Part of our identity, especially as children, comes from knowing from where and from whom we come. Knowing the different parts of our heritage—the biological and the cultural—gives us a foundation upon which we can build our individual personality. We can make conscious choices to either follow in the footsteps of our family or choose to change our family legacy for our descendants.
But what happens when children do not know where they come from? What happens when a child does not grow up knowing one or both people who created them? The truth is that there is no easy answer to any of those questions. What we do know is that children who do not have healthy relationships with their parents often experience emotional repercussions toward those parents, other people, and even themselves.
Children want to have relationships with their parents. They want to know that they are wanted, loved, and accepted by the people who created them—and being separated from them does not change that. However, being separated from them can create mixed feelings toward the parents including feelings of anger, love, hope, and resentment. They are often confused about their simultaneous feelings of love and affection for those parents that are mixed with anger toward them for the circumstances they are in. This mixture of emotions can manifest in behaviors that appear to be incongruous: for example, the child may verbally lash out at the parent and almost in the same breath make excuses to justify that parent’s negative behaviors.
Those jarring types of behaviors and emotions can also manifest toward others, including peers and caregivers. In some cases, the child may feel that any kind of affection for someone outside the family is disloyal to that family. They may also feel jealous or resentful of others’ relationships with their own families because they want it so desperately for themselves and are unable to attain it. And because they were not given the opportunity to develop healthy relationships with their family of origin, they may struggle with forming healthy relationships with others.
That struggle to create healthy relationships—particularly the struggle to do so without having a blueprint created by the parent-child relationship—can also result in conflicting feelings about themselves. Children in these circumstances sometimes question whether or not they are at fault for their circumstances. They may wonder if they are somehow defective and somehow responsible for not only their own negative choices but also the choices of others. These types of thoughts and feelings, unfortunately, have the potential to create a cyclical pattern with every perceived relationship failure and possibly escalating their negative self-image.
So, what do we do? Knowing that the overall goal that caregivers have for displaced children is for them to be healthy emotionally and relationally. Some of the things we can encourage do in order to promote healthy development with these children are:
- Remember that these children are not broken and should not be treated that way—we’re not fixing them, we are supporting them as they learn and grow through a difficult situation filled with grief, anger, and confusion.
- Be patient—we cannot expect “normal” behavior from those who did not experience it the way that others did.
- Focus on helping them feel seen and heard; remind them that they are not forgotten, that they are worthy of love and attention, and that there are people who care about them.
- Provide a physically and emotionally safe space where children can express their thoughts and feelings.