When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity. John F. Kennedy.
We all face crisis: in our career, in our personal life, in relationships. Crisis can seem debilitating at times. And for some, it is. In the throngs of crisis, we experience those stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. Typically, the stages of grief are discussed in relation to the death of a loved one. Today I am challenging you to think on these stages related to other types of losses, such as those experienced by us when faced with a sudden crisis.
Denial: We cannot believe it is happening to us. After all we have contributed [to the job, to the person, to the activity]. Having a crisis suddenly derail us on our journey is unthinkable! It must be a mistake! How did we not see it coming? It can’t be true!
Anger: Someone must be blamed! Them! Him! Her! God! Nature! We don’t deserve this! When we are in the anger stage, our feelings project outward, like negative waves, to any and all in our path.
Bargaining: We begin the process of “if-only statements. If only we had gotten help sooner. If only we had seen the event coming. If only we had been better, done better, wanted better. Trying to make bargains to stave off the inevitable can lead to the next stage.
Depression: While depression can be profound, it is the process of grieving that can begin to lead to healing. Our sadness over the crisis and what it means for us and for our immediate future occurs naturally. We mourn what we lost as well as the effects of that loss on us. And experiencing that sadness, crying over what we lost can bring some relief to the coiled ball of suppressed anger and fear that resided in the pit of our stomach.
Acceptance: When we reach the stage of acceptance, even if the crisis remains; we can find opportunity: to grow, to learn, to receive.
Foster children face Crisis from Day One.
If you think about the stages of grief in relation to the trauma behavior of foster children, understanding will follow.
Children, even those who have been abused, love their family. Family means belonging, acceptance and love. Maybe not as we define those terms. But when it is all you have ever known, even dysfunction can become a familiar and comforting blanket.
Losing their family of origin, children begin experiencing the stages of grief as if their loved ones had died. And in their denial is another very real emotion…FEAR!
What will happen to me? Who will care for me? Am I all alone? The FEAR emotion becomes their constant companion, traveling with them through every stage of the grief journey.
When they are placed in a foster home, most foster children exhibit quiet, reflective and even congenial behavior. Many professionals label this initial period, “the honeymoon period.”
However, if you measure the behavior against grief, it seems they are actually operating in denial and fear.
“This is not really happening!
Someone will figure it out soon and
my life can go back to where it was
before the crisis. But I better be
good, so I can stay here until my
Family comes for me!”
Most experienced foster parents understand three very important things during this period. And with their experienced understanding, they can prepare.
- The honeymoon period will not last.
- The kids are not thankful to them for “saving them”.
- The anger phase is coming.
In the anger phase…no one is exempt (in the minds of a traumatized child) from the perceived wrongs and blame.
Anger will be expressed in behavior: fighting in school, stealing, lying, cursing, disobeying, tantrums ( to name a few). Not all foster children display all of the above behaviors, but they WILL express their anger in some way. A very interesting component of this anger is the highly disguised fear escorting anger everywhere. As mad as these children are about their losses, they are also afraid to create new alliances for fear of more loss.
And it is at this juncture, that foster placements usually disrupt. Especially for those foster parents who are not prepared or supported during this phase. Foster parents, dealing with a grieving child’s anger, often experience their own crisis as a result. Without much support and assistance, it can be a very difficult time to keep going.
The sad fact is that every placement that disrupts for a child…every time they are taken out of one home only to be placed in another.. the child experiences another loss.
The grief cycle starts over, but the stages are magnified.
After multiple placements, the child often just gives up trying to get past anger. It is the place of familiarity and where they feel normal. They are not beyond hope. But they are harder to reach.
If you are a foster parent, I cannot stress enough the importance of reaching out for help and support when going through this phase. There are many foster parent support groups and associations that can offer mentors( experienced foster parents who have been through similar situations), social support and guidance. Dont be hesitant to ask for services for your family from your planning team.
Social workers and foster care agencies: we know about the trauma related and grief related behaviors that children express. We know how important it is for them to navigate through these phases towards acceptance. But we are not the ones living day in and day out with them. It is our responsibility to ensure that our foster parents are prepared for and supported through crisis…whenever it may occur. Do not leave them to walk through this difficult time alone.
When a foster child can move towards acceptance: of their situation, of their current family of their options for permanency…then they can begin to relax. Once they have moved to this phase, they can begin to be more open to new relationships and can form more lasting bonds. Whether a child is to be reunited with his birth family, live with kin or be adopted by foster parents, getting through these stages are imperative.
Be aware of the stages of grief as they relate to foster children. Use that knowledge as a stepping stone to understanding how their trauma effects their behavior. Understanding can provide you with empathy. However, we also must proactively equip our foster parents with the knowledge, skills and emotional support they need to walk with our children down the long, thorny path towards acceptance.