Christmas can be a wonderful time of the year, with colourful decorations, delicious food, welcome visitors and of course the exchanging of presents. But with the bombardment of adverts of the perfect Christmas, it can be easy to forget that for many it isn’t always a magical time of unwrapping presents under a giant tree.
Christmas may have been very different for some of the children in foster care, possibly filled with grief or difficult memories or it might not have happened at all. For some there may have not been presents or any dinner, there may have been a parent who was too depressed to prepare for Christmas, or there may have been fights and violence fuelled by too much drink. Every child’s experiences will be different so keeping this in mind will stand you in good stead as you prepare for the festive season
With some care, consideration, and heaps of conversations and compassion Christmas can be navigated and made into an experience that children can manage and hopefully even enjoy.
Expectations before decorations
If it is your first Christmas with your foster child (and even if it’s not) one of the key ways to help manage Christmas is to start discussing what it means for everyone, what they are used to, what they enjoy, and what they would like to experience but perhaps never have. Talking about this will allow for planning to take place that is considerate of all and for expectations to be managed. This is best done early, and with Christmas seemingly starting earlier and earlier each year conversations are likely to be needed in November – at least so advent calandars can be ready for 1st December!
Casual conversations, one on one, are a good approach initially – perhaps sparked by a TV advert or hearing that first Christmas song on the radio. Simply asking “Do you like turkey?”, “Do you have a favourite Christmas movie?”, or “Will you be writing to Santa this year?” can break the ice, and start the exploration.
With a heavy focus on family at Christmas, it is likely foster children may have mixed emotions – grief and feelings of loss over their birth family, or guilt at the prospect of enjoying Christmas without them. Behaviours may be seen in your kids that could be a tell-tale sign all is not well, and may be a clue that going all in to make this the “ultimate family Christmas” may not be such a wise idea.
If your foster child will be having contact with siblings or birth parents over the holiday period, some thought should be given to how this is managed and scheduled so they don’t miss out on any experiences they are looking forward to – whether those are with you or their birth family.
Christmas is well known to be a stressful time, and some kids may have experienced violence around this time – potentially fuelled by the overabundance of alcohol – so taking steps to reduce stress and take care of yourself will help avoid some potential triggers.
It is good to get your children involved in the planning – from decorations to food to present – though be sensitive about the latter. Asking children to make lists of presents they want can touch on issues of self-esteem; some may not feel they are worth buying for and not wanting to appear too demanding may prevent them from being honest. This seemingly pleasant task may be loaded with worry for a child who is not used to being cared for. Make sure that presents are given fairly amongst all your kids, whether fostered or not, and be sure to give attention to & include your birth children too.
Traditions and religions
Christmas has for many become a celebration and time for festivities that can be enjoyed regardless of religion or lack thereof, whilst for others there is still a religious significance to this time of year. It is therefore very much worth being considerate of your own religion (if you have one) and that of any of your children. Be mindful of different cultures and faiths and where they differ be curious and allow your child to participate and share any traditions that entails.
Along with anyone who is Christian and exploring whether they may want to attend a church service on Christmas day (virtually or in person), other religions have festivals this time of year too. For example, if your foster child is Jewish they may wish to celebrate Hanukkah (which this year falls between 10th and 18th December) and you can help them to do so by providing the menorah and candles so they can light a new branch of the candelabra each night.
Beyond religion people often build up traditions around Christmas which should be explored, beyond Santa (who is discussed later) expectations about when and how certain activities take place may differ. When does the Christmas tree go up and who gets to put the star on the top? Do you send cards? Does everyone get an advent calendar, or do you share and take turns? Are stockings a thing to hang up? When are presents opened on Christmas Day – in the morning or after lunch? Do some people expect to stay in their pyjamas all morning? Discussing details and sharing a rough outline for the day may alleviate a lot of stress and uncertainty. Allow Children who want opt out time and space to do so.
Let’s talk about Santa
Santa Claus, Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas – however you know him, he is often a central figure in the celebration of Christmas, with a number of customers built up around him.
One of the first things to establish is whether any of your kids believe in Santa – and if not all do, whether those who don’t will encourage (or be expected to encourage) the belief in those who do. If a young child is spending their first Christmas with you this year, there may also be some concerns around whether Santa will know where to find them so some reassurances may be required.
But even those whose belief has perhaps started to waiver may want to continue with certain customs out of fun or to have a sense of something familiar and comforting. Such custom include writing letters to Santa, leaving out a mince pie on Christmas Eve (along with some carrots for the reindeer), or expecting presents not to appear until they wake up on Christmas day.
Some thought should also be given to the fact that, while Santa is often portrayed as a generous jovial fellow, his behaviour can seem somewhat scary to some children. Even the idea of someone acting in the way Santa does (even if it’s not Santa himself) can be triggering for those who have experienced trauma. With this in mind, it may be best to play down the idea that Santa comes into the home while everyone is sleeping, and avoid any ideas of sneaking into bedrooms and leaving presents at the end of the children’s beds. Maybe due to COVID Santa is getting his elves to leave presents on the doorstep on Christmas Eve this year, and the kids can help bring them in when they hear the doorbell go!
It’s also worth talking about whether your kids expect all presents to come from Santa or know some presents at least are from you and each other. For the latter, getting them involved in the wrapping process can be a great way to make them feel included.
Managing too much or too little
Christmas time has, for good or bad, become a time synonymous with excess. For some kids who are not used to it, this excess can potentially be overwhelming and so some thought should be given to this, and awareness encouraged to identify if and when things have become too much.
Food, and especially chocolates and sweets, are often overconsumed, especially when there are so many to try. Some children can simply become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice, not wishing to miss out on anything, which can lead to anxiety. It may be wise to help narrow the options, and stagger when certain foods are on offer to help kids manage this.
But it is not just food that can become too much for some, noise, lights, and excitement can all potentially lead to overstimulation and so scheduling in some quiet times during the festive break – and especially on Christmas Day itself – can provide time to bring some calm.
Although it may be less of an issue this year, having lots of visitors coming and going can potentially cause apprehension and unease, especially if they are unexpected or strangers. Planning when visiting will occur and informing the family who is coming and when, reminding them nearer the time, can help manage any worry this may cause. Remember consent around visitors in terms of hugs, children don’t have to hug anyone they don’t want to.
Some children may sadly have never experienced anything close to a “normal” Christmas before, and they may simply not know what to do which may cause distress. It is therefore worthwhile ensuring there is something you don’t have too little of… routine. While this year has already seen a lot of upheaval in people’s habits due to the pandemic, at Christmas routines may further be allowed to slip, though this may not always be desirable. Retaining some consistency in regards to bedtimes, meal times, what TV programmes are watched, etc can help some children better cope with all the other change that occurs over Christmas.
Stopping Christmas Magic turning into Tragic
Of course no matter how well planned a Christmas is (or perhaps because it might be planned so much) things don’t always work out, problems will occur, and children may get upset or angry. So along with managing expectations, respecting traditions, and striving not to overwhelm your children, the following points are worth considering.
Some foster kids may feel in the way of your Christmas, be worried about what their birth family will be doing without them, or feel guilty about enjoying a Christmas with a new family. This can lead to some kids not wanting to participate or even try to sabotage the Christmas they may feel unable to escape from. We should respect those who may not want to take part and not force them too, to allow them to opt out of some activities whilst making them know they are welcome to join for other stuff.
Even for those who are keen to participate, Christmas can sometimes prove too much as previously discussed, or something innocuous may bring to light painful memories. It is therefore useful to create a safe space that kids can go to when they need to take a break, or if they need some more active support to agree a way of signalling this need, that avoids embarrassment – especially important when visitors are round. It could be handing you an special toy that’s signals I am going to my room please come with me.
If and when something does go wrong, realise that there is no such thing as a “perfect Christmas” and know that unless it is something extremely serious Christmas won’t be ruined. If possible, go with the flow – if the cake falls on the floor it could be a chance for a small food fight! If the tree falls over it’s another chance to decorate and the fairy gets demoted! If the turkey isn’t cooked in time for lunch, have dinner in the evening and have a pizza for lunch. Some things going wrong may even lead to a new tradition!
Self-care for parents!
Finally, in order to cope with Christmas remember to take time to care for yourself. Schedule time for you to relax, maybe check the TV listing or stream a movie all the kids will enjoy, allowing you to have time to for a bath or even just a cup of tea and to put your feet up.
Make sure, where possible to share the organisation with partners or others in your support network. Getting the kids involved and delegating some tasks to them can also take some of the burden off you (preparing the veg perhaps?)
Don’t over stuff the schedule, things won’t go to plan, something unexpected may crop up, and somethings will take longer than expected – so include some contingency in any scheduling, and leave some gaps of downtime.
Ultimately, take the pressure off yourself to provide the idealised vision of Christmas – as long as it’s a fun one and people are fed and made to feel cared for, it should be considered a success!