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Published on: 2015-12-10 09:37:00
Ask any parent and they will willing tell you that even though they love Christmas, it’s also a very stressful time of year with extra money worries, cooking and shopping. If you have a looked after child in your family, then Christmas can become an emotional minefield. At some point, just after Halloween, the shops fill with extra-large boxes of Quality Street and the tear jerking Christmas TV adverts start with happy families gathering around a heaped table of food, celebrating a joyful season and sharing thoughtful gifts with granny. To a lot of looked after children, this is often the opposite of what they have experienced and Christmas is something to be dreaded and even feared.
My first looked after child came to me a few days before Christmas and although she was old enough not to believe in Santa any more, she did believe the Christmas hype that everything should be wonderful and she’d wake up on Christmas morning surrounded by gifts and love. Most children don’t open up as quickly but this 13 year old young person told me that she hated Christmas and could she stay in her room all day? I learned that in her house the run up to Christmas brought strain and tension to a family already coping with a parent struggling with alcohol and drug dependency and the previous year her Christmas present had been a half finished bottle of Jack Daniels. She had learnt to fear the festive period for the increased levels of abuse and neglect it brought her and her younger sibling.
For younger children Christmas can be very confusing, even if they have been in foster care for a while. Most looked after children have contact with family members throughout the year and they ask questions which can be hard to explain; Will I go home for Christmas? How will Father Christmas find me? For other children the first sign of a twinkling light can bring back bad memories and their behaviour can become increasingly challenging throughout the Christmas period as they struggle to cope with their emotions and expectations.
How can a foster carer help a child through the emotional battlefield of the festive period? I always keep a secret stash of age varying presents in a cupboard, so even if a child came to me on Christmas Day, I’d have something I could give them to include them in the festivities. However, presents can be confusing for children and many have contact with families who can promise the earth and then nothing will materialise or on the other hand be inundated with large, expensive or inappropriate gifts. They can associate gifts with declarations of love or lack of it and those brightly wrapped boxes under the tree can be an emotional trigger point. I try to find thoughtful gifts as well as one special gift and spend the same amount of money on a looked after child as I would my own children. I also include funny gifts and little items of chocolate or a favourite snack.
Contact with family is also a difficult time for children in care. If they live apart from their siblings it can include separate contact dates with a parent, grandparents and siblings and each visit brings the build-up and then the fall out and meltdowns of emotions and hope. Even harder is taking a child to an arranged contact visit with a family member who doesn’t show up. Sometimes a quiet cuddle is enough to help and other times a child has to work through the anger and hurt and its painful knowing there is nothing you can do but be there for them when they are ready.
Having a child of a different religion to yours can be difficult; how do you include them in your festivities? How can you make them feel at home? Research and include a few familiar items to your decorations. Ask them to teach you about their customs and share your family traditions with them. Something as simple as a familiar food can help make them feel more included.
Trying to make Christmas perfect for a looked after child can be an impossible task. It’s a time of year when every TV advert or seasonal film tells us that all family problems can be solved. However as a foster carer we know that this is rarely true and like 99% of parents during the busy Christmas period, juggling over tired and excited children, sometimes muddling through is the best we can do.