Stages of Grief

Losing a family member or best friend is a serious loss to anyone. Even losing a small thing, such as keys, can lead to feelings of self-doubt and anger. Children in out-of-home care often have experienced multiple serious losses. They did not ever expect to be separated from parents, brothers and sisters, extended family, friends, pets, schools or neighborhoods. Some children have lost their health and an opportunity for normal growth, development and a normal education due to past abuse or neglect. Children, like adults, react to losses by expressing their feelings through behavior that is very similar to the grieving process.

Recognizing that the child placed in your home is grieving, and trying to determine the stage of grief he or she is in, can help you understand what the child is feeling and why his or her behavior might vary and seem unpredictable.

Stage 1: Shock and Denial – “I don’t believe this could have happened to me.”

When a child is first placed in a resource home, he or she may be very eager to please, be cooperative and be generally enjoyable to be with. Experienced resource families recognize these symptoms of shock and denial as the “honeymoon” stage. Enjoy this time and realize that his or her true self and feelings likely have not emerged. Other children in shock and denial may have difficulty eating or sleeping, or they may revert to the behavior of a much younger child, such as wetting the bed or sucking fingers.

Stage 2: Bargaining – “If I could just go home and be a better son, I know everything would be okay.”

Children in this stage will do everything they can think of to get back home. Many children think if they are “good,” then they can go home. They may also decide to be “bad” so the resource family will not want them and will send them home. Or, their bargaining may be somewhere in the middle. For example, a child may ask if he or she can go home if he or she goes to school and makes good grades.

Stage 3: Anger – “Why did this happen to me and my family? Someone doesn’t understand and is picking on us! I hate these people! Help! Let me out of here!”

When bargaining does not appear to work, anger sets in. Most children have trouble expressing their feelings, so they simply act them out. Some children may come to the resource home in the anger stage. They may break things, attempt to run away, refuse to bathe or brush their teeth or find ways to hurt themselves. The anger stage is often the most difficult stage for resource families because it is difficult to cope with the behavior, understand what the child is feeling and feel adequate support for the child emotionally. Anger is the stage in which many resource parents give up and request the removal of the child. When this occurs, the child is likely to be even angrier with the next resource family.

Stage 4: Despair – “Now what will I do? How will I get home? I’ll never find them!”

Eventually, reality sinks in. With help and understanding, the child gives up fighting and his or her behavior changes dramatically to depression. This stage can be dangerous, as the depressed child may also be self-destructive. Watch for symptoms of depression such as loss of appetite, changes in sleep patterns, being withdrawn or listless
or trying dangerous or risky behaviors without thought of personal consequences. For example, becoming sexually promiscuous, using drugs, attempting suicide and self-mutilation are all examples of a child in this stage. Younger children may show no fear of doing unusually dangerous things for someone of that age.

Stage 5: Managing Loss, Understanding, and Coping – “It looks as if there is nothing I can do. My mom really needs to clean up her act. Being here is better than being scared all the time. My resource family seems willing to help. I guess I should try to get along here for now.”

At this stage, children begin to form new friendships, especially with adults. They may accept the resource parent’s role and begin to enjoy their new teacher or being part of the school band. They will be able to move into new situations more easily and will act less frustrated. Clues from children transitioning into this stage may range from talking about the resource family’s automobile as “our car” to calling an unrelated child living in the home “my brother.”

Each person works through the grief process at his or her own rate. It may take days, weeks or even years depending on the number of losses experienced, the seriousness of each loss and whether or not the person has learned to deal with loss in the past. Children in out-of-home care often move from one stage of grief to the next and then back again, or they may appear to display the despair and anger stages of grief at the same time.

Continue to Tips to Help Decode a Child’s Behavior