Recognizing and Responding to Our Foster Children’s Grief

I am in several online support groups for foster parents, some of which have thousands of members. While I have largely bowed out of social media engagement for my own mental health and time management, I saw a post not long ago that has been haunting me. A woman wrote seeking advice regarding her foster daughter, who never seemed to want to come out of her bedroom. The women wrote that the youth showed no interest in family meals or activities and was “on her phone” all the time. She was asking for tips on how to get her to engage more.

What has haunted me most is the responses. Dozens of people chimed in, and the overwhelming sentiment seemed to be, “Welcome to the teenage years!” Some people encouraged her to take the child’s phone, or at least put parameters around when she could access it. Others encouraged her to just accept that this is how teens are and lower her expectations of that child.

I did not see a single comment that addressed the grief this child is enduring. Granted, I didn’t read through every comment. But I read enough to recognize an astounding lack of awareness among my fellow foster and adoptive parents when it comes to grief in our children. And while it is certainly true that, in a typical family, the teenage years are when a child is supposed to start pulling away from her parents and asserting her independence, things get very complicated when that teen is in a new foster home. How can she pull away from someone she was never connected to in the first place?

When it comes to parenting other people’s children, we need to recognize that grief plays a huge part in our kids’ lives. Here is how adult adoptee Aselefech Evans put it on her blog:

Despite the new life I was given, I carry with me always the experience of my life before adoption. The smell of coffee that my birth mother used to roast, the siblings and other family members I loved, the language I lost, and the emptiness I felt in April 1994 when my twin sister and I were placed in an orphanage with very little explanation. Add to that the recurring dream I kept having as a child of my mom coming back to the orphanage to visit me and rock me back to sleep. I dreamt of holding to her tightly and wished that that moment could last a lifetime. Then later, after 18 years of holding onto that dream, my heart was shattered into a million pieces because I found out that it wasn’t a dream: it actually happened. My mother did come back for me—but the way the system worked, I was no longer hers. She wasn’t empowered to know her rights. But this is how the system works. It preys on the vulnerable, and it leaves them disempowered.

“The Unwanted Arrival of Trauma in Adoption,” EthioAmerican Daughter, November 21, 2018

JaeRan Kim, another transracial adult adoptee, writes, “In addition to losing birth parents, (a foster youth or adoptee) may have lost extended family members and old friends, his home and neighborhood, contact with people who share his heritage or looks, his family surname, or even his home country and native language.”

Can we take a moment for the grief these adult adoptees just described? While both are describing their experiences as international adoptees, what they describe befits children in foster care as well. While it is not emphasized much in training (at least it wasn’t in the curriculum we used), being attuned to the signs of grief and equipped with tools to help our children process their grief is a vital part of what the foster parent is called to do. If we don’t devote time to growing in those areas, we will miss one of the biggest ways we can serve and love our children.

Recognizing Our Children’s Grief

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry lists some of the more common signs of grief in children. As a foster parent, this list will be very familiar. “Children who are having serious problems with grief and loss may show one or more of these signs,” the AACAP writes. [This list assumes the grief is due to a death; I have added some foster care clarifications in brackets.] See how many of these look familiar: 

  • an extended period of depression in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events 
  • inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone 
  • acting much younger for an extended period 
  • excessively imitating the dead person [or, in the case of a foster youth, their mom or dad]
  • believing they are talking to or seeing the deceased [i.e. separated] family member for an extended period of time
  • repeated statements of wanting to join the dead [separated] person 
  • withdrawal from friends [lack of interest in making friends]
  • sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school

Foster parents are well acquainted with “challenging behaviors.” But we absolutely must not stop at lamenting these behaviors and venting to our support groups about how hard it is. It is hard. It does take a toll on us as foster parents. But behavior is a form of communication, and as foster parents, we cannot wait for a child to put their grief into words. We need to learn to “speak the language of challenging behaviors” and respond fluently and effectively.

Responding to Our Child’s Grief

Recognizing our child’s expression of grief is an important starting point, but it can’t end there. We need to also be intentional about how we respond. Here are some things I have learned over the years as I have sought to serve the children who have come into my home because of foster care.

Give them space, but don’t leave them alone. It is common for a child who is struggling with grief to choose to spend a lot of time in their bedroom. It’s important that they know they have a safe place where they can let down their guard and relax. However, they also need gentle reminders that they are welcomed and loved, and they need time and opportunities to learn that we are safe. One five-year-old girl who came into our home did not say much for the first couple of days and stayed in her bed for the most part. However, she was very drawn to our dog, and every now and then, I would bring Samson into her room, telling her, “Samson wanted to say hi!” She would smile, sit up, and pet him. After a little while, she seemed to relax and let her guard down. She began joining the other kids to play and even started smiling and laughing.

An older child we had stayed in her room a lot when she first joined us, and we let her. But nightly popcorn is a ritual my husband and I have had for years, and he started taking her a bowl as well. Every night, he would deliver a bowl of popcorn to her, and eventually, she began to join us in the living room where my husband and I were watching TV after the younger kids were in bed. That time of night became her time to open up, and thanks to the small gesture of nighttime popcorn, this quiet, withdrawn young person began coming out of her shell.

Offer validating language without putting words in their mouth. “It makes perfect sense” is a phrase that has been very helpful and effective in my foster parenting journey, and saying it has opened some really important lines of communication with my kids. For example, “It makes perfect sense that you miss her,” “It makes perfect sense that you wish there were more brown people in our family,” and “It makes perfect sense that you are confused about our house rules—you’ve lived in four families in the past four years” are all phrases that have validated my children’s experiences given them permission to open up about their feelings. While we can’t always find a quick or easy solution, validating language can help a child feel seen and heard, which holds a lot of emotional weight and goes a long way toward helping us connect.

Feed them. A couple of years ago, a wonderful tweet by Joy Marie Clarkson went viral. She wisely wrote, “This is your gentle reminder that one time in the Bible Elijah was like, ‘God, I’m so mad! I want to die!’ So God said, ‘Here’s some food. Why don’t you have a nap?’ So Elijah slept, ate, and decided things weren’t so bad. Never underestimate the spiritual power of a nap and a snack.”

Loss of appetite is very common for someone who is experiencing grief, and our children are no exception. When a child refuses food, we often consider it a power struggle (which it very well may be). But it just as likely could be associated with grief. Rather than make a big deal out of it, meet them where they’re at. When it comes to meal times, don’t stop inviting them to the table. Also, I recommend including at least one or two comfort foods at each meal. For one child we had, white rice with soy sauce was a comfort food. There were many meals during her first few months in our home when that was all she ate. Another child loved ramen soup, and I made sure he got to have ramen at least a couple of times a week when he first arrived with us. One child loved Life cereal and soy milk, and I tried to make sure we always had some of both in the house. As I have shared in my “Food and Foster Care” videos (here and here), there is a huge emotional connection to food, and providing comforting foods to a child who is grieving can go a long way in helping them cope.

Play Therapy. One of our children went through an intense period of grief shortly joining our home. Though he was fully potty trained and in elementary school, he expressed a desire to wear diapers and drink from a bottle. While we did not recognize this for what it was at the time—it took him taking another child’s diaper for me to see what was going on—we eventually “got it” and worked with his therapist to come up with an unconventional but effective form of play therapy that met him where he was at. After getting the go-ahead in writing from his case manager and child therapist, we gave him permission to “Play Baby” for one hour every day. During that hour, he was allowed to wear a diaper, sit in the playpen, have me rock him, and have me feed him from a bottle. He would intentionally use the diaper so I would have to change him. It was very hard for me emotionally to treat this older boy like a baby, but there was no denying its effect. Within two weeks, he informed me that I could give away his diapers because he did not need them anymore. From that point on, there was no more mention of “Playing Baby.”

Another time, shortly after his mother abruptly disappeared from his life, a child began dragging a life-sized stuffed giraffe he had gotten from her at their last visit to our breakfast table, asking me to make her a cup of coffee. I obliged, and this ritual lasted for many weeks. Every morning, I would dutifully pour this stuffed giraffe sitting at my table a cup of coffee. I even provided clothing for her at his request. She traveled with us to therapy appointments and rode with us to school, sitting in the front seat beside me (with her seatbelt on, of course). Eventually, she stopped appearing at the table in the mornings, and I stopped putting her in the car for appointments. She had done her job during that stage of his grief.

I’ll share one more example of how playing can be very therapeutic for a child who is experiencing grief, because hearing from others has helped prepare me for some of the things I’ve faced more than anything else. One of our kids began demonstrating signs of grief as she came into a fuller understanding of her history. Having come into foster care as a baby, she had no conscious memories of her mother, and around the age of four, she began fixating on her. She named a doll after her, made up a game about her, and talked about her a lot. Thankfully, I had been prepared for this stage of grief that is common to many children who are separated from their parents through foster care or adoption, and I was not caught entirely off guard by it. Rather than discourage her from this expression of her grief, I joined her in it. I played with her, asking her questions about what her baby doll (named for her birth mom) was feeling. Sometimes, bedtime books were followed by a long conversation in which I told her every detail I knew about her birth mom (for the umpteenth time). We looked at the few photos of her mom we had. When she expressed the conflict she felt about loving her birth mom and loving me, I assured her that there is enough love to go around, and she can love us both. Again, the phrase, “It makes perfect sense” was very helpful, as I sought to validate her feelings of grief around being separated from her mom and being adopted.

Lest I give the impression that all of this came naturally to me or that it was easy or comfortable, let me set the record straight: it was none of the above. This is why I emphasize the importance of reading books about childhood trauma and listening to those who have gone before. The research I had done prepared me to at least recognize the signs and begin to “speak the language of challenging behaviors.” I would not call myself fluent by any means, but I remain a student and continue to learn.

Be Honest. While it may be counterintuitive, I recommend telling your children the truth about their stories from an early age. Some professionals I’ve heard recommend that a child should know everything you know by the time they start puberty, but I recommend you shoot straight with them even sooner than that. My children all know their stories, and while it can be a bit disconcerting to hear them incorporate drug addiction, abuse, and abandonment narratives when they are happily playing with their dolls, it’s an important part of their journey of self-awareness and identity. A few months ago, one of my children and I traveled out of state to visit with some of his relatives. He sat and listened as they told us more about his story, and we have discussed what we learned several times since. It’s a lot for an eight-year-old, and I’d give anything to be able to spare him the pain of it all. But, by all adult adoptee accounts I’ve heard, the not knowing is even worse.

Involve Your Village

During our seven years as foster parents, we relied on the support of our wonderful community of friends. When a new child came into our home, there were a few members of our village who could be counted on to step up in some pretty remarkable ways. While we could not magically create friendships for our children, we had friends who would bring their children over for play dates and treat our newest foster children as if they had been part of our family forever. They would make it a point to invite our foster children to their children’s birthday parties. While nothing could change the fact that our kids were out of their element, those gestures made a big contribution toward helping our children feel like they belonged.

Likewise, getting to know your child’s school counselor and teachers is a good idea. Our children have gotten so much support from teachers and staff who recognized that they needed some extra support and TLC, and with a stronger push in recent years toward social-emotional learning, more teachers are trained in trauma-informed best practices than in the past. I make it a point to stay in close touch via email and will send a quick note to the teacher or counselor if one of my kids is going through a rough patch. It has been amazing to see how well cared for our kids have been by their educators over the years.

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: grief is a huge part of a foster child’s reality. Just think of all the things a child loses when they come into care: contact with their family of origin, including siblings; their belongings, bedroom, toys, posters, clothes; a school or teacher they loved. We have had children who came to us from other foster homes they had been in for over a year, adding another layer to their sense of loss. Their reasons to grieve seem endless.

Don’t Ignore Grief

When a child comes into your home, be intentional about recognizing the signs of grief, and be proactive about responding appropriately. Grief is a huge part of the foster care experience, not just after an initial placement, but even years later. But it does not have to be the only part.

Healing can come, and we as foster parents can play a role in that healing. From learning to recognize grief in all its many forms to taking proactive steps to respond to our children’s grief, we can help build resilience in our children and equip them for the many stages of grief they will continue to face throughout life.

For more on how foster and/or adoptive parents can help their children through grief, check out the article “Ambiguous Loss Haunts Foster and Adoptive Children” by JaeRan Kim on the North American Council on Adoptable Children’s web site.

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