Children who no longer live with their birth parents must go through their own version of grief…

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

In 2014, Child Welfare Services checked up on 3.2 million children reported as abused or neglected, in the United States of America*. Many of these children are removed from their birth parents and enter foster care. Some return to their parents while others are adopted by loving families. The goal is always permanency for children but the issues of grief must be addressed regardless of the child’s placement.

What is Grief?

Grief is the state that individuals experience when a significant loss occurs in their life. The loss might occur as a result of death, divorce, and/or abandonment by a family member. It might be said that nontraditional families, like foster and adoptive families, are born out of grief as they are formed as a result of a loss. This is confusing due to this is a time for both celebration and sadness.

Grief is a profound loss for children that is not always recognized by parents and professionals. One reason is that children do not grief in the same way that adults do. Young children often act like nothing happened at all and adults wrongly assume they are not grieving. Later, when they erupt in anger and aggression towards others, adults are surprised by their behavior. Misunderstanding the behavior will lead to incorrectly managing it and parents miss an opportunity to address the loss and create a healing bond.

Stages of Grief

Despite the confusion, grief has predictable stages of development. This is beneficial to the nontraditional parent as they attempt to make sense of their child’s grief experiences. Most importantly they know that the most negative feelings of grief and loss will not last forever, at least not in the same intensity as when it first started.

Perhaps the best known framework for grief and loss are the stages listed in the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote the book On Death and Dying (1969). Her stages of grief include:

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

These stages can manifest differently depending on the child’s developmental stage. As a child matures, their ability to understand themselves and their world changes, allowing for deeper levels of grieving. This is why young children can act like they don’t grief or care about their past. They may not want to talk about their past or have any questions for adults. When they are older, however, they may “suddenly” have questions and this can be perplexing to adults.

Another way grief can affect children is creating a division between “age and stage.” A child may be 16 years of age chronologically but act emotionally and socially like a 6 year old. Would a parent allow a 6 year old to take care of his or her younger siblings? Of course not! A 16 should be responsible to watch their younger siblings for a short time. A 6 year old would not have the cognitive ability. A 10 year discrepancy between age and stage can cause grieving children to look like they are on an emotional roller coaster ride. One minute they are responsible and calm. Then next they are reactive and impulsive. Parents can easily make the mistake of dealing with the child’s age and not their stage.

Close the gap between the child’s emotional and chronological stage by creating a space for them to grief past losses.

Waves of the Ocean

A useful metaphor for understanding grief are the waves of an ocean. When you are way out in the ocean, the waves are large and frightening. They pull you under and twist you about, creating a sense of hopelessness or fear of your future. This is similar to the stage of Denial or shock at the reality of the loss. When the waves pass and the ocean feels momentarily calm, this is called the stage of anger or bargaining. The shore represents the stage of acceptance. As nontraditional parents and children swim for the stage of acceptance, waves continue to crash over them, sometimes threatening to pull them under in denial and shock and at other times settling down and letting anger and bargaining propel them forward to the shore. The closer you come to the shore the less intense the waves. But even small waves, when standing on the edge of the ocean can unsettle and cause you to lose your balance.

Parents can use this metaphor to help themselves and their children find emotional balance. Because they are in the ocean and not on the shore they cannot compare their children’s action to others. In addition, rather than live up to society’s expectation of what an ideal family should look like, parents need to concentrate their energy on helping their child swim for the shore, in their own timeframe, even if it must be developmental stages.

Art and the Heart

Expressive arts can open the heart of the child who is grieving by allowing them to freely process thoughts and feelings that have been trapped in her heart and possibly . Parents have to set an atmosphere of acceptance to help the child “swim to shore”. Parents who avoid talking about sad or angry feelings communicate that it is unsafe or unwise to share. You don’t have to be an art therapist. Just get out the crayons and paper. Pull out paints and use your fingers. Play with legos and dolls. Make believe and role play. As adults we can interject healing ideas and allow grief and loss to work naturally. 

Talking about Birth Parents

It can feel rejecting for foster or adoptive parents to talk to their children about birth parents. Ironically, opening up conversation and allowing children to grieve will create a closer, more intimate attachment. Not talking about them will reinforce shame in the child and idealizing birth parents creating a vicious cycle or hurt between parent and child. The loss has already occurred. Avoid it doesn’t make it go away. It stays buried until it comes out in more painful ways. 

If parents need help in this area, consult with a child therapy and spend some time working through the age and stage of grief. 

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Sources: 

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/07/in-a-year-child-protective-services-conducted-32-million-investigations/374809/

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1969).

Ron Huxley, Love and Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting (1998).

Parenting with cancer (with video)

University of Michigan Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, Brad Zebrack, Ph.D., MSW, offers some valuable insight and advice about parenting with cancer in the video below, which recently aired on the PBS show A Wider World. Dr. Zebrack is a Hodgkin lymphoma survivor since 1985 and has devoted his career to studying the impact of cancer on families and young adults.

Additional resources:

In Ann Arbor, The Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor has programs for kids or teenagers who have a parent with cancer. Parents meet separately from kids to discuss their own concerns and share advice. Find more about the groups and see the May/June calender for meetings here or call Bonnie Dockham, program director, at 734-975-2500.

How to Tell Your Children About Your Cancer, from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

Parenting With Cancer, a website created by Jen Singer, a lymphoma survivor and mother of two.

The Children’s Treehouse Foundation provides tools for parents and support at hospitals throughout the country.

Helping Your Children Cope With Your Cancer, a collection of essays written by parents, their children and health care experts.

Betsy de Parry is the author of Adventures In Cancer Land and the producer of the Candid Cancer reports. Find her on Facebook, email her or follow Candid Cancer on Twitter.

 

Ron Huxley: This is one of the those topics that no one really talks about…that is why it is here on the Parenting Toolbox.

The Terrible Twos – Myth or Reality?

boy kicking toys
© Jon Whittle

Two-year-olds get all the buzz, but the truth is, tantrums and mayhem can strike at any age, for a variety of reasons. “Most toddlers begin testing limits shortly after their first birthday and continue until about age four,” says Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411.

So how did the Terrible Twos become such a pop-parenting phenomenon? “It’s an old-fashioned idea and not supported by research,” says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Center at Yale University. The term was coined in the 1950s, perhaps because so much pressure was put on families to be detergent-commercial perfect that the moment a child grew out of compliant infancy, moms were freaked out. But modern parents agree—every kid is different, and every year presents new joys and challenges. Read on for a fresh perspective on each stage.

Age 1

What’s to Love: They can be wonderfully cuddly. And since many 1-year-olds haven’t yet realized the power of the word “no” to antagonize you, they can often be more compliant than their 2- to 4-year-old sibs. Their distractible nature means you can get them to stop fiddling with the oven knob by giving them a pot and a spoon to bang with.

What’s Tough About It: Establishing good sleep patterns is still a struggle throughout this year, as you drop the morning nap, lengthen the midday one, and solidify bedtime. All that snooze drama can make for an overtired, cranky kid. In addition, his limited vocabulary makes for misunderstandings. (He says “nana.” You put him on the phone with Nana Helen. He wanted a banana. Cue meltdown.)

How To Make the Most of It: They need about 13 hours of sleep (11 at night and 2 during the day), so try to make it happen, suggests Bronwyn Charlton, Ph.D., co-founder of SeedlingsGroup, a collective of child-development experts in New York City. Inadequate sleep stacks the deck against you: A tired toddler is a cranky toddler.

Age 2

What’s to Love: There’s no denying it—2-year-olds are stinking cute! Their curiosity about the world is infectious. And while they certainly get into trouble, their mishaps feel accidental, making them easier to forgive.

What’s Tough About It: Two-year-olds are fully mobile. Translation: They’re into everything. And that means this is the first time you’ve had to set limits (no climbing the bookcase, crossing the street, or picking up cigarette butts off the sidewalk). Your child has never heard “no” so many times in her short life—and she doesn’t like it. To top it all off, 2-year-olds don’t yet have the language to express feelings, so they resort to pitching fits. Their young brains can’t handle extreme emotions without going a bit haywire.

How to Make The Most of It: Praise often: “You didn’t throw any toys today! Great job!” When she blows her stack, ignore her, as long as she isn’t hurting anyone. Yelling or attempts to subdue—even with affection—make tantrums last longer. Kazdin notes that a tantrum is a futile time for discipline. “Wait until your child is able to absorb what you say.”

The new normal in adoption: Birth parent no longer a secret

A new survey shows that more than 55 percent of adoption cases are fully open – and 95 percent involve at least some relationships between birth parent and adoptive family.

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Based on a survey of 100 adoption agencies, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute reported today that the new norm is for birth parents considering adoption to meet with prospective adoptive parents and pick the new family for their baby.

Of the roughly 14,000 to 18,000 infant adoptions each year, about 55 percent are fully open, with the parties agreeing to ongoing contact that includes the child, the report said. About 40 percent are “mediated" adoptions in which the adoption agency facilitates periodic exchanges of pictures and letters, but there is typically no direct contact among the parties.

"The degree of openness should be tailored to the preferences of the individual participants,” said Chuck Johnson of the National Council for Adoption, which represents about 60 agencies. “It points to the huge importance of the right people being matched with each other.”

The Donaldson institute, citing its own research and numerous other studies, said most participants find open adoptions a positive experience. In general, the report said, adoptive families are more satisfied with the adoption process, birth mothers experience less regret and worry, and the adopted children benefit by having access to their birth relatives, as well as to their family and medical histories.

“The good news is that adoption in our country is traveling a road toward greater openness and honesty,” said Adam Pertman, the institute’s executive director. “But this new reality also brings challenges, and there are still widespread myths and misconceptions about open adoption.”

The challenges, according to Mr. Pertman and other adoption experts, often involve mismatched expectations as to the degree of post-adoption contact. The Donaldson report recommends counseling and training for all the adults involved, as well as post-adoption services to help them and their children work through any problems that arise.

The president of one of the largest US adoption agencies, Bill Blacquiere of Bethany Christian Services, said his staff encourages expectant birth mothers to meet with the prospective adoptive family to discuss the array of options for an open adoption.

“As much as possible, we allow the parties to design that themselves,” Mr. Blacquiere said. “We mediate to make sure both parties are getting what they need.”

The post-adoption relationship may start out warily, then become more comfortable as time passes, but Blacquiere said each party should keep the other’s expectations in mind even as circumstances change.

“For adoptive families, they need to make sure they live up to their commitments, and not try to go back on their initial agreement,” he said. “On the birthparent side, they need to remember that this isn’t co-parenting – part of their role has to be blessing the new home that their child has.”

One common pattern, according to adoption agency officials, is that the birth parent initially wants more frequent contact with the child than the adoptive family prefers, followed by a gradual shift.

“When the children get older, it’s often the adoptive families wanting more contact, and the birthparents may have moved on in their lives and at that point are interested in less,” said David Nish, director of adoption programs for New York-based Spence-Chapin Adoption Services.

Mr. Nish said Spence-Chapin espouses the principle of self-determination in working with birth mothers on their hopes for post-adoption arrangements. But he said the agency won’t work with adoptive parents who insist on having no contact with the birth mother.

“We try to educate them,” he said. “If they’re really set on it being closed, we tell them we don’t do closed adoptions.”

For Dawne Era, a psychotherapist from Warwick, R.I., the decision to embrace an open adoption evolved step by step 23 years ago when she and her husband decided to adopt after unsuccessful attempts to conceive on their own.

They made contact with a pregnant 18-year-old from Nebraska who’d decided to place her baby up for adoption, then got to know her as the young woman spent her pregnancy in nearby Boston.

After the birth and adoption of a baby boy named Grady, the birth mother and the adoptive parents agreed to remain in contact. It was an informal pact, yet it led to a mutually satisfying relationship that has continued throughout Grady’s life – occasional phone conversations, a handful of face-to-face visits and, more recently, ongoing contact via Facebook between Grady and his birth mother and his younger half-sister.

For Ms. Era, there was a stressful moment when she and her husband got divorced while Grady was a toddler, and she had to inform the birth mother.

“That was very difficult,” Era said. “We had promised to take Grady in and raise him in a two-parent family. I thought she would be very disappointed in me, but she took it well.”

Overall, said Era, the open adoption "has been very positive for all of us.“

Mr. Pertman of the Donaldson Institute has a daughter adopted 14 years ago. He said challenges can sometimes arise even after adoptive parents and birth parents grow comfortable with the rhythms of an open adoption.

He recalled how many members of his daughter’s birth family – including her birth mother, grandparents, a brother and an uncle – came to her bat mitzvah.

"For us and them it was normal, but not for everybody else in the room,” Pertman said. “They got some looks, like ‘What’s this all about?’ ”

 

Source: Christian Science Monitor