Celebrating the holidays with children in your home creates wonderful and lasting memories, but also presents some unique challenges (and possibly causes stress and mixed emotions) for foster families. As the holiday season kicks off, you may find the ideas below helpful for supporting your children and youth in foster care through the season.
- Prepare children in your care for the holidays in your home. Have a discussion with your child about your family’s holiday customs. Do you celebrate over multiple days, or is their one “main” celebration? Who will they meet? Will there be visitors to your home? Will they be taken on visits to the homes of other family or friends? Knowing what to expect will help the children to decrease anxiety around the holidays.
- Prepare family and friends before you visit. Let people know in advance about new family members in your home. Surprising a host or hostess at the door with “new” foster youth may set up an awkward situation-such as a scramble to set an extra place at the table-making the child feel like an imposition right from the start of the visit.
- Remember confidentiality. You may receive well intended but prying questions from those you visit over the holidays. If your child is new to your home, it is natural that family members ask questions about the youth’s background. Understand that questions are generally not meant to be insensitive or rude, but simply come from a place of not knowing much about foster care. Think in advance about how to answer these questions while maintaining the child’s confidentiality. But, you can use the opportunity to educate interested family and friends about foster care. Discuss with your child how they would like to be introduced.
- Arrange meeting your family in advance, if possible. The hustle and bustle of the holidays can make in particularly chaotic for your foster child to participate in your family traditions. Anxiety may run high for your child already, and the stress of meeting your relatives may be a lot to deal with. If possible, you can arrange a casual “meeting” in advance of “main events”. If it is not possible or practical to meet beforehand, make a list of names of some of the people they’ll meet and their connection to you. You can also arrange a quick call from relatives you plan to visit to deliver a personal message of “we are excited to meet you” so that your child knows that they will be welcome.
- Have extra presents ready to help offset differences. If should not be expected that all relatives will think to purchase presents for your child. Be prepared with other small gifts for those family members who express concern over not having brought a gift, and offer one of your small presents for them to place under the tree. Extra presents may be addressed “from Santa”, even for older youth, to help offset a larger number of gifts other children may receive at the same time. Children often keep county of the number of gifts received (right or wrong) and use it to compare with other kids, so sometimes quantity is important.
- Facilitate visits with loved ones. The holidays are a busy time for everyone including foster parents and caseworkers. But it is especially important for your child to have contact with their loved ones in their biological family. Try to get permission for your child to make phone calls to appropriate and safe relatives. A child may wish to extend holiday greetings to relatives and friends from their old neighborhood, but may need your help getting phone numbers together. You could use this opportunity to help an older child develop their own address book.
- Help them make sure their loved ones are okay. Children may worry that their family members are struggling through the holidays. Your child may experience guilt if they feel a loved one is struggling, while they, the youth, are living in comfort. Knowing that a biological parent or sibling has shelter from the cold or has their other basic needs met may ease a child’s mind through the always emotional holidays.
- Extend an invitation. If it is safe and allowed by DSS, consider extending an invitation to siblings or biological parents through the holidays. It need not be an invitation to your “main” event, consider a “special” dinner for your youth to celebrate with your loved ones. If this is not a possibility to do within your home, consider arranging a visit at a local restaurant or other public setting. Again, please ask your caseworker for what type of contact is permitted and recommended regarding biological family. Extended an invitation to their loved ones need not signal to a child that you support the bio-family’s lifestyle or choices-rather it tells a young person that you respect their wish to stay connected to family. You will also send a message to the youth that they aren’t being put in a position to “choose” your family over their bio-family, and that it is possible to have a relationship with all the people they care about.
- Understand and encourage your child’s own traditions and beliefs. Encourage discussion about the holiday traditions your youth experienced prior to being in foster care or even celebrations they liked while living with other foster families. If possible, incorporate some of these in your own family celebrations.
- Assist in purchasing or making small holiday gifts or in sending cards to their family and friends. Allow children to purchase small gifts for their relatives, or help them craft homemade gifts. Help send holiday cards to those that they want to stay connected with. The list of people the child wants to send cards and gifts to should be left completely to the child, and precautions may be taken to ensure safety (for example a return address may be left off the package, or use the address of DSS). Be sure to check with the child’s caseworker to ensure that there are no concerns with the child doing this.
- Understand if they pull away. Despite your best efforts, a child may simply withdraw during the holidays. Understand that this detachment most likely is not intended to be an insult or a reflection of how they feel about you, but rather is their own coping mechanism. Allow for “downtime” during the holidays that will allow the child some time to themselves if they need it (although some youth would prefer to stay busy to keep their mind off other things-you will need to make a decision based on your knowledge of the youth). Be sure to fit in some one-on-one time, personal time for you and your child to talk through what they are feeling during this emotional and often confusing time of the year.
- Call youth who formerly lived with you, if possible. The holidays can be a particularly tough time for youth who have aged out of foster care. They may not have people to visit, or a place to go during the holidays. A single phone call may lift their spirits and signal that you continue to care for them and treasure them. A card, small token gift or a gift basket of homemade goodies may be especially appreciated.
Shared with permission from Jocelyn Gibson, Program Coordinator for SCDSS Upstate Foster Family and Licensing Support.
(adapted from www.Fosterclub.org)