Sep 20, 2016
by Mary Beth Hadley, LCSW, Clinical Supervisor
Bethany Christian Services Of Greater Delaware Valley
Understanding children’s perceptions, insights and experiences—prior to and following parent visits—can provide insight into how to support them during this difficult transition. They’ve experienced significant changes, not only from their life prior to foster placement but also in their family relationships. It’s important to consider how the child is processing their grief and loss—this will look different for children at various ages and developmental levels.
Grief has many stages. Children will experience shock, denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before (hopefully) eventually understanding and accepting what has happened in their lives. Attaining that acceptance will be an ongoing process.
Initially, when a child enters care, they can struggle to grasp the dramatic life changes they are experiencing. In particular, they likely fear permanent loss of the most important people in their lives. While parent visits may appear to upset the equilibrium you as the foster parent are trying to maintain in the child’s life, these visits provide the security of knowing all is not lost. These visits also provide an opportunity for the child to process the reasons they were placed into care. As you walk alongside the child, you play a critical role in providing stability and support.
Parents, too, experience the stages of grief. These emotions affect their relationship with their child and with those involved with their child. Anger, for example, may be evidenced in many ways including their need for control during visits, being critical of the care others are providing for their child, or feeling they need to prove they can provide for their child.
Including the parent as part of the team, rather than the object of criticism, can help everyone move forward in the child’s best interests. This will be foundational for them as they reflect on the progress they are making (or not), consider reunification goals, and gain insight into how things came to be—and what changes are required to move forward.
I remember a mother I walked alongside in her foster care journey. After several years, she shared that while she was trying to understand what she needed to do to reunify with her daughter, she was unable to make sense of it. She arrived at this difficult moment of truth because of the support she was receiving. Her attempts at progress were encouraged, not judged. This approach enabled her 8-year-old daughter to gain insight into why her mother was unable to care for her.
Children in foster care face overwhelming and, at times, unfathomable challenges. It is important that we provide a safe environment, care, and support to help them navigate through them and emerge stronger as a result. Parents and children are facing their Goliaths. Responding with prayer and grace communicates God’s love and gives them hope that He is at work in their lives.