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Session 11/15

Page 2/4 Having many sources of identity development

Having many sources of identity development

It is often confusing for children placed outside home to feel attached to many different people and cultural backgrounds. Very often, their attachments have been broken abruptly in situations where the child has been very afraid. For example: authorities may have removed child may by force by while the parents have been desperate or angry. In other situations, a parent may have died or been unhappy when the separation happened. Such childhood experiences make it even more difficult for children to create a clear idea about who they are and where they belong. Children identify with their parents and they often form a negative or confused idea about themselves if they do not receive help. What are the problems, and how do you help children develop a positive idea of self while in foster care?

A child – especially if older than age three when received in foster care – has already formed attachments to parents. From our perspective, these attachments may be dysfunctional and full of fear and ambivalence. The parents may have been unable to provide good care but nevertheless, these attachments are an important part of the child’s identity.

When placed in foster care, the child often faces a conflict of loyalty: “I am attached to my parent(s) but now my foster parents offer me attention and love. How can I receive this without feeling guilty or being a traitor to my parents?”

This conflict in the child may be even more painful if the biological parents have unresolved issues (anger, jealousy) towards the foster family, seeing them as someone who is stealing the heart of their child. It is difficult to decide that others should care for your child and even more difficult if the “new family” has more resources.


If you receive a child in foster care that has been exposed to violence or neglect it is only natural to feel outraged and angry towards the biological parents who may have exposed the child to terrible events, or who are unable to keep appointments for visiting and contacting their child. Another natural reaction is to have this attitude: “Let’s forget all about your parents and just make you feel secure with us”. This may be a good idea for the first time until the child has settled in the foster family and feels secure. After this period, open dialogues about having two families are necessary for identity development.

As described in other sessions, very young children tend to form deep attachments with foster parents after some time. If this happens, the child will probably start calling you “mother” or “father”. You can accept this – knowing that when the child gets older it must find a way to understand its own background. Perhaps the baby or young toddler will perceive you as a parent. But it must learn from an early age to understand that it also has biological parents. At age three to four you can usually start to talk about “you have two sets of parents”. This should happen before the child hears from other children or adults that you are not the “real parents”.

These natural feelings of foster parents towards the foster child’s biological parents must be resolved – and this takes time – in order not to place the foster child in an intense conflict of split loyalty. It is important to understand that any anger or resentment towards biological parents will be perceived by the child as anger towards a part of the child’s own identity.

A foster child may willingly denounce or try to forget its biological parents, but the price of this will be that it will have to split itself into one part attached to its parents and another part attached to foster parents, without being able to unite these two into one clear concept about itself. Sooner or later this will be a problem for the child, especially in teenage years when the young person tries to form an adult identity. Every time the child reaches a new state of psychological development and acquires a more mature understanding about itself, it must construct a new idea about identity and background, so this is a process that may take many years.


Research shows that conflicts between parents and foster parents are harmful to the development of children – no matter what the conflicts are about.

Your attitudes towards the parents are also a message to the child about whether it can respect itself and feel proud of who it is. Negative attitudes towards the parents will produce a negative self-esteem in the child. It is one of the most difficult tasks as a foster parent to develop a truly positive view of the biological parents in order to help the child.

  • When you received the child, how did you feel towards its parents?
  • What problems did you see in the child that may be caused by lack of parenting?
  • How did you explain to the child about the way you see its parents?
  • What did the child already understand about being in foster care?
  • What is most difficult for you in accepting the parents or seeing their positive qualities?