A Training Snapshot

As a professional trainer, one of the most common questions that I am asked by foster, kinship and adoptive parents / caregivers is:  Why is my 
child acting this way?  One of the most powerful and long lasting impacts on children entering the foster care system is the profound experience 
of grief and loss of permanency.  Our youth in foster care often experience profound and repeated losses in their lives.  One of the most 
powerful losses that they experience is the loss of permanency in their life.  The idea of permanency centers on the presence in an individual’s 
life of people who are in their life unconditionally, provide them with a sense of support, love and belonging.  

Grief and loss is something that all of us as human beings have and will experience throughout our lifetimes.  Some of the common sources of 
loss can be death of a loved one, ending of a relationship, loss of a job, onset of physical / mental illness and the experience of trauma.  Our 
youth in foster care experience these same losses; however they experience another whole set of losses due to their life experience before and 
during their time in foster care.  These losses can include: the innocence of a happy childhood, the experience of abuse and neglect, being 
taken away from their parents, being separated from their siblings, relatives and friends, placement in with strangers, enrollment in multiple 
schools, moving into multiple homes, and loss of connection with the culture and community and ultimately the loss of any certainty about their 
future.  If we list some of the people, places and things that our youth in foster care have lost, it can be truly overwhelming.

In looking at our own experience of grief and loss, one of the common models that is brought up is the Kubler-Ross (1969 - On Death and 
Dying) Grief and Loss Cycle.  In this model, an individual can be seen as going through different reactions to their loss.  It is not believed that 
we go through loss in a systemic and orderly way.  Instead, the experience is often more like a wild ride on a roller coaster than a straight line.  
In this model, the different stages of grief include: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  In our own lives, we can often 
identify times in which we reacted to a significant loss in our lives by experiencing and displaying reactions of anger, sadness, confusion, 
anxiety, hostility, isolation, wanting to run-away, physical ailments, poor attention and concentration, not being truthful, feeling out of touch with 
reality as well as thoughts of our own mortality.  

Once we have processed these experiences of grief and loss, we are often able to step back and gain a perspective of how the loss triggered 
these experiences and reactions.  When we apply the same principle to trying to gain more understanding of what might be going on in the lives 
of our youth in foster care, let us attempt to apply the same lens of Grief and Loss.  We can often see that many of the same reactions that we 
have seen in ourselves after a suffering a loss, are often very similar to those that we observe in the youth that we serve, whether in our 
homes, offices or schools.  When we fail to see our youth in foster care through the lens of grief and loss, we often end up with conclusions that 
lead to serious consequences.  Instead of responding to the youth with care and compassion for their loss, we might instead react to them as if 
they are a troublemaker, defiant, belligerent, insensitive, inattentive, and psychotic or having unstable moods.  These reactions subsequently 
can lead to psychiatric diagnoses and ultimately psychotropic medications that may not even be accurate due to the potential use of the wrong 
lens through which to filter their reactions.  

In applying this to the context of professional training, the approach that I take is to help individuals get in touch with a small snapshot of what it 
might be like to experience the losses of a foster youth.  Once a very simple experiential exercise is completed, the overwhelming majority of 
individuals report having some of the same experiences and reactions to those that they have observed in the foster youth that they serve in 
their homes, offices and schools.  The next time that you come in connect with a youth in foster care, keep in mind the lens of grief, loss and 
permanency.  This should help you to respond with greater care, compassion and effectiveness.