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Oct 18, 2016

by Mary Beth Hadley, LCSW, Clinical Supervisor
Bethany Christian Services of Greater Delaware Valley 

I was transporting a child to his foster home following a family visit when, about halfway home, he erupted into a temper tantrum in the car. It was significant enough that I needed to pull over to the side of the road and connect with him in his grief to help him regulate his emotions. His sense of loss was so great, and he was caught between a foster mother who was critical of his mother and the huge loss of his relationship with his mother as he once experienced it. Life seemed out of control, and he expressed it undeniably.     

Behavior is the language that expresses a deeper need. If we respond to the behavior without trying to understand the “why” behind it, we will miss what the child is trying to communicate. Heather Forbes, owner of the Beyond Consequences Institute, encourages us to ask two questions:

  1. What is driving this child’s behavior?

  2. How can I connect with this child in this moment?

Following family visits, this approach can be helpful for foster parents to sort out whether the child is expressing feelings of grief and loss, or whether other concerns might be arising during visits—it is wise to consider these concerns separately.

Children don’t necessarily experience grief stages in order. They re-experience them at different times, in different ways, as they make sense of what is happening in their lives. For example, a child might burst into tears when he drops food or if things don’t seem to be coming together in play or conversation. These behaviors can reflect a sense of loss and lack of control related to the bigger events in his life. If a child comes home from a visit distraught about how the visit went, it does not necessarily mean the parent upset the child. Their emotions show the level of their distress, giving you an opportunity to connect with the child in a supportive manner.

You can help your foster or pre-adoptive child transition between family visits and to each visit. Ask the child what they might want to take with them to share with or give to their parents. They can draw a picture or take photographs from recent events. This helps parents visualize what is happening when they are not with their child and can help relieve their worries. It also allows them to feel included in various aspects of their child’s life. You may want to encourage an older child to journal following each visit so they can process what took place, or you can journal for them. For a younger child, play is their first language. They may want to re-enact the visit through puppets, stuffed animals, or drawing.

The child may ask when they can return home. There are several ways you can provide support:

  • Acknowledge their desire to reunite with their parents. Responding, “It must be difficult for you not to be with your parents right now,” communicates that you have connected with their sadness.
  • Let them know they are safe and cared for in your home and that you are waiting with them to know what will happen next.
  • Help them understand that a team of people is working toward their return home, and plan to talk together with their foster care specialist to learn more about the process. 
  • Rejoice with them when there is progress and grieve with them when there are bumps in the road

Joining with them in each step provides a supportive connection that is invaluable to the child.

You should also have supports in place to help you with your own grief if it appears parental rights will be terminated. Even if your relationship with the parents has been challenging, having been supportive and encouraging of them will still result in deep feelings. You may rejoice to know things are moving forward in the child’s best interests, but it’s natural for all parties to feel sadness in finalizing this loss. Take hope, strength, and courage in knowing God has a plan for this precious child, even when you can’t see the future.      

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