For Foster parents / The Call ministry

Helping foster children cope with grief

Before you become a foster parent, there are a lot of roles that you are prepared or semi-prepared to take on. One of the things you may not be prepared for is helping foster children cope with grief.

If you’ve already gone through PRIDE Training, hopefully this will just be a refresher for you. If you’re like most foster parents there were parts of PRIDE Training you zoned out on because you didn’t think it’d apply to you and now that you are a foster parent you’re wishing you’d have paid more attention.

Children who are taken into foster care are hit with loss in lots of directions and they will need someone to help them sort it all out.

That someone is you.

There are two different types of loss: Expected and Unexpected. Expected loss is the kind you know is coming eventually. For example: Losing an elderly parent, moving out when you grow up, and any other loss that is within normal life development. An unexpected loss is one that is unexpected such as losing a sibling or child, losing a parent at a young age, or a serious illness. Unexpected losses include losing a relationship or person, the loss of health and the loss of self-esteem.

Children taken into care suffer from loss in all of the above categories. They lose their parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends, and possibly even siblings all at one time. In the process of being pulled from their home they can lose their school and other comforting and normal surroundings. The reason for being pulled from the home could be due to a form of abuse or neglect (loss of health and self-esteem).

Children who experience an unexpected loss will be completely unprepared to cope with their feelings. Some children won’t even be able to put words with their feelings. Many children feel ashamed of their families or feel responsible for being taken away.

There are several parts to the grieving process:

  • Shock, denial, and protest
  • Bargaining
  • Anger (Acting Out and Depression)
  • Understanding
  • Coping

This process is going to look different for each child based on their age, maturity, and type of loss.

A child in the shock, denial, and protest phase may:

  • Look for mom and dad
  • Ask to go home
  • Show no emotion or appear unaffected
  • Continually ask to go home
  • Refuse to eat, have sleep problems, or develop real or imaginary illnesses
  • Deny their parents did anything wrong

Children may also throw fits, scream, cry, and fight any part of their new life. After all, they’ve just had EVERYTHING they’ve ever known ripped away from them.

Some children will quickly move into bargaining. They may intentionally break the rules and act out to get kicked out of the home. They may believe if they show the foster family can’t handle them that their parents aren’t so bad and they can go home. Children may do the exact opposite and walk on eggshells and try to be perfect.

When children realize bargaining will not help, they will quickly move into anger (or slip back into denial which is normal too). Anger is expressed in two different ways: Acting out and Depression.

Acting out can be thought of as anger turned outward. Depression is that anger turned inward. Children can do one or the other or both with their angry feelings and you need to be prepared.

Children who are acting out may scream, curse, destroy property, physically hurt themselves or others, have tantrums, lie, steal, refuse to participate in family activities, and say hurtful things to their foster or adoptive families.

A child who turns that anger inwards will have excessive fears, have a lack of interest or ability to engage in normal activity, be clingy, lack feelings, feel anxious, withdraw from people, be suicidal or take unnecessary risks (even young children), do poorly in school or lose interest in hygiene and appearance.

What is your job as a foster parent?

  • Recognize that not showing emotion is not the same as not having feelings. They may just be bottling them up or not know how to show them.
  • Explain why to the child why they were removed in a gentle and age-appropriate manner. Give the facts and nonjudgmental information.
  • Make their new environment as comfortable and welcoming as possible.
  • Give them permission to express sad, guilty, blaming, and angry feelings in a non-destructive, healthy way. Help them name their feelings.
  • Get the child into counseling or therapy (DCFS typically recommends this anyway)
  • Reassure the child of their value and importance. Let them know they’re loved.
  • Give them alone time, extra encouragement, or cling time if they need it.

Everyone’s hope and prayer is that eventually the children will move on to understanding and coping. Understanding means they are beginning to let go of the grief that is contributing to the behavior. Coping allows them the energy to accomplish tasks in everyday life without a struggle and they start to have hope for the future.

Children will be able to see the positive and negative things about their parents and will let go of that bitterness, anger, and the destructive behavior they were using as an outlet.

If you still have your PRIDE book (it’s probably packed away with your pre-fostering ideas about foster care and your sanity) there are a few pages that may be helpful to review:

  • The Pathway Through the Grieving Process p. 136
  • Key points (session 4 recap) p. 141-147
  • Blank Loss History Chart p. 154

If you have any questions or need a little extra support with your foster children in White County, message us at our Facebook page and we will get you in contact with our Family Support Coordinator.




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