Supporting Grieving Children in Foster Care


By: Courtney Edge-Mattos, LSWA

Foster care is born out of tragedy and trauma. A child who enters foster care, whether it is shortly after birth or during the late teen years, has become separated from the familiar.  Many people first think only of the loss of one’s parents and siblings, but as we peel back the layers, we realize that children and youth in foster care suffer a myriad of losses simply by entering care.  Aside from losing immediate and extended family members from one’s day to day life, children and youth’s losses include (but are not limited to):



With all of this lost, it is a wonder that children and youth in foster care are upright.  Think back to March 2020 when our routines, social circles, the availability of products, job security, family connections, and almost all aspects of life changed instantly.  Most people can recall moments of overwhelm, of fear, of anger, of thinking it wasn’t that bad (especially if you were safe, housed, surrounded by people you loved, and able to work from home without interruption) and then feeling guilty because you knew there were people who were dying.  We felt guilt, anxiety (anyone else wake up with a scratchy throat and panic when all you needed was a humidifier?) that caused over-reactions, heartbreak, and a despair.  You were grieving, but you made it (or so I assume, if you are reading this).

Our kids in care can make it through grief.  They do it, time and time again.  It isn’t heroic and it isn’t without consequence, but they do it.  And they are most successful when they have a stable, consistent adult in their life who allows them to experience all of the phases of grief, validates their loss, quietly encourages them, and shows them a path forward.  That is the job of a foster parent.  So what does that look like?  Let’s take a look.




This is the first stage of grief.  Many children and youth are in this stage when they enter a new foster home.  They might have been removed from their home by the police in the middle of the night, from school during the day, or transitioning from another foster home or group home.  In most cases, it is a shock to the system.  Children tend to fall into three categories: shy and withdrawn, full of nervous energy, or forgetful and confused.  Foster parents must meet a child where they are (emotionally).  This does not mean a foster parent should be shy and withdrawn, nervous, or forgetful and confused; it means they should adapt their approach to provide reassurance. 



This stage may include kids saying things that aren’t true, like how this is a big misunderstanding and they aren’t supposed to be in foster care, or they are going home at the end of the week.  They may have magical thinking about how their parent will pick them up from school or even a fictitious character will rescue them.  Don’t get too caught up in that.  Let them know that when you learn they are leaving your home, you will let them know, but you don’t have control over that.  Let them know you understand they want to go home and you hope it happens soon.


When the realization sets in that the child or youth is not returning home soon, we see the shift to anger.  This is a natural progression in the grief process; remember back to COVID’s start- we thought it would be a two week pause.  As we drew closer to that two week mark and we all realized it was going to be a long ride, people lashed out.  Maskers vs. antimaskers, anger at government officials, anger at neighbors who weren’t following the rules, anger at the virus itself…Anger is natural.

It does need to be safe.  Some kids will become physically aggressive to others or themselves.  Physical aggression is most common with younger children who have limited language skills.  We will see younger children bite, head-bang, pull their hair or yours, and other aggressive behaviors.  Most older children do have the regulation skills to keep bodies safe.  Their anger is more likely to come in the form of yelling, swearing, being very negative about everything, and having meltdowns about seemingly minor things.  They may be mad at you, at DCF, at their family, or at themselves. 

Allow the anger.  Allow for conversation, give them permission and a safe space to sound off.  Work on some coping skills that allow the feelings to come out.  Physical activity, from trauma-informed weight lifting to yoga to basketball and everything in between, journaling, art therapy, listening to heavy metal music, pet therapy, and actual talk-based therapy are all helpful.  Give two or three choices (do homework now or take a break and do it in an hour; cereal or toast; go for a walk or jump on the trampoline to let out your energy) whenever possible.  Choice allows a child to regain some level of control and that is vital!


“I’m going to be so bad they will have to give me back to my dad!” and “If I’m really good, can I go home?” are all bargains we hear kids make. They might have quiet bargains we know nothing about, bargains they make with a higher power (God, Allah, Santa) that they will do something in exchange for reunification. Reassure your child that you want them to be able to go home, but we have to wait until DCF and the judge make that decision. State that you will keep them safe. Find ways for them to connect with their parent/sibling/friend/extended family member like writing them a letter each day/week, having phone calls, or a get together (always get permission from DCF; this would apply mostly to sibling contact). This lets them know you hear them, you know how badly they want reunification, but sets the boundary that you cannot send them home.


Depression is a tough stage.  Everyone wants children and youth the be happy.  Grieving isn’t a very happy process, and this stage certainly isn’t.  Depression can look like an infant who does not smile or who cannot be consoled, who avoids eye contact, who doesn’t babble.  It can look like a toddler who cries easily and becomes terribly frustrated at any perceived failure.  It can be a ten year old who sleeps all the time, doesn’t want to play, doesn’t want to connect, and rejects your presence. 

It can be hard to assess if this is clinical depression or depression related to grieving.  We encourage all of our children and youth the engage in therapy.  This allows a safe environment that is neutral and allows a child or youth to process their feelings.  A clinician can make an assessment of whether the depression requires additional support, like medication, or how to use different coping skills.

Talk with the therapist about how you can be supportive.  It may be simply offering your quiet, calm presence.  Don’t push for a child to talk, but let them know that your ears are open and ready if they’d like to.  They may open up at a very unexpected moment (one-on-one car rides are always a popular time for kids to really let it out and share their inner thoughts), so be ready to be needed.  If a child has just shared a really hard thing (“I’m mad at my mom for this…I don’t know if I really want to go back.” “I’m scared what is going to happen to us.  Will I ever live with my sisters again?”), validate their feelings but avoid joining in bashing behavior, justifying behaviors, or making promises.  Let them know you are here for them and will do your best to help.  Then find something comforting to do, like cook a favorite dish, watch a movie, color together (all ages- coloring books are not just for little kids!). 

Depressed kids are often very withdrawn, so remember to offer your presence and support but not force it.  As long as a child is safe and not self-harming, it is okay to give space.


Acceptance does not mean a child or youth likes that they are in foster care.  It does not mean they like what happened in their family.  It does mean that they can acknowledge that it happened, that they are here, and that this may be a while.  When kids reach the stage of acceptance, we see them make plans.  “Can I paint my room purple?”  “Can we go to Six Flags this summer?” “Can my friend come over?”

You may close your door and do a quiet back handspring.  They have accepted you and your home!  Now collect yourself and open the door.

Acceptance doesn’t mean grieving is over.  It can come in waves, with depression pulling out with the tide but rolling back in from time to time.  That’s okay; it’s part of the process.  But getting to acceptance is big.  It means a child can start to continue their developmental path, can think beyond the loss, and can see their life moving forward.

Be careful not to over-promise at this stage.  We don’t know how long a child will be with you.  Promising to take them to Disney in April could lead to disappointment if they do not remain in your home.  Promise them you will keep them safe and they will be included in anything as long as they are with you.  When you make a promise, it should be a certainty.

Be encouraging, allow connection and growth.  This is a good time for a child to be part of a community group, sports group, or social circle.  They will be more able to connect with their peers and find joy in activities, more willing to take risks like trying out for a play, more able to sustain a disappointment if they don’t make the team.


Final Thoughts

Grief is an essential human process.  We are most able to move through the grieving process when we are supported and safe.  Supportive foster parents allow grief, allow feelings, and don’t rush a child through one stage to the next.  They are comfortable sitting with the uncomfortable and helping children find safe ways to express themselves.

With support and care, children and youth in foster care can find their way back to themselves, wherever life takes them.


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Rachel has been a part of the JRI team since January, 2000. For over 20 years, Rachel has been working in the field of human services assisting families with accessing and navigating services. Rachel received her Bachelors degree in psychology and Masters Degree in Public Administration from Bridgewater State University. She was promoted in July 2005 to Family Networks Program Director where she closely worked with the Department of Children Families for 10 years ensuring that children and families received the highest quality of individualized services ranging from community based through residential care. Rachel is very dedicated to helping the individuals she works with and is committed to improving the lives of children and families. Rachel’s passion for creative service programming inspires her in her role as JRI Service Navigator.