This content was originally published by childwelfare.gov
Many children in foster care have experienced traumatic separations and losses. The emotions elicited by these traumatic experiences are rooted in underlying grief, which may complicate their adjustment to the newly formed adoptive family unit. Children’s response to grief may vary, depending on their age and stage of development. A child’s grief may be internalized as anxiety, depression, and/or guilt, or it may be externalized in acting-out behaviors that negatively affect day-to-day functioning and relationships.
Validating the reality of loss in adoption and creating a safe space for children to express their feelings are some of the first steps that adoptive parents can take to guide them through a healthy grieving process.
Many adoptive parents can navigate the grief journey with their children and help them overcome any specific adoption-related challenges during childhood adolescence. To enhance parents’ efforts, research has long recognized the benefits of adoption-competent services to address the effects that abandonment, abuse, separation, and trauma may have on children and youth who have been adopted. Accordingly, child welfare professionals play a critical role in helping children gain an understanding of their history and process it through grief to form safe attachments to their adoptive families. The following resources highlight specific examples of services and practice approaches aimed at supporting adopted children and strengthening adoptive families.
3 resources about coping with grief and loss
As child welfare professionals, foster parents, and adoptive parents, our first role is to respond as the comforter to children’s grief, establishing a feeling of safety. When we start where the children are, we listen to their perceptions and experiences of life events and can begin to help them heal. All of our interactions with children and youth in the system must be guided by the understanding that we must address grief as we work toward permanency.
The 3-5-7 Model is designed to help professionals and parents work with children and youth to address these issues of grief and loss. It is an evidenced-informed, guided practice approach that supports the work of children and parents in grieving their losses and rebuilding their relationships in an effort to achieve well-being, safety, and permanency. The model incorporates theoretical underpinnings from child development, attachment, separation and loss, trauma, family systems, and relationship development.
Adopted children and youth have elevated risks for emotional, developmental, physical, intellectual, and behavioral issues. While the majority of adopted children function within normal ranges, research shows that a significant percentage (40-45 percent) of children adopted from foster care have ongoing emotional or behavioral challenges (Smith et al., 2014b). Children in foster care at increased risk of mental health challenges (Lewis, Beckwith, Fortin, & Goldberg, 2011; Kerker & Dore, 2006), which may not go away after adoption. In one study that explored why families seek post adoption services, an overwhelming majority of families (96 percent) noted problematic child behavior (Lenerz, Gibbs, & Barth, 2006). Research also shows adoptive families use mental health services more frequently than other families (Howard, Smith, & Ryan, 2004; Vandivere, Malm, & Radel, 2009), which seems to reflect both greater need and a greater willingness to use services (Smith, 2010).
Role of Adoption Support and Preservation Services – Adopted children and youth and their families may benefit from individual or family therapy or counseling as well as respite care. Parents often need information and guidance on how best to respond to their children’s needs and behaviors, and they may benefit from services that strengthen their coping skills. Services such as respite care can provide valuable breaks for parents from child-rearing demands as well as give children a break. Several programs that examined the outcomes of post adoption services reported improvements in child behavior, parents’ understanding of the effects of adoption on a child’s behavior, children’s mental health, parental confidence in managing child behavior, and family functioning (AdoptUSKids, 2015; James Bell Associates, 2011; LEnerz et al., 2006; Smith, 2006; Zosky, Howard, Smith, Howard, & Shelvin, 2005).
Post Adoption Services: Acknowledging and Dealing With Loss by the National Council for Adoption (excerpt below)
The obvious loss for birth parents and birth relatives is the loss of the daily relationships with the child, the right to parent and make decisions for them. The hopes and dreams a birth parent has for their child may still exist, but the ability to steer them toward those dreams belongs to another parent or parents. The adoptive parents, who see their own dreams coming true with the adoption of their child, may also feel a sense of loss over a wished-for biological child, which they do not verbalize for fear of appearing ungrateful or making their adopted child feel like a “second choice.”
So what is the “real” adoption experience – sadness or joy, loss or connection? In truth, it is all of these at once. Complicated emotions weave in and out of the lives of all impacted by adoption—adoptees, adoptive families, and birth families.