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Session 7/13

Page 2/4: Topic Introduction: Having many sources of identity development

Topic Introduction: 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 the child may have been removed with force by authorities while the parents were desperate or angry, or a parent may have died or have been unhappy when the separation happened. Often they feel divided between loyalty towards their parents and the staff in their placement.

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 their own self while in residential care?


A child – especially if older than age three when received in the institution – has already formed attachments to parents. From our perspective these attachments may be dysfunctional and full of fear and ambivalence. The biological 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 residential care, the child often faces a conflict of loyalty: “I am attached to my parent(s) – but now the staff offers me attention and care. How can I receive this without feeling guilty or as 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 professional caregivers, 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 placement has more resources.


If you receive a child in 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 institution and feels secure. After this period, open dialogues about having two sets of caregivers are necessary for identity development.

As described in other sessions very young children tend to form attachments with caregivers after some time. If this happens, the child may even start calling staff members “mother” or “father”. You can accept this – knowing that when the child gets older it must find a way of understanding its background.

These natural feelings of professionals towards parents who have deprived or neglected their child must be resolved – and this takes time – in order not to place the 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 child in an institution 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 the caregivers, 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. As the child grows older and understands more about itself and others, it must continuously construct a new idea about identity and background, so this is a process which takes many years.


Research shows that conflicts between parents and professional caregivers 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 parents will produce a negative self-esteem in the child. It is one of the most difficult tasks as a professional to develop a truly positive view of the biological parents in order to help the child.


  • When you received the child in your institution, 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 is most difficult for you in accepting the parents or seeing their positive qualities?