When a child is removed from their home due to abuse or neglect, that child can go through the very difficult process of grief and loss of their birth parents. The feeling of loss or grief aren’t only about their parents, but that of extended family, home, pets, neighborhoods, schools, friends, treasured belongings, and in some cases culture. This is especially true for children who were removed from their home at an older age in which children are more alert and able to realize their situation.
In adopted children, it is very important that the adoptive parents understand the process of grieving as well as the warning signs that it is time to seek professional help.
The Stages of Grief and Loss
Grief is very a very scary and difficult thing for children. Each child can go through grief at their own pace, time, and order. Each step in their process can even vary in extremes. When referring to process and order, we mean to Kubler-Ross’, who stated individuals went through stages of grief:
Here is an example of what grief and loss may look like in a child who longs for their birth family after entering a foster or adoptive situation.
- Shock/Denial – ‘My family will be here soon to pick me up.’ The child stands by the door and waits, peering out the window from time to time. This can be a very fragile time for the child, especially if given a false sense of hope that their birth parents will return.
- Anger – ‘I hate you! You don’t understand anything about my family’ or ‘They lied about my dad. He wouldn’t do any of the things they said he did.’ The child may cry uncontrollably or become angry at the foster/adoptive parents for making simple requests like asking the child to get ready for bed or being told ‘no.’ This stage can also be the outcome of a child who has learned that when things get “bad” they are removed from the situation, therefore they begin trying this tactic to be returned to their original home. This is also the hardest stage for most foster parents, especially if the child begins acting out or misbehaving. It is during this stage, that a mental health professional should be sought.
- Bargaining – If the child realizes they will be in the foster/adoptive home for some time, they may silently pray or believe the following: ‘If I’m allowed to go home I’ll be the best kid. I will help keep the house clean. I will get the top grades in school.’ The bargaining is the outcome of guilt or feelings of fault in being removed, which is not uncommon for children who were victims of abuse.
- Despair/Depression – ‘Who is going to take care of me? Did I make this happen? I give up. Why me? I’m so alone.’ For older children, this is one of the most common outcomes of being removed from the home. The child can being feeling alone and depressed as they begin to grieve the loss of their birth parents.
- Acceptance/Understanding/Resolution – ‘I’m here in this home, but I’m safe. This is not my fault. I did not make this happen. Adults make choices for me. I need to do my best to share my feelings with adults around me that I trust. I will get through this and be OK.’ This is the stage that any foster parent hopes for. In this stage, the child comes to terms with reality and begins to fully understand that although they are no longer with their birth parents, they are not at fault and can be much happier.
Some children may get stuck in a stage, like anger or depression. Others will bounce between stages many times before hitting understanding. While this process can be expected, it may not always be healthy. If you or someone you know is dealing with this process, feel free to give our office today for a free consultation with one of our clinicians: 561-429-2140