Separation and Loss

The grieving process:

Is a normal part of life for most people, and certainly for the children in out-of-home care

  • Influences feelings which, in turn, direct behavior
  • Requires resource parents, biological families and child welfare specialists cooperate to help children manage feelings and behaviors so they can make the most of their out-of-home care experience
  • Elicits varied responses including:
    • Shock, denial or protest
    • Bargaining
    • Anger (acting out)
    • Depression (anger turned inward)
    • Understanding and coping

The pathway through the grieving process begins with a significant loss. This loss typically falls into one of the following categories. Often the children placed in your home have experienced all three:

  • Loss of health from being abused or neglected
  • Loss of significant persons (parents or siblings) to whom they are strongly attached
  • Loss of self-esteem; feeling worthless, inadequate and unable to control the events in their world

As children move along this pathway their behavior may indicate which response they are experiencing. Children also have specific needs related to each developmental stage.

The following chart describes children’s responses to separation and loss and ways you can help them deal with the trauma.

Understanding and Helping Children with the Impact of Separation and Loss

Age Developmental Task Effect of Separation and Loss How to Help Minimize Trauma
Infant Infants develop a sense of security and trust from day- to-day experiences. Their primary task is to develop a sense of trust in others. By 7-9 months, they know family members and often fear others. Dependence on mother decreases as trust develops. They react to differences in temperature, noise, and visual stimuli. They may lose their sense of being able to rely on the environment and the individuals within it. May become anxious and less exible. Rebuilding trust in adults is a major task. Be attentive. Keep changes in daily routine to a minimum.
Toddler They begin to separate from their mothers, develop self-con dence and self- esteem, and feel capable of doing things themselves. Their sense of independence, self- con dence, and self-esteem is damaged. Toddlers may regress to younger behaviors. Provide help developing independence, or a balance between dependency and independence. Tolerate clingy behavior, as they do not trust adults will be there when they need them. Provide opportunities for trust and autonomy, and opportunities to control their environment – making choices. Become aware of the events surrounding separations or losses they have experienced, as similar events in the future will awaken memories.
Preschooler Become good at self-care at home, typically ask a lot of questions, become more individual and more independent. Show tremendous interest in and excitement with the world. Develop language skills. Unable to understand cause and effect. World is confusing, they fear abandonment and are susceptible to misperceptions as to the reasons for moves, and will blame themselves. They see themselves as the center of everything. Listen to odd or peculiar statements for clues suggesting a child has misperceptions about the reasons for the placement. Be attentive to the child’s development. Language delays are common in children who have been abused or neglected. Provide consistency and predictability so child can regain sense of trust and control.
6-to 10- year-old Learning in school, developing motor skills. Same-sex peer relationships are important. Moral development includes a heightened sense of right and wrong. Become more assertive; the issue of fairness is very important. Increased ability to understand and conceptualize. Interferes with ability to learn and develop friendships. Regression to earlier stages is common. Provide help in dealing with their loss. Get information about their past to help them with identity issues. Provide help with peer relationships, academic performance, and identifying and managing feelings. Children who have been sexually abused need nurturing in nonsexual relationships.
Adolescent Need to be accepted by peer group versus need to belong in family. Must cope with new and perhaps powerful sexual and aggressive impulses. Beginning to find place in the world. Want independence from family; control battles common. Developing intellectual and reasoning abilities. Loss is exacerbated by adolescent’s emotional instability and impulsivity. Loss complicates issues of identity and self-esteem. Separation from family at the developmental state of desiring independence confuses this normal parent child conflict. The separation is imposed not achieved by the young person. Allow youth to be a full participant in the helping plan. Make youth feel that his/ her desires are considered. Provide help acknowledging and managing sad and angry feelings, and low self-esteem. Acknowledge responsible behaviors. Provide help in resolving sexual issues that arise in nonsexual relationships. Give support in peer relationships; for example help to manage peer pressure.

This chart is a composite of information based on a collection of work by Vera Fahlberg called, Putting the Pieces Together, which includes the book, Attachment and Separation. The collection, Putting the Pieces Together, (1982) was republished and distributed in January 1988 by Spaulding for Children, Michigan.

A move/loss is a time of high anxiety and discomfort for children. Being aware of all their feelings, and responding in a helpful way can support the attachment process between the child and the new family.

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