The Joy and Grief of Mother’s Day: Adoptive and Foster Families
Mother’s Day is about celebrating mothers and all that they do for their families. Traditionally, kids are busy at school the week before, making crafts and cards. On Mother’s Day kids and parents plan for something special like breakfast in bed or keeping quiet so mom can sleep in! As you approach this weekend and prepare to celebrate, I wanted to reach out and offer a few words of encouragement for those who are dealing with the wide range of emotional experiences that this holiday can bring.
I have spoken with many adoptive parents who have said Mother’s Day can be one of the hardest days of the year for their family. It may not look or feel the same for you as it does for others. There is an aspect of Mother’s Day for adoptive families that can be difficult to understand and talk about – grief and loss. Expectations of family togetherness can lead to disappointment and discouragement when the feelings of hurt, sadness that come from loss are pushed to the surface. It can be a struggle for children to understanding these feelings and find the right words for them.
So, what does grief look like in children?
A child’s response to grief may be easily misunderstood when it presents as behavioural reactions or responses instead of fear and sadness. Do you see some of these behaviors leading up to special occasions or on day itself? (Keep in mind that behaviours will vary according to the child’s developmental age).
Getting upset when their caregiver leaves the room, seems “clingy”
Difficulty eating, sleeping
Emotional outbursts during a typical daily activity such as brushing hair or playing a game
Difficulty concentrating or remembering daily life routines
Regressive behaviours such as thumb sucking, baby talk, decreased level of independence
Aggression towards self and others (physical or verbal)
Depressed or sad mood
Fearful, anxious or withdrawn
Struggle with transitions
Somatic symptoms such as stomach ache, headache, sore throat, etc.
Loss of energy or interest in regularly enjoyed activities
Dissociation – blank facial expression. Looks like they are zoned out.
Difficulty with decision-making
These behaviours can appear without an obvious trigger which is why it can be so difficult to recognize them as grief. When we see the fear and sadness that these behaviours are communicating we can draw our child close, comfort and help them find words for the most indescribable of losses. This kind of response requires thoughtful consideration and planning to meet your child’s needs. Here are a few practical ideas that may be helpful this Mother’s Day.
5 Practical Ideas for Adoptive Families
Acknowledge other ‘mother’ relationships that your child has, most significantly their birth mom. There may others such as foster parents or extended family members. Acknowledge the losses your child has experienced and honour relationships that happened before you became a family.
Establish traditions to help your child honor and celebrate any relationships that are meaningful to them. Make a plan ahead of time and give them ideas for acknowledging those they do and do not have contact with. Expect each year to be different so you will need to check in to see how they are feeling now. Siblings may have different ideas about who they want to celebrate and that’s ok!
Verbalize for your child that they are grieving and give them permission to do so with love and understanding. Your child may feel guilty that they are hurting your feelings or ruining your day.
Prepare your celebrations ahead of time, soothe during the storm of dysregulation (big feelings) and wait to address the behaviours when your child is regulated again.
Adjust expectations so that you are anticipating a change in behaviours days and/or weeks before and/or during the special occasion. Choose co-regulation before discipline, demonstrate your understanding that they are experiencing big feelings. Remind them that they are loved and accepted without conditions.
Sometimes the big moments that seem so hard and sad offer a window into your child’s experience and a reminder of the weight of grief they may be carrying. You may not see it often throughout the year, but it is there and needs to be explored with you. These are the moments that build secure attachment and lay a strong foundation for your child to continue to build strong healthy relationships across their lifespan.
If you are struggling to understand or respond to your child’s behaviours and emotions and need support, our clinical team is available for parent consultations and counselling. With the current COVID19 restrictions we are providing all services via Teletherapy.