How to Help Your Child Deal with Big Feelings

Loss? My child hasn’t experienced loss! This is what many adoptive parents want so badly to believe. However, it is a reality of adoptive family living. Connie Dawson, Ph.D, an adoptee, author and speaker, and attachment specialist says, “Understanding how grief and loss affects adoptive relationships is an inoculation geared to prevent later problems.”

It’s one thing to understand that your child has experienced loss, but it’s another thing to know how to help him grieve it successfully.

An Adoption Project

This tool can be used with children, ages seven and up. It can be used as a family project, as a parent/child project, or a counselor/client project. Here are the steps:

1. Tell him that you are going to work on an adoption project together.

2. Find a box that can hold several items—possibly 12 X 16 and 6 inches tall.

3. Make a “Sad List”——about his birth family, about the failed reunification, etc.

4. Select items together that are representative of each loss and put them into the box (You can use small items or photos from magazines and newspapers. Go to the dollar store—it’s a great place to find the items. One teen that I worked with from Romania said that she had tears inside that wouldn’t come out. We found round, blue pieces of glass wrapped in mesh, and those represented her unshed tears). Put the lid on the box.

5. Have child take items out one at a time and tell you how he feels about each one– how he felt, where he was, what other people said, the smells, and the sounds. Help him get in touch with his anger. Explain that it is okay to be angry and to “get all the angries out.” Assure him he can say anything—things he thinks are unspeakable. “I hate my mommy for not keeping me.” This has to be done to get all the pain out. With truth and confession, there is freedom!

6. Validate his emotions. To validate means “to say that it’s okay to have that feeling.”

(“If I were you, I would feel the same way.” “It must really hurt, doesn’t it?” Or, “You have a right to be angry!”)

7. Teach him to forgive each person who has hurt him. (I like to use the illustration of having the person who hurt you strapped to your back. Ask him how heavy that would be. Ask him what awful things that person might say. Ask if he wants to grow up with all that happening. Then tell him that to forgive, means to cut that person loose. You might even want to draw pictures with him around this theme.)

8. Teach him that hurtful things can cause us to grow strong. Have him replace each item and say thank you and ask how he thinks he might grow stronger from each hurt.

9. Teach him to let go. Tell him that you’ll put the box in a special place until he needs to use it again and then at that time, add another item.

Whenever I share my personal grief box, some people say, “Isn’t it depressing to take it down for another loss and look at all the losses you’ve experienced?” I always assure them that the opposite is true—it is a reminder of how much I’ve grown!

Moms, look for changes in your child’s emotional and spiritual health after doing this exercise, after he’s had time to process it. You will be amazed that the grief box has turned into a gift box, and that grief was really a gift in disguise!

by Expert Mommy, Sherrie Eldridge


  1. I appreciate your post. It is very thoughtful. And I can certainly see the value in the exercise for certain adoptive children. However, as an adopted child myself, I think it isn’t in the best interest of every adoptive child to assume, and ultimately project, that being adopted originates in a loss. I grew up always knowing that I was adopted, and feeling very lucky to have had a mother that loved me so much that she put my needs before her own. Now, my parents, (adoptive), didn’t know her exact story, but they believed the act to have been as such, and their belief was palpable and authentic to me growing up. I have since met my birth parents and find that the story was essentially true. Although my birth mother has never forgiven herself for giving me up for adoption despite my repeated thank you’s for her sacrifice. (She is the one who truly experienced loss and would definitely benefit from your exercise.) However, when my children do come upon that day when they have to confront a loss in their lives I will look to your exercise to help them process the feelings that arise. Thank you for the tool.

    SMILE On!


  2. Hi, ML,
    I’m glad you found the idea of the grief box helpful. Also, I loved hearing your story. There is a minority of adoptees that don’t believe there is any loss involved in adoption and you must be one of them.
    Drs. Brodzinsky and Schecter state in their book “Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self” that the loss for the adoptee is more painful than death or divorce, but socially unrecognized.
    Thanks for sharing your story!