Why Children in Foster Care Are Grieving During Coronavirus

Young, sad girl sitting on her bed, being comforted by her mom who's kneeling before her, holding her hand
"Why can't I see mom and dad?"

In a moment, everything changed for 5-year-old Tesse. While in foster care, she has had visits with her biological parents three times a week, but all that changed. When the state activated the coronavirus stay-in-place order, her visits stopped. Also, the plan for her to return in a few short weeks abruptly halted. She and many other children in foster care are left grieving the impact of the coronavirus.

Among those impacted by the coronavirus stay-in-place order are hundreds of thousands of children in foster care and their biological parents across our country. For the children, these circumstances disrupt connections with their parents. Reunification plans to return home are suddenly frozen in time. The stay in place order forced budding renewed relationships to be put on hold.

Perhaps older children in foster care can have some level of understanding of what is happening and why. For young children, it is hard to explain this loss. Even though they might hear their parents’ voices on the phone or see them through an online conversation, they don’t have the opportunity for physical touch. It is a loss they don’t understand. For most children in foster care no matter the age, these separations often trigger past losses, they are grieving the loss of connections because of the coronavirus. We will see it in their behavior. What do they need from foster parents in their lives?

Critical Needs for Children in Foster Care Grieving

Children Need their Foster Parents’ Calming Presence

A foster parent’s connecting presence is the foundation for stability at this time. Presence means a parent creates and maintains an environment of felt safety, which is the bedrock foundation for security. We pay attention to our words, our actions as it relates to the things around us. We also pay attention to what the children are listening to regarding this current crisis. Is the TV on with non-stop news? What else are they hearing from us? Is it worry and anxiety? Or is it words of peace and faith?

Presence means a parent helps their children feel seen – really seen, as stated by Dr. Danial Siegal in his book, The Power of Showing Up. It means that we connect with them, that we show up with our mental and emotional presence that we see them and respond to them.  We need to hear the hurt and confusion in their words. We need to pay attention to signals, often through behavior, that they too are stressed by the uncertainty of every day.  We need to be present. For children, presence matters.

Children need foster parents who understand there is meaning behind the behavior.

Children often do not express grief in the same ways as adults. Children with a traumatic history perhaps haven’t learned to use words to express their feelings. So, when struggling with the emotions that come from separation, they don’t have words for their feelings, so it comes out in behavior. Grieving children’s behavior may look like a rejection of the foster parents, anger towards siblings, regression in development, (bed wetting) sleeping, and eating issues. Mood changes from playing to crying are common in a young child when grieving.  Not only do children need parents who can look beyond the behavior to the need, but there is also another skill.

When children live out their pain through behavioral outbursts, parents can learn and practice the art of not taking things personally. “You are not my real parents to even I hate you,” comes from a grieving child. It feels so personal, of course. But it comes from a child’s fear and disappointment.

Children need foster parents who understand the need for predictability.

What felt like a usual routine for them in terms of connection with biological parents is now suddenly gone. School routines, church routines have dramatically disappeared.  Connections with friends are gone for now. The challenge of creating a predictable environment is enormous. Foster parents are dealing with massive changes in work and home schedules for themselves, as well. To the degree that is possible, children with a traumatic history, who have only known unpredictable, stressful environments, need predictable schedules.

father helps foster son stick to school schedule

Another critical part of predictability is that children need foster parents to be predictable with emotional responses. In this season of added stress, trying to be emotionally regulated is also a massive challenge for parents. To the degree that we can create predictable environments, we also need to maintain emotionally predictable responses.

            We are all in a place we have never been before. The unknowns are difficult for us, as well. Those unknowns are magnified for the children in our care.  Our peaceful presence makes a difference.

Key Take-Aways

  • For children, presence matters
  • For children, looking beyond the behavior to the need changes our response.
  • For children, predictability creates a less stressful environment

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