Christmas can be a complicated time for both foster carers and the children they provide care for. Christmas may not be celebrated or acknowledged by members of the household, or there may be more deep-routed issues such as negative past experiences from the perspective of a young person. Whatever the reason, the holiday season can work for all members of the fostering household with a little forward planning.
Differences in faith
One of the most important points to consider when we reach the holiday period is the differences in faith. If you are a foster carer who doesn’t celebrate or acknowledge Christmas, then providing a festive experience for a child who values Christmas may feel a little alien to you. Likewise, you may need to provide care to a child whose religion or upbringing is incongruous to Christian festivals such as Christmas.
In these situations, a flexible approach is the key to ensuring that all faiths are represented and celebrated. A great way to achieve this is for both foster carer and child to talk about and introduce elements of their own religions into the festive season. Not only will this achieve a balance between the differing faiths, it will also function as a useful learning and bonding exercise. Social Workers will be able to support with opening these dialogues, and will be able to provide advice.
Here are some further considerations for any fostering households who will be looking to celebrate Christmas with children in their care:
1. The smaller things really count
As a foster carer, it is tempting to place a lot of focus on Christmas. It is natural to want any young person in your care to have an amazing experience that they will remember and cherish, but this can inadvertently place a lot of pressure on children to enjoy the festive period. This can be especially true if a particular young person has never spent Christmas with you before.
For a young person to come into seasonal visitors, tree presents, elaborate mealtimes and family games can mean that they become overwhelmed and alienated. However, this does not mean that you should immediately cancel all of your festive plans.
The best approach is to talk to your social worker beforehand, to get an idea of how the young person perceives Christmas. It could be that scaling back some plans and placing more importance on talking and spending physical time with them may be better for their mental health and wellbeing. These smaller gestures could go a long way to making them feel at home at Christmas time.
“He came to us when he was 13, five days before Christmas. It was a special moment when he hugged us on Christmas Day and thanked us for giving him such a great Christmas. ”
Bev & Mac – TACT foster carers since 2017
2. Be flexible
For many people, Christmas follows a set plan each year. Maybe Christmas Day begins with present opening, followed by a big lunch, party hats, tree presents and then lots of games. The key thing to remember about fostering at Christmas is that a young person may not have experienced any of these activities – or they may have a completely different idea of how Christmas should be celebrated.
Try talking to the young person beforehand to find out if they have something that they would particular like to do at Christmas, and make sure these are included in your plans. Involving them in the planning of any activities or events over the festive period will help them to feel included and a part of the household.
“The festive season can be a very traumatic time for children and young people coming into foster care. If carers are taking young people into their home at this time of the year, they need to be mindful of the various emotions – from relief to anxiety and everything in between. I would ask carers to take time and explain what will be happening in their home by way of celebrations so that a young person is not overwhelmed.”
Mary Reid – TACT Area Manager
3. Are there any triggers?
Are there any particular emotional triggers associated with Christmas that you should be aware of? It could be that a young person has previously experienced a degree of trauma around the festive season. Alternatively they could have very happy memories of spending Christmas with their birth family, so being without them can be upsetting and stressful.
Whatever the triggers are, it is important to be aware of them early so that you can plan accordingly. Talking to the young person may not be the best approach here, so talk to your social worker to get as much information as possible. You can then make alternative plans that either avoid or limit the affect of potential triggers.
4. Take the calm approach
Whatever you choose to do at Christmas, bear in mind that everyone will be under the same roof for potentially an extended period of time. This can be stressful for any family. Adopting a calm approach and ensuring that everyone in the household is given the space and time to relax and enjoy the holidays may seem an obvious point to make, but it could be vital in order to maintain good mental health and wellbeing.
Try and ensure that you plan for periods of calm over the festive holidays. This will give any young people in your care a chance to recharge, relax and potentially avoid being overwhelmed.
“Provide some quiet times so that young people can relax a bit and please do not feel alone, use your out-of-hours service to check for any advice or guidance”
Mary Reid – TACT Area Manager
5. Avoid conditional language
Conditional language at Christmas can mean using phrases that contain a condition that must be met. For example, we have all heard phrases such as ‘if you’re good, you might receive some Christmas presents’.
Bear in mind that young people who have experienced trauma or are not used to being in a family unit may have trouble recognising what being ‘good’ actually is – which is not to say that they themselves are in any way ‘badly behaved’. If this is the case, the expectation on them can begin to feel unattainable and unrealistic.
Instead, remove all conditions and allow any young people in your household to simply enjoy the festive season. They deserve to receive any gifts or treats, and by removing these conditions you are demonstrating that they do not need to do anything to receive your care and support. In fact, it could help undo an old belief system that could have been ingrained in them.
The key point to remember is that support is always available over the festive period, whether that be via your social worker, or a dedicated out-of-hours service. As TACT is a charity and ‘beyond profit’, we reinvest our surplus income into providing more support resources. After all, the better we support you, the better you can make a difference to children’s lives.