Addressing Separation Anxiety In Foster Children

Foster children can experience various types of anxiety, with separation anxiety being the most prevalent.

Jennifer Mellon June 30, 2017
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Separation Anxiety is a well-known issue many parents experience when their infant or toddler experiences a separation from you as their parent. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines Separation Anxiety as a form of anxiety experienced by a young child and caused by separation from a significant nurturant figure and typically a parent or from familiar surroundings. Psychology Today defines it as “excessive fear or anxiety about separation from home or an attachment figure. In previous versions of the DSM, separation anxiety was only applied to people under the age of 18. The diagnosis is now categorized as an anxiety disorder that can be present at all stages of life.” Foster children are uniquely prone to separation anxiety so it is critical for foster parents, caregivers, teachers, and other caseworkers to understand the disorder and how best to address the child’s feelings.

Foster children can experience various types of anxiety, with separation anxiety being the most prevalent. Being separated from their home, the birth family, often their friends and school can cause this anxiety. The more the child is moved from home to home the bigger this concern becomes. Many psychologists believe that it is critical for young children to form a relationship with at least one parental figure or caregiver in order for the child to develop socially and emotionally. This becomes harder for a foster child to do when they have been with multiple placements and never attached to a single parental figure or have been removed from the only parental figure to whom they attached.

This stress becomes exacerbated and other trauma ensues when a child is removed from their home and placed into a home through foster care, often in the middle of the night after a quick goodbye. This traumatic experience can cause the child to live in a state of anxiety, uncertainty, a feeling of losing control, and fear. A very young child can not comprehend what has happened. Separation anxiety can come out of this trauma.

Foster parents, teachers, case workers, and birth family can help resolve these feelings of separation anxiety by providing an adequate sense of safety in the child’s environment. The more the child learns to trust those who care for them, the more they can develop a sense of safety and symptoms of separation anxiety can lessen. Older children may benefit from psychotherapy with a licensed therapist or psychologist.

How has your family addressed separation anxiety in the children you foster? What tips do you have for families who are facing separation anxiety in their foster children? Knowing you are not alone and engaging with other foster parents, teachers, and case workers who have dealt with these issues before can give you the support you need to do everything to help your foster child overcome separation anxiety.

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Jennifer Mellon

Jennifer Mellon has worked in the child welfare field for more than a decade, serving in varying capacities as the Executive Director and Chief Development Officer of Joint Council on International Children's Services (JCICS) and the Corporate Communications Program Manager for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI). Jennifer has served on the Board of the Campagna Center, which provides critical educational services to children and families in the DC Metro Area and on the Development Committee for the National Council for Adoption. She is the mom of three children and resides in Alexandria, Virginia.

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