Vol. 13, No. 2 • May 2009

12 Skills Corner . . .
Be Loss and Attachment Specialists

by Jeanne Preisler

If you are a foster, adoptive, or kinship parent, one of your many jobs is to be a loss and attachment expert. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to be an “expert” means “having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience.”

When you attended MAPP/GPS pre-service classes, one of the areas you were trained on was loss and attachment issues. Now that the children in your home have given you experience with what loss and attachment issues really look like, it might be helpful to review this critical skill we need to provide quality services to children in foster care.

During pre-service, you most likely did an exercise where you had to drop five pieces of paper that represented your important personal connections. This exercise evokes emotions such as anger, sadness, confusion, and often, defiance.

Have the children you worked with displayed any of these emotions? Probably. They may have even displayed all of these emotions at once! It is natural to each of us to experience these feelings during difficult times. It is one way we process grief. But without understanding why these emotions or behaviors exist, it is almost impossible to deal with them!

Looking for Positive Intent
It is normal to attribute intent to the behavior of others—we all do it countless times each day without even knowing it. Often, we will never find out if we were right in those assumptions. For example, if someone cuts in front of me in line without saying “excuse me,” I might conclude they are rude and inconsiderate, or I might think they have a sick child and are anxious to get home.

Most of us tend to think of the negative intent before we think of a positive one.

Have you ever wondered why your social worker hasn’t called you back? Is it because they do not want to talk with you, are avoiding you, or just don’t care about their job? Or is it because they just dealt with a case involving horrible abuse and they need some time to regain composure before going about their other duties?

Similarly, young people do not wake up in the morning and think, “I’m going to drive my foster parents crazy today!” They are dealing with situations and emotions they may not yet have the skills to communicate about. While shopping, your daughter may smell cologne on a stranger that triggers a memory of her abuser, causing her to behave strangely in the store. Your son may be acting out at school because a classmate is calling him names his stepfather used to call him.

The challenge is to not automatically assume negative intent behind behaviors.

Maintaining Connections
Feelings of loss are unpredictable and may never go away. They may surface sporadically, when you least expect it. Often the children in care may not have the communication skills to tell you what is really going on.

What can you do to help deal with or prevent this emotional rollercoaster? Try to remember how important it is to keep young people connected with their past as much as possible. This can be done in many ways, including picking up one of their family traditions, cooking certain foods, taking them to cultural events, writing letters to families, or developing their life book. All of these things give you an opportunity to talk about past losses and can help children communicate about their feelings.

We know that opening conversations about birth families is often a challenge for foster, adoptive, and kinship parents. We also know from experience that having these conversations is crucial as children deal with the many losses they’ve experienced.

Recognizing the grief also allows the children to connect with us in a deeper way. Opening discussions about their feelings helps them understand their feelings as they go through the process of grieving.

So the next time you have a child with a behavior that seems impossible to explain, remember this skill. It could make all the difference.

Jeanne Preisler is a former North Carolina foster parent.

Copyright 2009 Jordan Institute for Families