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Session 6/13

Page 2/5: How children react to loss

How children react to loss

Depending on the age where the child is separated from parents and placed in care, children react and show their sorrow in different ways. They also have different ways of trying to cope with their sorrow. People often say about the loss of a parent that “time will cure the problem”, but this is usually only true for children who were very young when separated from a parent or other important attachment figure, and immediately were given another parental figure.
The child’s loss is not necessarily the death of a parent, but the physical separation in itself. A parent may also have been present but unable to respond due to for example maternal depression, psychiatric diseases, or a lack of care in the caregiver’s own childhood.
The length and severity of a child’s reaction also depends on what contact the new caregivers offer.


Usually children will go through a protest phase when separated or not responded to: they cry, they are uncomfortable and difficult to soothe, they may reject the efforts of intimacy from their new caregivers. This is in fact a normal and healthy reaction: the child’s attachment system is activated by the separation as it should in order to prevent further separation. You can see a demonstration of this reaction in Dr. Ed Tronick’s “Still Face Experiment”. First, the mother is responsive and cooperative – then she is asked to make her face still. The infant immediately starts trying to get her attention, becomes desperate and finally cries.

You can imagine how an infant with a mother who is not able to respond can experience states of excessive anxiety. Due to this, we recommend that this video is only used as an demonstration of childrens’ reactions, not as inspiration for the caregivers to try.


Lack of attachment behaviour:
If another attachment figure is not offered after separation, or if caregivers don’t respond to the child’s crying, the child may give up crying and apparently become calm, indifferent and withdrawn. This is in fact a signal of danger: the activity of the attachment system may have stopped, but the child may be in a permanent state of grief. It may respond less or not at all to care and efforts to offer intimacy and comfort. This can develop into a state of depression and withdrawal, where the child does not thrive or grow sufficiently. This reaction is common in children who have experienced many early changes in caregivers or attachment figures, and children who have received too little interaction in for example orphanages or hospitals.

Overreaction to separations:
If the separation has been sudden and very shocking – perhaps the infant may have been taken away by authorities and police while the parents were crying and fighting – the infant may develop a general state of stress and separation anxiety. Perhaps the infant’s attachment system has become much too sensible and “hyperactive” due to one or more early shocks. So, every time you leave the room or just turn away, the child may be extremely afraid and panic, and need constant confirmation that you will stay where you are. Children who have become hypersensitive to separation may cling to you all the time, have major problems falling asleep and need reassurance and comforting for a long time even after a short and normal separation.
This is a frequent problem in the first phase for children after placement.


  • Did you see withdrawal or excessive fear of separation in the children after placement?
  • How long did it last (if it has stopped or is less intense by now)?
  • How did it affect the feelings of staff members towards the child?
  • Did you experience feeling sad or rejected yourself as a caregiver by any of the children?
  • Did the child’s excessive fear of separation make you afraid of practicing normal short separations, such as leaving the infant alone for a minute?
  • How did you respond if the child did not respond to you, or was constantly clinging and afraid of your leaving the room?