Tips to Facilitate Placement Moves for Kids of Different Ages

by Rick Zechman •

Photo of Rick Zechman

Rick Zechman

Whether it’s removing a child from their home or moving a child from one foster care placement to another, ideally children, parents, social workers, and resource parents would have the ability to plan for the move. Though the move will likely still be traumatic, planning lessens children’s fear and provides them some control, increasing their resiliency.

Familiarity also makes a difference. The less familiar the new surroundings, the more anxiety a child might feel. Workers can help ease anxiety by encouraging the child to bring familiar possessions. Bringing items that smell like home, such as a pillow, clothes, or stuffed animal, can help make a new place less scary.

Here are some strategies resource parents and workers can use to support children through the grief and loss they so often experience during a placement move.

Strategies by Age

Infant to toddler age. Children this age need a consistent, sensitive primary caregiver to feed them, nurture them, and keep them safe. This builds trust in others and the world around them, which is a key developmental task at this stage.

For children in this age range, separation from a caregiver initially causes great distress. They may cry and look eagerly for the caregiver. Or they may be quiet or withdrawn, cranky, or have decreased activity, poor sleep, or weight loss. To make moves easier for children this age:

  • Maintain routines as much as possible in the new setting. Find out all you can about the child’s routine (ideally this is done through shared parenting) so the new caregiver can support the transition.
  • Facilitate short, frequent visits (ideally multiple times a week) with birth parents and siblings.

Age 2 to 5 years. At this stage, children don’t fully understand cause and effect and may blame themselves for the move or use magical thinking to explain what has occurred.

From an emotional and behavioral standpoint, the losses caused by placement may make the child intermittently clingy, anxious, or defiant. They may show grief only once in a while for short periods, and may not make the connection between their feelings of distress and the loss. They may also experience problems with eating, sleeping, and toileting. Some may regress developmentally. Strategies for supporting children in this age group are the same as for infants and toddlers. In addition:

  • Share information about their placement honestly at their level of understanding.
  • When possible, give them pictures of their family members.
  • Be patient. Over time, providing a stable, loving, consistently supportive environment will build their trust and help them get back on track developmentally.

School-age (6-12 years). These children are likely to be scared, confused, and overwhelmed by a placement move. This can hinder their ability to process new information. Because children this age are often unable to remember what is told to them about the move, they may develop distorted ideas about the reasons for placement. Their grief responses will often affect their schoolwork and behavior. They may be anxious or depressed, lose interest in activities, or have changes in eating and sleeping. They may also show greater impulsivity or aggression.

To make moves easier for children this age:

  • Ask them what they need to help them feel comfortable and supported. This gives them a sense of control and builds trust.
  • Listen to their feelings, answer questions, and assure them they are not to blame.
  • Tell them—in a sensitive way—what is happening with their family. Repeat as needed.
  • Provide the child with age-appropriate books related to grief, loss, or foster care.
  • Maintain their contact with parents and siblings through all available means (visits, calls, email, text, FaceTime, etc.).
  • Partner with the child’s teachers so they are supported in and out of school.
  • Support their involvement in extracurricular activities.

Adolescence (13-17 years). Issues of independence, resistance, alienation from adults, and separation from parents are developmentally normal for all youth at this stage. A placement move can complicate or hinder this developmental work for youth in foster care.

For example, the stress and loss of a move may make a teen feel more vulnerable and needy at a time when they would normally be feeling independent and focused on their lives outside the family. Or, they may feel the need to attend to younger siblings, which may mean they have less time and energy for their own development.

Youth at this stage experience grief much like adults. They may act out or self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to manage the intense feelings. Be prepared—in adolescence the anger stage of grieving may be the most noticeable. The anger may be directed towards any number of sources, such as birth parents, workers, foster parents, or peers.

Many of the strategies to make moves easier at this stage are the same as for school-aged children. Additionally:

  • Involve adolescents in decision-making. Give choices whenever possible.
  • Give them the helpful handbook, “Understanding Foster Care.”
  • Avoid changing schools. This will help them academically and sustain positive social connections/relationships that provide them emotional support.
  • Promote normalcy. Encourage their involvement in activities (proms, driving, etc.) that will help them develop additional healthy, supportive relationships.

These strategies will build the social and emotional competence of children and youth, which is a protective factor that enables children and youth to thrive. Building their competence in this area helps them self-regulate their behavior, effectively communicate their feelings, and interact positively with others. Also, boosting emotional competence helps young people get back on track (or stay on track) with developmental milestones.

One More Tip

There is one more strategy that can make placement moves easier for everyone. Be sure to plan for and use respite care. Work with a few other foster families to develop a network of respite support and use them often. This concrete support is another protective factor that will help you manage your stress and sustain the strength needed to support children and youth when they are grieving. Though being a resource parent is rewarding, it’s hard to do it well if you are overwhelmed.

Respite may be short-term, but that temporary relief can improve your family’s health and stability and ultimately lead to better outcomes for youth in your care.

Rick Zechman is an educational specialist with the UNC-CH School of Social Work.