• Development

Is this Normal? Understanding Grief in Foster Children

When children are away from their homes of origin, they experience a profound loss. It is important that foster parents support the children in processing emotions. This article will help you understand the child’s behavior in the stages of grief.

Shock and Denial Children may act with little to no emotional expression, as if the loss were not significant. You may notice the child is:

  • Going through normal activities and showing little commitment

  • Quiet and compliant

  • Passive, indifferent, or numb

These expressions can be mistaken as the child being fine. That can lead to future behavioral signs not seen as separation trauma. Children who did not have a band with their guardian(s) may not show an emotional reaction. Most will experience this period of shock and/or denial.

Anger and Protest: When the child can no longer deny the loss, they may begin responding in anger. This anger may in general, directed at a specific person(s), or towards specific object(s). You may notice the child is:

  • Always dissenting

  • Hypersensitive, crabby, or hard to please

  • Displaying tantrum behaviors

  • Anti-social

The child's anger may cause conflict that lead to a struggle for control. Recognizing that anger is part of the grieving process. Caregivers must support and redirect the child’s feelings instead of punishing them for misbehaving.


Bargaining: In the bargaining phase of grief, the child may try to bargain with the person they think has the power to change their situation. They may also try to “do better” to prevent the finality of the loss. Here, you may notice the child is:

  • Eager to please

  • Trying to be good

  • Negotiating to go home


These expressions are an attempt to control the environment, and protect themselves against feeling confusion, and uncertainty. They may believe that acting a certain way will allow them to go home. , there is a slim chance that the child's behaviors will get the results they want. When the child realizes that the bargaining strategy does not work, they will feel the impact of the loss.

Depression: As the child completely realizes their loss, they are likely to experience depression. They may not want to do activities, feel useless or helpless, and have episodes of fear or panic. You may notice the child is:

  • Appearing to have lost all hope

  • Experiencing emotional distress

  • Displaying regressive behavior

  • Unable to pay attention or experiencing a short attention span

  • Frustrated without effort, overwhelmed

At this stage, foster caregivers may become frustrated that they can't help the child. This may be a suitable time to re-establish the relationship between the parent and child.

Resolution:

In the final stage, the child's distress or depression minimizes. They will start to return to an active life in the present and think about their future. You may notice the child is:

  • Developing stronger attachments in new home

  • Identifying themselves as part of the family

  • Experiencing less emotional distress

Resolution is a positive sign if the child will not reunite with their biological family. This can be harmful if the child reunites with their biological family and does not re-establish contact.

As you help your child navigate grief, it is important to care for yourself as well. Reach out to your case worker or a counselor for help.

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