Academic journal article Child Welfare

Coping with Parental Loss Because of Termination of Parental Rights

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Coping with Parental Loss Because of Termination of Parental Rights

Article excerpt

This article addresses the process by which children and adolescents cope with severe acute stress of parental loss from causes other than divorce or death. Participants were 60 children and adolescents from a residential treatment facility. Most had experienced neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, and their parents had their parential rights terminated. Measures of symptomatology indicated that children reported low levels of depressive symptoms, whereas caregivers reported the children were experiencing significant psychological problems. Children used avoidant coping strategies more often than emotionfocused coping strategies, which, in turn, were used more than problem-focused coping strategies. Results are discussed in terms of helping children cope with parental loss.

Late childhood and early adolescence are part of a develop mental stage filled with demands, such as forming one's identity, finding acceptance within a peer group, and forming romantic relationships (Seiffge-Krenke, 1993). Children and adolescents can perceive these normative demands as stressful. A small subset of children and adolescents, however, also must learn to cope with the non-normative demands of severe acute stressors, one of which is parental loss.

The topic of parental loss often is separated into three categories because of the cause of the loss: divorce, death, and other. Coping with parental divorce (Hetherington, 1999; Sandier, Tein, Mehta, Wolchik, & Ayers, 2000) and death (Bowlby, 1980; Mireault & Compas, 1996) has been studied more extensively than other factors.

One example of another type of parental loss is when outside agencies intervene to take children from their homes because of parental abuse, neglect, and maltreatment. These children often find themselves moving from one foster home to the next with no real sense of stability. In addition to the immense stress of parental loss, these children often face severe chronic stressors such as physical or sexual abuse, parental psychopathology, parental substance abuse, parental criminality, and poverty. All of these factors place this subset of adolescents at a risk for future psychopathology (Luthar, Burack, Cicchetti, & Weisz, 1997). Research indicates that although stress plays a role in psychological adjustment, a larger portion of the variance is attributed to applied coping mechanisms (Compas, Connor-Smith, Saltzman, Thomsen, & Wadsworth, 2001; Sandier, Kim-Bae, & MacKinnon, 2000; Seiffge-Krenke, 1993). Therefore, it is important to ascertain which types of coping mechanisms are adaptive and maladaptive in these situations.

Models of Coping

Although most researchers agree that coping refers to the process of responding to stressors, they greatly disagree about its various components and the functions it serves. Some researchers distinguish between problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). This model was first established with adults and later with children and adolescents (Compas, Malcarne, & Fondacaro, 1988). Studies of this model in both youngsters and adults indicate a positive association between emotion-focused coping and emotional distress. There are times, however, when emotion-focused strategies may be adaptive, such as in situations involving a stressor that is unchangeable (Folkman, 1984).

This finding may explain why there is a relationship between the perceived mutability of the situation and coping. Individuals tend to rely on problem-focused strategies in situations they perceive as changeable, whereas they turn to emotion-focused strategies in situations they perceive as immutable (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980; Folkman, Lazarus, Gruen, & DeLongis, 1986; Forsythe & Compas, 1987). For example, a cognitive strategy to reframe a stressor may be using an adaptive coping method with events that appear beyond the person's control (Forsythe & Compas, 1987). …

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