Anyone with children, or those looking after children in any capacity, will tell you that Christmas is not an easy time of year.
Forget what the TV commercials tell you about the perfect family sitting together eating the perfect meal; the turkey is glistening, and the children are well behaved and smiling. Marketing works, and we buy into the idea of this idealised Christmas but so do the children.
However, most Looked After Children have, at some point, experienced trauma in their life and possibly abuse or some sort of neglect, and it is common for their past trauma to be made worse by family holidays such as Christmas.
In spite of their experiences, a lot of children settle into foster care; do well at school, form lasting friendships, and learn how to manage their complex emotions and experiences. Occasionally with professional help, but mostly by being in a stable, consistent environment. Nevertheless, Christmas is a notorious time of year for stretching family tensions to the limit and the foster care family is no different.
There may well be birth children in the family as well as Looked After Children, or adopted children, and I’ve yet to meet a child yet that doesn’t get overexcited over Christmas.
It’s not easy managing their heightened emotions along with contact with birth families and all the potential implications of what might happen or be said.
Contact is difficult for Looked After Children, as birth families may make pledges of returning home or promise piles of (sometimes) unsuitable presents.
I have found some useful pointers to get through Christmas which work for our family which I’ve honed over several Christmases. Some of these tips come from my experiences, and some I’ve nabbed from other foster carers.
- Organise contact with birth families early. There are 3 children in our household and all have contact with birth family. I’ve given each relevant social worker a list of preferred dates, but I have to be prepared to be flexible as contact centres have set opening times, closing times and dates.
- Don’t start the celebrations too early. Christmas is a lot to cope with and although it’s tempting to get the twinkly lights up as early as possible to brighten up the long dark nights, I have found that as soon as the decorations go up, so does the tension. I stick with a decorated and lit tree and a few special or personal items in the child’s room.
- Visiting family can also be a challenge, and again I try to plan ahead and make sure any family that visit us, or vice versa, are on-board and mindful about the children. This is particularly important in the case of M who, as a teenager, feels the difference acutely. J is also particularly sensitive to any thoughtless comments that may be made. My family are supportive and have learnt over the years what not to do and say. They don’t ask questions about their birth family or contact and keep conversations to school, hobbies, Lego and movies.
- Don’t force children to interact or kiss Great Auntie Maud! This might sound obvious but it’s a clear ‘No-No’. I don’t even make them say hello, but allow the children to warm up at their own pace and interact when they feel comfortable. I prep visitors in advance.
- Plan special events. I make sure my calendar is visible and clearly mark any special outings, events, or visits so the children are prepared. I tell them in advance and give them the opportunity to talk about where we are going. I once planned a special visit to Santa with an anxious child and it backfired horribly, so this is why it made it on the list.
- Routine, sugar and sleep: the big three. Any change in routine, combined with an overload of Christmas sugary treats and lack of sleep, can make any child over excited or grumpy but can tip an anxious child over into negative behaviours or withdrawal. It’s hard to do much about the routine at Christmas once the schools break up but we try to minimise chocolate treats and stick to our normal sleep routine as much as possible.
I can’t control everything that happens over Christmas, or what is promised by family at contact, but I have learnt to try to minimise the stress – both the children’s and mine.
When Tina, one of our earliest Looked After Children, came to me years ago, I allowed her to pick one special ornament for herself on her first Christmas with us to hang in her room and I followed this up every year, creating a new tradition.
When she moved on, she took those ornaments with her, along with any Christmas presents and cards I’d saved for her from her birth family. Many children who have moved foster homes several times have lost important mementos in their life, and having something of their own to take with them is important.