by Sophie Boswell & Lynne Cudmore
In the flurry of excitement before a child is moved to be adopted, the fact they are losing a parent figure seems to get overlooked.
Our research showed that during this time levels of anxiety within the adopters and foster carers are extremely high. Despite the best intentions of professionals and others involved it is difficult for to keep in mind some fundamental facts about attachment and loss in young children. Such as:
- Losing a parent figure in childhood is always traumatic, particularly in the first four years of life.
- Children experiencing such a loss are likely to experience acute feelings of confusion, mistrust, fear and abandonment.
- How gradual or how abrupt the separation is and how much emotional support is given to the child at this time are crucial in deciding how traumatic this loss will be.
- As long as it is handled sensitively, the ongoing presence of an existing attachment figure can reassure children and reduce the trauma of sudden loss.
- Children can react to loss by becoming outwardly compliant and cut off from their feelings; this should not be taken as evidence that they are ‘fine’.
- Broken attachments can lead to low self-esteem and insecurity. Maintaining contact with carers can give children a powerful message of love and acceptance.
What can social workers do to prevent this from happening?
Many people are involved in decision-making during these moves, but there is no one person with overall responsibility for ensuring these principles are kept in mind. Social workers have a crucial role in providing clear guidance and support to foster carers and adopters so that the children’s emotional needs remain central during every stage of an adoptive move.
- The child’s relationship with their foster carer is important, and the loss of this relationship should be made as gradual as possible to avoid unnecessary trauma.
Social workers can help by providing a clear and consistent message that this is an important relationship and one that should not be abruptly broken. Transitions can be much more gradual, with clear plans for regular ongoing contact with former carers not just planned but actively supported.
Regular and frequent visits from former carers, probably quite short at first, should be taken as the norm. These should become less intensive over the following months as children settle and become attached to their new parents.
If adopters or foster carers become anxious about potential upset during or after a contact, social workers can gently remind them that it is better to support children with their feelings, rather than give a message that distress is better avoided or denied.
Where actual contact is not possible other ways can be found for ensuring the foster carer remains an ongoing presence in the children’s lives. In an ideal scenario the carers will gradually assume an ‘auntie’ or grandparent–like role.
- The relationship between foster carers and adopters should be understood as a long-term commitment to be supported and sustained over time.
A good relationship between carers and adopters is crucial in determining how thoughtful the transition will be, and whether or not ongoing contact is carried out in a mutually supportive way.
Sensitive ongoing support and guidance from a social worker can ensure foster carers and adopters take on the task of providing as much continuity and joined-up thinking as possible over the transition and beyond.
This will give the child the message that both old and new attachments are important and have a place in their life. It will also mitigate against the pain of torn loyalties or having to shut down memories of people they have loved.
- Foster carers and their families need support so they do not devalue or minimise their importance to the child.
We believe that the system inadvertently gives out the message that foster carers’ relationship with a child is no longer important after the move. Carers who question or show distress about this are too often seen as obstructive or unprofessional.
Foster carers should be encouraged to remain in children’s lives, albeit in the background. Social workers will have a crucial part to play in supporting foster carers who may find this upsetting, and in reminding all parties that this can help new attachments being formed with adoptive parents.
- Adopters need help in understanding the emotions of the child they have adopted, including if a child appears to be unaffected.
Adoptive parents often feel in the dark about the emotional impact the move has had on their child. At the same time they are being asked to make major decisions about contact and other issues.
Although they are trained in attachment and loss prior to placement, we suggest that social workers also provide adopters with extra help in understanding their children’s emotional needs post-placement. This should include recognition of the ‘compliant’ child who may appear to be fine but may have cut themselves off from their feelings, as described above.
- Social work professionals and managers involved should be trained to recognise and respond to a young child who appears to be ‘fine’ after a major loss.
Most people agree that a child who appears cut off or ‘fine’ after a major loss is usually more worrying than one who is able to communicate their distress. However, this quickly gets lost when adults are anxious or upset themselves and seek reassurance that a child is not unduly distressed.
Social workers can play a crucial role in holding this in mind and helping others to do so, resisting the temptation to be relieved rather than worried when a child in this situation appears to be ‘fine’. A child who is not showing their feelings will need the support of sensitive, emotionally available adults who can be aware of, and hold on to, feelings that the child may be finding frightening or overwhelming.
Sophie Boswell and Lynne Cudmore are child psychotherapists and author of the report: ‘The children were fine’: acknowledging complex feelings in the move from foster care into adoption.