Sophie Boswell and Lynne Cudmore explain how social workers can help adopted children maintain attachments
In the flurry of excitement before a child is moved to be adopted, the fact they are losing a parent figure seems to get overlooked.
Our research showed that during this time levels of anxiety within the adopters and foster carers are extremely high. Despite the best intentions of professionals and others involved it is difficult for to keep in mind some fundamental facts about attachment and loss in young children. Such as:
Many people are involved in decision-making during these moves, but there is no one person with overall responsibility for ensuring these principles are kept in mind. Social workers have a crucial role in providing clear guidance and support to foster carers and adopters so that the children’s emotional needs remain central during every stage of an adoptive move.
Regular and frequent visits from former carers, probably quite short at first, should be taken as the norm. These should become less intensive over the following months as children settle and become attached to their new parents.
If adopters or foster carers become anxious about potential upset during or after a contact, social workers can gently remind them that it is better to support children with their feelings, rather than give a message that distress is better avoided or denied.
Where actual contact is not possible other ways can be found for ensuring the foster carer remains an ongoing presence in the children’s lives. In an ideal scenario the carers will gradually assume an ‘auntie’ or grandparent–like role.
Sensitive ongoing support and guidance from a social worker can ensure foster carers and adopters take on the task of providing as much continuity and joined-up thinking as possible over the transition and beyond.
This will give the child the message that both old and new attachments are important and have a place in their life. It will also mitigate against the pain of torn loyalties or having to shut down memories of people they have loved.
Foster carers should be encouraged to remain in children’s lives, albeit in the background. Social workers will have a crucial part to play in supporting foster carers who may find this upsetting, and in reminding all parties that this can help new attachments being formed with adoptive parents.
Although they are trained in attachment and loss prior to placement, we suggest that social workers also provide adopters with extra help in understanding their children’s emotional needs post-placement. This should include recognition of the ‘compliant’ child who may appear to be fine but may have cut themselves off from their feelings, as described above.
Social workers can play a crucial role in holding this in mind and helping others to do so, resisting the temptation to be relieved rather than worried when a child in this situation appears to be ‘fine’. A child who is not showing their feelings will need the support of sensitive, emotionally available adults who can be aware of, and hold on to, feelings that the child may be finding frightening or overwhelming.
Sophie Boswell and Lynne Cudmore are child psychotherapists and author of the report: ‘The children were fine': acknowledging complex feelings in the move from foster care into adoption.
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