Session 7/15Page 4/5 Topic B: Age 3-18
Topic B: Age 3-18
SEPARATION REACTIONS FROM AGE THREE AND UP – CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS
Children from three years and up already have an attachment to others such as their biological parents. If a child was in your care from early life, it will probably be attached to you in the way children normally attach to parents.
Children older than three when placed in care have a more conscious idea about themselves and the difficult separations they may have experienced. They already have an attachment pattern, learned from parents or others and if they have experienced neglect, this may have caused more permanent problems. If the child has experienced difficult separations – or long term separations – the process of grief and healing depends on the willingness of the caregivers to talk openly about what the child have experienced. Research shows that open dialogues can reduce children’s stress and behaviours caused by trauma. How do children try to cope with traumatic separations?
THE EMOTIONAL INTERPRETATION OF LOSS: LOW SELF-ESTEEM
Children normally respond to difficult or too prolonged separations by making an emotional interpretation: “I have been abandoned or rejected so I must be unloved and worthless”. It is important to understand that this interpretation is emotional and has little to do with the conscious and rational explanations they have heard from caregivers – it is a feeling more than something the child knows. The child may have learned to repeat all the rational explanations given by caregivers, but the feeling may still be present, and the child may feel a constant shame of being and a lack of meaning with life. This is probably why research shows that suicidal thoughts – or even attempted suicide – is very frequent in teenagers in care.
IMMATURE STRATEGIES TO AVOID FEELINGS OF BEING WORTHLESS
No child can endure this feeling, so children form psychological defenses in order not to feel worthless and rejected. Although these defences may seem dysfunctional, they are perfectly logical: the child tries to find a strategy to protect itself from new attachments to avoid another loss. Since children are immature their strategies to avoid pain may be very primitive. But remember that it is the best solution the child can find at the moment to avoid constant grief and depression. You can see these reactions in all children and youth but in children who have experienced difficult separations they are much more intense and sometimes destructive and consume all the energy that should be used for play and learning. Here are some common strategies children use to keep unbearable feelings away:
- Some children refuse to talk about the past at all in order not to get in contact with the difficult feelings.
- Some children practice “false cynicism”: whatever happens, they appear cool and take a spiteful attitude towards all invitations to being close to others. They may think: “I don’t care about you or friends or anyone else. Nothing matters to me, just leave me alone!” (see the avoidant attachment strategy in session 9). This attitude is understandable because it protects the child from experiencing a new loss and keeps others at a distance – losing them will not cause sorrow.
- Some children become overly dependent and are “always a good girl/boy”, they spend all their energy agreeing with caregivers. They try to avoid any conflicts and give up having an independent opinion about anything or disagree with caregivers: “Tell me what to do, I do not know myself”. They are usually afraid of making decisions because it may contradict with the expectations of others.
- Some children become “perfectionists”: they constantly try to overdo anything and focus on checking if they do things right. They are very afraid of making even small mistakes and not performing well enough. Any minor challenge or mistake they make, makes them desperate: “No matter what I do I’m wrong, I’m a failure, I am no good at anything no matter how hard I try. I am an idiot, I want to die” etc.
- Some children become constantly restless and stressed and appear to be more or less hyperactive. They cannot sit still and are never at rest, and may talk constantly in a very hectic way, making it clear that this is more than just an energetic child, it is a child who cannot relax for a moment and tries to keep the past out of mind.
- Some children become “hermits”: They isolate themselves in their room alone with their computer or toys and refuse to go out or invite peers. They dislike any social events or invitations and find a reason to say no. The underlying emotional idea is “If I do not make friends or socialize, no one can reject me again.”
- Some children survive by hating or being angry with their foster parents or others they have been separated from. This keeps away the pain of missing them (ambivalent attachment).
OPEN DIALOGUE HELPS CHILDREN RESOLVE AND OVERCOME LOSS: CREATING A SPACE FOR OPEN DIALOGUE
Research in separation reactions clearly shows the importance of open dialogue from caregivers.
Whenever a child talks about or works with experiences of separation, it reorganizes the emotions and thoughts about what it experienced. The feelings of loss become less and less intense every time, and the memories and understanding are better organized. Through many dialogues with a foster parent over a long period of time, the child may gradually just feel a natural sorrow which does not disturb its state of mind and ability to play, explore and learn. The purpose of your work is not to take away all sorrow, but to help the child have less intense and chaotic feelings and understand that its social problems are normal reactions when having experienced a traumatic loss.
Research also shows that if caregivers deny, ignore or try to make earlier loss a small thing, children will not improve in handling their own reactions and this can be destructive to their further personality development. For example: when children were adopted or in foster care in the past, this was very shameful and against social norms. This made the children feel stigmatized and they were often shocked when being old enough to understand that they were not allowed to be who they are. The result was that many children were severely traumatized and had very poor lives. One complaint in interviews with former adoptees and foster children is common: “Nobody ever talked to me about what was most important – the fact of having lost my parents”.
So your professional task is to work on creating a space where the child feels free and invited to have dialogues about what it has experienced in the past. This can happen through a number of activities.
You should decide how and when you will talk to the child about loss. Often, a good setting is when you do housework: For example: the child is sitting at the table drawing or doing homework while you are preparing food or: you are tucking in the child, sitting at the bed reading a bedtime story. These can be good occasions for conversation. Be patient – the process of creating safe and open dialogue may take weeks or years. Every time the child reaches a new stage of maturity and development, it may have to talk about this again and find new perspectives.
MAKING THE CHILD UNDERSTAND ITS OWN REACTIONS AS NORMAL
- Look through the list in the paragraph above: “Immature strategies to avoid feelings of being worthless“.
- Find out which of the defenses against feeling abandoned you see most often in the child in your care. When you and the child feel good and you have time, tell the child or teenager that you want to talk about how children react when they lose contact with important persons (mother, father, friends, siblings or pets they were attached to).
- Describe the reaction you think your child has and tell that this is what many children do when they have lost someone important. For example:
“Sometimes children have lost someone they love and they are afraid of losing someone again. So they refuse to talk to others and stay in their room all day. This is what many children do and I think it is very sensible – because if they stay in their room all alone and don’t make friends with anyone, they can’t be rejected again. I can understand this very well!“
- Or you can tell the child a “parallel story” from your own childhood:
“When I was your age my mother and father were very busy and I was often left alone. When I tried to make friends with other children they often rejected and bullied me. So I decided to sit in my room all day – I didn’t want to contact others because I was sure that they didn’t like me or would reject me. When I grew up I found out that a lot of children do this, and I think it is wise – then they are protected from being rejected again“.
- You can read or make up a bedtime story for the child about an abandoned child – such as Oliver Twist (or another person from a novel in your country who the child can identify with). Along the way you can ask the child if it recognizes what the person feels and thinks.
- You can use dolls, drawings or clay to play with the child. Stories where the child is exposed to abandonment or loss of parents and finds ways to cope with the situation.
- With older children or teenagers: You can give the child a cell phone (or a camera with video function) and help it make a small movie or an interview about how it reacted to losing parents or others. If you have internet, you can help the young person find other young persons in foster care and communicate with them on Facebook or other media.
- If you have good communication with the child’s schoolteacher: ask the teacher to make a theme day or theme week about “Losing someone or something you love”. With the help of the teacher, all children can give examples of losing for example a grandparent or other person, a pet or a toy, using drawings, role play, etc. You can then discuss with the teacher how to help the child tell about losing someone.
Please write down how, when and where you may use one of these options, or design a new one, which this text might have inspired you to. Take notes after working with your plan: How did it go, how did the child respond, what was difficult for you, what did you learn from trying, how will you go on?
ACKNOWLEDGE AND WAIT FOR THE CHILD’S RESPONSE
Now you have started to create a space in your family where loss can be talked about openly. So don’t tell the child that it’s no good staying in the room all day, or start giving it advice, just listen and let the child talk if it wants to – perhaps it will take a day or two before the child returns to talk about what you said. If the child starts talking, just nod and listen with interest and commend the child for what it thinks or feels.
Perhaps this is all you need to do for the first long period of time: you help the child heal simply by talking openly about loss and showing that you are willing to share and listen.
POINT OUT ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF THE CHILD’S STRATEGY
When you are sure that the child feels that you listen patiently and understand its reactions, you can start a dialogue about the advantages and disadvantages of the child’s strategy.
“When I sat in my room all day painting, I in fact became a good painter when I grew up. That was the good side of it. But I was also very, very lonely because I didn’t dare to go out and make friends. Every time I thought about it, I stopped just before opening the door because I was afraid of being rejected or ridiculed. So the bad side was that I had no-one to play with, and in school I never asked others if we should be friends – do you know that feeling?”
By this, you are showing the child or teenager in a gentle way that its strategy in fact takes away fear in the moment, but also makes it lonely on the long run. You can then talk about how children can be afraid of being rejected again or losing someone they like.
SUGGEST ALTERNATIVE WAYS OF COPING
The next step is to make the child think of other ways to cope with the fear of another loss or a new rejection. Here, a story from your own life can be an exemplary narrative: a story from your own life, showing how you coped with a separation. You can adjust it to mirror the way you think the young person thinks and feels.
“I was so sad when my mother went away, that I decided never to trust anyone again. One day I understood that I would be lonely forever if I stayed alone in my room. I was very afraid of someone saying no if I asked them to be friends. But my aunt told me that if you want friends, you will maybe have eight times a no but two times a yes, and those two times yes can become your best friends. My aunt told me that there is nothing wrong with being looked after by others, and that there is no reason to be ashamed of it. In fact thousands of children live without their parents. So I started inviting classmates to play after school, and my aunt helped me talk to them. Most of them said no, but one of them said yes, and we were best friends for years. Perhaps you will be strong enough to overcome your fear and start inviting others some day.”
“When you feel alone you become very angry, then you start arguing, and then you feel even more sad and useless. Maybe you can try to say that you are lonely next time you are angry?“