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How to Be a Great Foster Parent

Week 3: Great Foster Parents Understand the Grieving Foster Child


Parenting Class Quick Links: Index | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5

What You'll Learn This Week

  1. What are the stages of grief?
  2. Why it's important to understand grief as a foster parent and how a child's grief may trigger developmental grieving of foster parents.
  3. Tips for helping a child through the grieving process.

What are the stages of grief?

There are typically five stages of grief.

  1. Shock/Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Despair/Depression
  4. Bargaining
  5. Acceptance/Understanding/Resolution

There are some models of the stages of grief that speak about seven stages or even twelve. But most use the work based on Kubler-Ross' well known stages of grief established in 1969, after her study of grief responses that occur after the death of a loved one. Some professionals talk about denial, while others may choose the word shock to describe the first stage of grief. It's the same with the rest of the stages listed above. I tried to list out the various terms that are used by different professionals. Choose the one that you understand or find the most appropriate for your foster child.

One of the most important things to remember when working with grieving children is that grief is very personal. Each child will grieve in his own way. The way anger looks in one foster child's behavior, may look like depression in another foster child. It is also important to understand that depression is anger turned inward. There are several elements that have an impact on and explain why each foster child's grief will be different.

The stages of grief also play out differently from individual to individual. They don't have to occur in order. The stages can present very randomly, and repeat as well. A child may arrive at a level of understanding or acceptance, and a trigger, such as a visit with birth family, may send the child through the grieving process again.

Some grieving foster children may get stuck in a stage of grief and need help in resolving issues. When a child is stuck in anger or depression, this may mean a serious issue and a foster parent may need to seek professional help in the form of therapy for the child.

Grief and the Foster Parent

Foster parents are called to help foster children heal and work through their grief and loss. When we can understand what the child is going through, we can help them grow through it. By understanding the stages of grief we can identify where the child is in the grieving process and hopefully head off any further behaviors.

Remembering to document the child's behavior and look for triggers to a child's grief and the behavior that occurs afterward give those of the professional team a clue as to what the child endured in the birth family and how it has impacted the child. This gives direction to the therapist and helps in deciding what other services the child, foster family, and birth family may stand in need of.

Working with grief and loss can take its toll on a foster parent. Great foster parents know that it's important for them to ...

  • maintain their own mental health by taking breaks as needed. Utilize respite – even if it's only for few hours.
  • recognize own grief triggers. A foster parent, who experienced sexual abuse as a child, may not be ready to parent a child who has been sexually abused. A foster parent who has experienced the same abuse as the foster child will need to separate own experience from that of the child.
  • know that a child's acting out of anger is not to be taken personally. It's not about the foster parent or the foster family. They are a safe place for the child to vent.
  • has a long list of supportive friends and family who are ready to assist the foster parent with needed respites, or a listening ear. Great foster parents can vent about a situation without breaking confidentiality of a foster child's case.

Helping the Child's Grieving Process

  • Know that it's going to take time.

  • Know that there is no way to estimate how much time each child will need to grieve their losses. There is much for a foster child to grieve.

    • family
    • home
    • neighbors
    • pets
    • toys and other personal items
    • innocence, especially if sexually abused
    • school
    • friends
    • culture – of family and/or ethnicity

  • Be ready with several ways to help a child with anger outbursts.
    • Have a 'yelling tree,' a tree in the back yard where a child can go and say whatever they want to a special tree that's just there to hear it all, and tells no one.

    • Allow the child to rip up pieces of paper – like an old phone book.
    • Give the child a journal so they can write and/or draw whatever they like. Encourage the child to share the journal with their therapist each week.
    • Provide the child assess to a safe place to run off their frustrations.

    This Week's Assignment: Find Understanding and Explore

    Find Understanding

    When we as foster parents have an understanding of what it means to lose something, we can then begin to understand the foster child's experience. This week think on a time when you have grieved a loss. Can you turn that experience into a way to further understand the foster child's experience? Read more about the stages of grief and the elements that impact grief.


    Spend time thinking about your foster child. Look back over past documentation and calendars. Can you see a pattern in the child's behavior? Decide if this information gives you clues on how to best approach that time of year or situation in the future. Read our article that explains developmental grieving and then read our article on ideas on how to work through developmental grieving as well as an article on other ways to help a child grieve. Make your own plan on how best to deal with developmental grieving with your foster child. If you do not have a foster child, make a list of ideas on how you will help with the grieving process once a child is placed in your home.

    Recommended Articles in This Week's Lesson

  1. About.com
  2. Parenting
  3. Adoption / Foster Care
  4. Foster Care
  5. Free Parenting Class for Foster Parents - Foster Parents Understand the Grieving Foster Child

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