever known and there is comfort in the knowing. Grief is a normal and natural response to a great loss.

Additionally, a child coming into care is often in limbo, so to speak; at the outset of a case, there is no way of knowing how quickly reunification with biological family will happen (if it DOES happen), and so that clearly compounds the anxiety and grief a child might feel.

To be removed from that familiar environment suddenly and placed in a new environment is traumatic. And this loss can translate into grief. Even if the new environment is a happy, healthy, nurturing environment, the child has suffered a tremendous loss; at minimum, they have lost their family (potentially both parents and siblings); their home (the environment where they were familiar); their stuff (oftentimes a child cannot take much with them when they are removed); and their school/teacher/classmates (sometimes, but not often, a child is not able to continue at their previous school and so they must begin in a new school closer to the foster home). None of these things may be lost to them forever, but in the moment, as the case is unfolding, it does not matter for how long a child is removed from these people and things…it is an immense loss that can be felt deeply.

So please pause and consider that for a moment…that’s a lot for anyone to process, but especially for a child.

That said…you, as the foster parent, will want to swoop in and make things right…but wait, you can’t really do that yet, because the child does not have an attachment to you. Understandably, you have not yet had the opportunity to show the child you can be trusted and for the child to be able to put stock in you. Grief, anxiety and fear can look like many things other than what they truly are (think “sad = mad”…that’s one I often think of; a child who is experiencing grief or anxiety may appear mad when the true emotion they’re feeling and not processing correctly is sad).

So how do you build that relationship with a child and help them work through their feelings?

For infants, it can be especially difficult because they definitely will not understand why their environment has suddenly and drastically changed. They may be inconsolable or at the least unsettled. So to help them, it might mean NOT washing every single item that has come into the home (clearly this is would not be the case if there are bugs, but that’s a topic for another post); that familiar smell of home may help them settle into the new environment, even if you find the scent unpleasant. 

For toddlers to around kindergarten age, these children may show their grief through clinginess, stubbornness or anxiety. To help them settle, you can be honest in your answers, as they ask things like, “Where’s Mommy?” Be as honest as you can, but never say more than their hearts and minds can understand. And at the same time, give them patient and loving words and affirmations, as well as hugs and comforts, if the child will allow.

For elementary age and tweens, their grief may be exhibited through trouble with school, learning issues, or just a general focus on the loss of the biological parents. For foster parents with kiddos of this age-range, it is best to be a listening ear when a child wants to share, but at the same time advocating on behalf of the child with caregivers and/or teachers who may be completely unaware that their school work is hindered by their grief. The child may be working at their full capacity, but is so burdened by grief that it does not appear so.

And for the teens, they’re obviously more involved. They will have higher levels of understanding, with concrete and abstract thinking capabilities, and possibly more trauma and grief to process through. So honestly…all the things. Grief in teens may also look like struggles in school, but can also be eating disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, depression and so on. In order to help teens who are struggling with grief, as foster parents, we can continue to help them make safe choices, but also allow them as much freedom and independence as possible. They need to be able to salvage their personal identity while they walk through this often difficult and confusing time.

As time goes on, and you continue building the attachment, the child will hopefully begin to work through the grief and emerge on the other side. This is not without much intentional effort on the part of the foster parents (and often professional counseling or therapy may be needed, as well). Additionally, if you have a “trauma focus” to your intentionality and understand that the child is not inherently bad or difficult, but simply the product of their grief and trauma, you will be better equipped to serve and care for them.