Foster parents often take in children who have suffered some sort of trauma. However, a child whose parent has died requires some extra care and attention. The child’s response to this type of loss will depend mostly on his/her age and stage of development. You are an important part of the child’s grief process.
Infants- 2 years
Very young children, under 2 years, cannot understand the concept of death, and will respond much like any infant separated from their parent. They may have changes in sleeping habits or have trouble with potty training. Extra care and cuddles are the best thing for a child of this age.
Children from ages 3 to 6 years are more aware of this loss, but often see death as something temporary, like going to sleep. They may become irritable or withdrawn, or they may develop physical symptoms like stomach pains or headaches. They may express feelings of guilt and think that the parent died because they were bad or wished the parent would go away.
It is important to be answer the questions of a preschool aged child directly. Avoid using confusing euphemisms like “the loss of your mom” or “your dad passed on”. Use the words dead or died. Encourage the child to talk about their parent and reassure them that they are not to blame. You can also offer drawing materials and encourage them to express their feelings creatively.
School age and teenagers
Children from 6 to 12 have a better understanding of the permanence of death. They may ask questions about the parent’s death and what happens to the body. They will likely experience a wider variety of emotions including: sadness, anger, rage, or guilt. They may develop physical symptoms and may worry about their own death. They may act out or be aggressive in school, or they may become withdrawn.
While teens have a more complete understanding of death, they lack the coping skills required to process the feelings of grief. They may withdraw or engage in risk taking behaviors (fighting, sexual behavior, or drug use). They often won’t express their feelings and may prefer to spend time with friends. They might use phones, TVs or video games as a distraction.
For both these groups it is important to encourage the child to talk about their feelings without judgement. They need a safe place to express even the negative feelings. Aggressive behaviors need to be addressed but try to find the underlying feelings behind the behaviors. Encourage the child to draw or journal about their feelings. Utilize the child’s caseworker and counselor if needed. Try to obtain photos or mementos of the deceased and keep them even if the child says they don’t want them. These items will be important to them as they go through the grief process. You may be able to find an age appropriate support group in your area.
Grief is a difficult process, even for adults. Children may exhibit a wide range of emotions. It is important for them to feel safe and secure. If you are having trouble getting a child to express their feelings in a constructive way, be sure to notify the casework to schedule counselling. Your caring and comfort can be a great help to a child that has experienced a great loss.