Christmas is a happy family time, full of peace on earth and joy to the world… Right? What if you’re wrong? What if Christmas is just another day of no food, mum crying, dad shouting or worse; being hit, hiding from a drunk parent, trying to shake mum out of a drug stupor, or trying to protect your younger siblings from an abusive parent? What if there was no abuse, just years of neglect and disinterest; and where chaos and living in fear of the unknown was normal and Christmas just made everything worse? What if being promised a big toy, a better life or the promise of ‘I’ll never hit or touch you again’ is always broken?
As a foster carer, you want to make life better for the Looked After Children in your care, and spoiling them at Christmas and birthdays seems like the perfect way to do this, after all, lot of children in care may have never experienced a ‘normal’ family Christmas. However, as the build up to Christmas begins, so does the child’s stress and anxiety. As the family puts up the perfect Christmas tree while carols play in the back ground, with every TV advert and every present that gets wrapped, the countdown to an emotional overload and possible meltdown begins.
It’s not uncommon for children who have been traumatised by abuse or neglect to sabotage Christmas days outs, events, parties or Christmas Day, as it brings them back to a ‘normal’ they are comfortable or familiar with. As a foster carer, you will often have other children to think about; other Looked After Children, your own birth children or your visiting family’s children, and preventing the child becoming overloaded with emotion and anxiety can be difficult.
M refuses to discuss with us any aspect of Christmases she had with her birth family, however, we know from police reports that it was not a happy time and mostly led to drunkenness, violence and the police being called. J on the other hand tells us all sorts of memories about his Christmas disappointments of being constantly told if he was a good boy he’d get a special present, only to wake up on Christmas morning to a cold house with no food and no money on the meter to pay for Gas and of course, no presents.
Even though both children have been with me for a while, we still keep Christmas low key and small in our house, with one big family meal at my brother and sister in laws on Boxing Day, where unfortunately, we have to go as I do the cooking! Some tips I have learnt over the years to help Christmas stay as calm as possible are:
- Make contact arrangements with birth families early and get them in writing. This won’t prevent any last minute cancellations, but there is nothing you can do about this other than prepare the child ahead of time if family fail to turn up. Allow them to show their disappointment and anger, even if it comes out as bad behaviour or indifference
- Don’t start Christmas too early. The earlier the tree and decorations go up, the more reminders you are giving and the fear and stress levels can rise
- TV Christmas adverts. It seems the big stores compete to make the most sentimental, tear jerking advert possible; showing the perfect family celebrating the perfect Christmas. You can’t avoid TV, but conveniently turn off, switch over or distract when the schmaltzy ads come on
- Remind children that they can leave anything on their plate, if they don’t like it or are too intimidated to try it, even if they are at someone else’s house. If you have a picky eater, take a meal you know they like with you
- Don’t talk about Father Christmas or Santa coming into the house to leave presents. A strange man coming in while nobody is watching might trigger bad memories for some abused children. Instead, he may drop them through the chimney or you found them in the garden where he left them and brought them in, or whatever scenario suits your circumstances
- Talk to visiting friends, grandparents and relatives about the difficulty that Looked After Children may have to show appropriate gratitude, and not to overwhelm them with gifts and demands for a thank you hug or kiss. This is particularly important if there is any evidence or suspicion of sexual abuse in the child’s past
- Don’t make grandiose promises of how wonderful the day will be. It is useful for children to be told how and when things will happen during the holiday, especially if you are visiting relatives. We did this with J on his first visit to the Boxing Day celebrations and he would come up to me with his internal itinerary to be reassured of what was happening next. I made sure that I told J in M’s earshot and I know she benefitted from knowing what to expect
- Plan for an emotional meltdown or difficult behaviour and, if necessary, pre warn visiting relatives. Create a calm space for the child to go to feel safe and have a time out period. Ask relatives not to express criticism or judgement, even if the child is behaving ‘badly’
- Lastly, don’t make any gifts, outings or treats conditional of good behaviour
Christmas is a stressful time for most families; we are thrown together with relatives we might not see for months, we increase our spending on gifts and food and we can feel let down when we aren’t having the identical Christmas to that of the John Lewis ad. Don’t forget to make time for yourselves and enjoy the little moments, and remember it doesn’t have to be perfect!