Vol. 6, No. 1• November 2001

The effects of grief and loss on children in foster care
by Selena Berrier

All children in foster care have experienced tremendous loss. Even in the very best of foster care placements, children will experience loss of their familiar home surroundings, at least some disruption of daily routines, loss of personal belongings, pets, and family members—parents, siblings, and kin.

Even when the plan is reunification, and there is a good possibility that they will be returned home, children experience profound loss while they are separated from their caregivers. How a child experiences loss depends on many factors, including:

• The child's developmental level

• The significance of the people separated

• Whether the separation is temporary or permanent

• The degree of familiarity of the new surroundings

Of these factors, a child's developmental level will most deeply impact his or her understanding of the situation, and therefore influence how he or she behaves while in foster care. The following is a brief summary of how a child's developmental level will affect his or her response to grief and loss.


A child's major developmental task during infancy is establishing trust. When an infant experiences the profound loss of a parent or primary caregiver, the infant is at risk of losing his or her basic sense of trust in adults, and the world at large. Specific grief and loss related behaviors include crying loudly, withdrawal, apathy, and mournful crying. Foster parents can help reduce an infant's experience of loss by maintaining the infant's routines (as best as possible). Infants also find comfort in familiar smells—although sometimes it goes against our instincts not to wash all of the infant's belongings, it gives the infant a sense of security to keep something that smells of the infant's home.

Preschool: Two Years to Five Years of Age

At this age, children have not developed logical thinking abilities, and do not understand cause, effect, or permanence. Children of this age who experience loss may feel sadness, hopelessness, denial, and guilt. The fear of further loss may make the child clingy, anxious, and stubborn. Foster parents can help reduce the stress of loss by answering the child's questions honestly, providing loving, stable interactions, and patiently attempting to connect with the child.

School Age: Six Years to Eleven Years of Age

During this period, children are developing their ability to understand cause, effect, and time. They are beginning to form concrete and logical thoughts. Grief will show itself in school or learning problems, and pre ccupation with the loss of caregivers and or related worries. Foster parents should be available, sympathetic listeners and help teachers and other significant adults understand that the child's behavior and performance is related to his or her overwhelming sadness.

Adolescence: Twelve Years to Nineteen Years of Age

At this stage, children understand permanence and will grieve like an adult, following the five stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (Shock/Denial, Anger/Protest, Bargaining, Depression, Resolution). Complicating the grief process is the adolescent's primary developmental task: forming his or her own identity. Issues of independence, resistance, and separation are already occurring—profound loss adds a tremendous amount of stress to his or her maturation process. When faced with loss, adolescents can turn to destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, etc. Foster parents can help adolescents deal with their conflicting emotions by helping them maintain their sense of identity, allowing them to make choices (that are not harmful), and by encouraging safe expressions and experiences of freedom and independence.

Foster children are often in a state of "limbo." When initially placed into care, it is often unknown whether the child will or will not return home. Until a birth parent's rights are relinquished or terminated, it is difficult for a child to complete the grief process. Foster parents who are providing care during this time of limbo need to help children maintain attachments with their caregivers. Continual contact between birth parents and the child (even if it is not face-to-face) is recommended. Through contact and visits, the child's family can reassure the child he or she is safe and loved.

When separation from the birth family is permanent, it is the foster parents' responsibility—along with the social worker—to help the child feel safe, secure, and prepared for the future. Honest, developmentally appropriate communication is essential. Social workers and foster parents need to work closely together to develop a plan to help the child grieve and adapt during this transitional time between permanent homes.

Selena Berrier is an educational specialist with the Family & Children's Resource Program at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work.

Resources for Foster Parents

A Child's Journey Through Placement. This highly readable book is a must for social workers and foster parents. Dr. Vera Fahlberg explains the impact of separation and loss on attachment and includes concrete tips and examples for helping minimize the trauma of moves, managing behavior problems, and communicating with children. (Fahlberg, V. (1991). A child's journey through placement. Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press.)

Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss. In this classic book, author Claudia Jewett provides detailed information about helping children (of different ages and developmental stages) cope with separation and loss. (Jewett, C. (1982). Helping children cope with separation and loss. Harvard, MA: Harvard Common Press.)


Copyright 2001 Jordan Institute for Families