The holiday season is typically a time we look forward to, associated with positive memories, fun traditions, spending time with family, and spreading good cheer. However, for foster children who have been removed from their families due to abuse or neglect, the holidays can take on a different spin. Even with extra efforts towards making the holidays special for your foster child, they may still feel sad to be away from their family. And while your own family traditions might be wonderful, they are unfamiliar. If a placed child doesn’t seem like themselves, it can help to empathize with what they may be feeling during a time when there is so much emphasis on family. It’s very typical for a foster child to have the following types of thoughts:
What about my family?
Will they be okay without me?
Who are all these people giving me gifts?
Will I get to keep all these presents?
This isn’t the food we usually eat…
In some cases, this may be the first time a child gets to visit Santa or receive a stocking, which can trigger a wide range of emotions. Feeling overwhelmed, overstimulated, or confused about why their parents have not done these things for them is quite common. Oftentimes, children are not able to verbalize these complex emotions; instead, it comes out in their behavior. Don’t be surprised if you see an increase in emotional dysregulation, changes in appetite or sleep, more defiance, running away, ungratefulness, increased clinginess, or emotional distancing in the coming months. You might be feeling nervous about how your placed child will cope during the holidays, but there are strategies your family can implement that will help everyone feel more at ease.
Here are some practical tips for supporting your foster child through the holiday season:
🎄 Prepare them for what you do in your home to celebrate the holidays. Talk about special traditions or customs, and which holidays you celebrate. Make sure they know in advance about any religious customs, what they should wear, if gifts will be exchanged, and what you will eat. The more they know what to expect, the more settling it will feel.
🎄 Take time to learn about what holidays mean to them and encourage the child’s own traditions and beliefs. Ask about how they usually celebrate the holidays (what they would eat, where they would go, who they would see). Would they be comfortable doing any of these activities with you? Are there any of their traditions or customs that can be incorporated into your celebrations?
🎄 Facilitate communication and visits with the child’s loved ones. If the child is unable to see their birth family on actual holidays, facilitate video calls. Support the child in buying a gift or making a holiday card for their parents, siblings, or other important family members (if they want to). To the best of your ability, help the child see that their loved ones are okay.
🎄 Prepare your friends and family before visits. They may be curious about this new addition to your family, but be mindful not to disclose the child’s history. You can communicate in advance about who the child is and how long they have been with you. It can also be helpful to give some guidance on what subjects to avoid in front of the child.
🎄 If you plan to travel, prepare the child for where they are going, who they will meet, and what to expect. Go over your itinerary for the trip so they know what the general plan is for each day. Be prepared to have a quiet space available for your child to have some down time during your trip.
🎄 Lastly, do not take it personally if a child pulls away, regresses, or has other mood changes. It can be difficult to remember this in the moment as negative behaviors often feel directed at parents. Try to keep in mind all the complex emotions your foster child is dealing with. Be empathetic and open to listening if they want to talk, and help them put words to what they may be experiencing.
“The children who need love the most will always ask for it in the most unloving ways.” ~ Russel Barkley