Grief and Loss in Adopted Children

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Adopted children are ‘lucky,’ they are ‘blessed.’ They have been rescued. Perhaps they came from an orphanage or from a foster care system that moves them in and out of temporary homes ..or from a birth mother that is just a child herself, unable or unwilling to safely parent. Do these statements/thoughts sound familiar? Have you wondered:  What on earth does an adopted child have to grieve over? What have they lost?

The answer is, plenty, and if you are an adoptive parent you need to be able to understand and acknowledge these losses and help your child grieve through them.

It is difficult in our society, for an adoptee to mourn when adoption is only seen as a joyful event. Adoptive parents will help their child best when they allow them to express their grief openly, listen carefully and offer comfort.

What are some of the losses? Primary losses are: birth parents, siblings, extended family, foster parents/orphanage caregivers and fearing the loss of you. Secondary losses are: culture, religion, ethnic and racial connections, medical history, birth history, birth order, language, someone with a physical resemblance, familiar tastes and smells and the chance to be like friends growing up in a birth family.
Your child did not choose to be separated from their birth parents. It is OK for them to feel sad, angry or hurt by the losses in their lives. They need to live and work with and through their grief and they need your help to do that. It is likely your child will perceive the disappearance of their birth parents as desertion or abandonment and that they caused it. It may take a long time for your child to fully trust that you will ‘be there’ for them.

Allow your child to express all the emotions they need to. They may just need someone to bear witness to their pain. You can’t change it or fix it and you need to be OK with that. Don’t send the message that they need to hide, change or deny their feelings. Respect their unique timing and duration for grief which will, typically, come up at various ages and stages in their life. Be a good listener. Be patient. Be aware of possible triggers.

What are Possible Triggers? Perhaps, when your child reaches developmental stage where they understand “loss,” triggers might be: birthdays, mother’s day, father’s day, anniversary dates, moves, divorce, death, school activities, peer relationships or stress.

A tip from a mom who’s been there: During the teen years grief and loss in an adopted child can look very much like anger, disrespect and defiance. Know your child well. Keep communication lines open so you can tell the difference because parenting grief and loss – and parenting anger, disrespect and defiance. These look very different and will have very different outcomes. You will need to recognize which one you need to parent and at the right time.

The good news is that studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of adopted children do extraordinarily well in their adoptive homes. Many even show higher rates of self-esteem than children raised in birth families!

In sympathy…

Our hearts are breaking as we consider the tragic events which took place in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday.  There are no words to express our sadness or our sympathies to those impacted.

With such a tragedy, it is possible that your own child may experience a wide range of emotions while processing this.  How children experience traumatic events and how they express distress depends, largely, on the children’s age and level of development. This resource may be of use in deciding what can be expected:

Age Related Reactions to a Traumatic Event

Some tips in addressing traumatic events with your children:

Be Honest and Reassuring.  When a traumatic event occurs, children of all ages take cues from the adults they trust.  It is important to be honest and realistic when explaining an event. Explain what they can age appropriately handle. Start by asking what they have heard or sharing a basic summary of events and then listen to their thoughts and fears.  Remember that children interpret events differently based on their own developmental level and personal experience.  It is natural for them to ask a lot of questions and seek to understand.

Watch for Signs of Concern.  The range of typical responses to traumatic events is broad. Some children are able to move on without major impact to their daily functioning or ability to interact with others.  However, significant changes in behavior such as excessive crying, eating and sleeping issues, somatic complaints, intense fear, withdrawal, nightmares, and irritability are signs of possible traumatic stress.  Be aware of your own child’s behaviors and seek professional help if things don’t get better.

Limit Access to Media Coverage.  It is hard for adults to avoid media coverage of a dramatic situation, and kids are no different.  They may hear details of an event from friends, the television, radio, or overhear conversations in public places.  You may not be able to insulate your child everywhere, but monitor their access closely.  Adults should check in with older children and teens on a regular basis to monitor their exposure and emotions.

Consider Other Risk Factors.  If your child already has a mental health condition or struggles with emotional regulation, he or she may be more likely impacted by news of a traumatic event. Kids who have recently experienced a loss or trauma in their own lives can also be at higher risk.  Events that are human-caused and include violent deaths are more traumatizing.

Communicate with the School, Social Workers, or other Professionals involved.  If you are concerned about your child, please contact the school and CHI.  Social Workers, Counselors, and Psychologists can help monitor and support children during the school day and provide you with additional resources.  Remind your children of adults who are available to talk, if they are upset.  After a major event reminds us of what is important, it can be difficult for parents to leave their children at school. All parents have to use their own judgment, but remember that kids benefit from a regular daily routine and frequently move on emotionally more quickly than adults.

Take Care of Yourself.  The best resource for a child’s recovery is a caring adult who is healthy and emotionally available.  Make sure you take the time to care for yourself.  Adults who are already managing stress from work, relationships and parenting can easily feel overwhelmed when a traumatic event occurs.  Help your kids learn health habits by demonstrating them yourself.


National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Mental Health America

American Academy of Pediatrics