Magic, excitement, wonder are all emotions we connect with Christmas and how we expect children respond to the season. For those in care, however, these emotions might be mixed with guilt, confusion, trauma and sadness.
For some, it will reawaken feelings of fear or neglect they’ve buried for a year. For others it will compound the fact they are not celebrating with their own families. It maybe they have never celebrated Christmas before or feel unworthy of the time, effort and money spent on ensuring they enjoy the Big Day.
So, if you can, keep it simple. Remember that excitement and wonder are relative. Maybe some of the tips below will help.
1. Communicate - Talk to your foster child/ren about Christmas. What are they hoping for? How does Christmas make them feel? Christmas is full of traditions; do they have any they would like to share with you? Explain your Christmas traditions with them and tell them why you’d like them to be part of it but be understanding if they would prefer not to be. Ready yourself to hear about their past Christmases, be these good or bad experiences.
2. Family Time - If a child still has contact with their birth family, this may be an especially confusing and frustrating time. Although there may be face to face contact before Christmas Day, virtual family time could be an expectation. If a phone call on Christmas morning is expected from a parent, consider buying a cheap mobile used only for this type of contact. That way, when your own mobile or the house phone rings, your foster child won’t have their expectations raised as they will know their family only have one number.
If family time is arranged but not fulfilled, it could be difficult to manage disappointment. Try talking to the child about how they feel about this and reassuring them that they are still allowed to enjoy the day.
3. Santa - Not every child will believe in Santa, but for those who do, try and incorporate this where you can. Write to Santa, take advantage of our Santa Hotline and if there are any socially distant Santa visits happening near you, consider whether they’d like to attend.
Most importantly, reassure them that no matter which house they sleep in, Santa will be able to deliver presents to them.
4. Festive Drinks - Most people see this as a season to unwind and relax with a festive drink or two but be mindful that for a child in your care, alcohol might have extremely negative connotations. Drinking could have led to something dangerous, traumatic or sinister in their past.
5. Sanctuary - Think about keeping a child’s bedroom free from Christmas decoration (unless they otherwise express a desire to have some), so if the festivities all get too much, they have a safe place to retreat to with no reminders of the season.
6. Routines & Boundaries - Christmas is full of unique activities and there is no school to maintain routine, so where possible, think carefully about maintaining as much routine and as many boundaries as you can. Children need consistency, if there are celebrations that take them out of their normal day-to-day rituals, be prepared to instil these again as soon as possible.
7. Diversity - Over time, Christmas has taken on a cultural significance, not just a religious one, but it’s a good time to be mindful that if a child doesn’t celebrate Christmas for religious reasons, could they be involved in the season in different ways? Do they celebrate this time of year through the lens of another religion and how can you support this?
8. Visitors - A lot of Christmas is about gatherings and whilst Covid will limit our ability to celebrate together this year, is it still appropriate to use the social bubbles in place for the festive season? Christmas gatherings can come with expectations of social interaction, think about whether you foster child is prepared for this.
9. Imagination & Emotions - It can easily become an overwhelming time for children, but for foster children even more so. They might invent a past Christmas to help them remember positives about their birth family and tell you how wonderful their Christmases used to be or display a rollercoaster of emotions including anger, guilt and sadness. Remember to listen and don’t take anything personally, adults can regulate their emotions easier than children.
10. Presents - A lot of children will have no expectation of gifts, even if they have made a wish list, but it’s important to understand that receiving presents might make a child consider if they are worthy of attention. Don’t mistake a lack of self-worth for ingratitude. We don’t always know what kind of experience of Christmas a child would have had before coming into care.
11. Life Story - Christmas is a busy time, but don’t forget to capture all the memories you will be making. Photographs and mementos can be a useful reminder for children about the joy they experienced in your care.
12. Christmas Dinner - For some, Christmas dinner can be challenging, just look how divisive sprouts can be! Your foster child may never have experienced a Christmas dinner before or certainly not your traditions, so get them involved, ask them what they would like to eat and be prepared to make them something they would like to eat if turkey and stuffing is unfamiliar to them.