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Session 7/15

Page 2/5 Topic Introduction: How children react to loss

Topic Introduction: How children react to loss

Depending on the age where the child is separated from parents and placed in foster 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 heals all wounds”, but this is usually only true for children who were very young when separated from a parent or other important attachment figures. The loss is not necessarily the death of a parent, but the physical separation or perhaps neglect and lack of attention. A parent may be there, but be 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 the child’s reaction also depend on what contact the new parental figures offer.


Usually children will go through a protest phase when separated or not responded to: they cry, they are uncomfortable and difficult to soothe, and they may reject the efforts of intimacy from their new foster parents. 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 parent who is not able to respond can experience states of excessive anxiety. Due to this, it is recommended that this video is only used as a demonstration of children’s reactions, and not as inspiration for the caregivers to try out at home.


Lack of attachment behaviour:
If parents or former caregivers didn’t respond to the child’s crying, the child may give up crying and apparently become calm, indifferent and withdrawn.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 infants and toddlers 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 a separation has been sudden and very shocking, 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 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 placed in foster care.


  • Did you see withdrawal or excessive fear of separation in your foster child after placement?
  • How long did it last (if it has stopped or is less intense by now)?
  • How did it affect your feelings towards the child?
  • Did you feel depressed yourself or rejected by the child?
  • 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 you leaving the room?