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12 days of a foster carer’s Christmas

Friday 16 December 2016

‘I don’t like Christmas, can we not do it?’ ‘How will Santa find me?’ ‘Am I imposing?’ These are just some of the questions foster carers might have to
deal with at Christmas. Foster carer Maria Catterick shares her experiences, and offers advice to anyone caring for a looked-after child over the festive

I’m a single foster carer who cares for children on a short-term basis. This transitional state can offer additional challenges for the child at Christmas.
I’ve gone through a number of Christmas experiences and, although each child is unique, I’ve gained a few insights along the way. I’m sure every carer
can add to the list below.

1. On the 1st day of Christmas my foster child said to me… ‘I don’t like Christmas, can we not do it this year?’

For some children, Christmas has not been a happy event and can bring back difficult memories. Explanations I’ve been told include: parents getting
violent or aggressive, strangers coming to the house, parents sleeping through Christmas to sleep off the effects of alcohol or drugs, getting
no presents, no food and so on.

How you might handle this:

You could plan Christmas with the kids so they know what is going to happen. This may reduce their fears and make them feel a part of the festivities.
If guests are coming, it’s helpful if they are already known, or are talked about before Christmas to show how well you know them.

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If children have come from houses where alcohol harm has occurred, perhaps no alcohol should be consumed at all, or at least not until after the children
have gone to bed.

Reassure the younger ones that your family always ensures everyone gets some presents on Christmas day. Let them help you buy gifts for others to demonstrate

For those who worry about the food, involving them in choosing the menu may help. Or let them come on the grocery shop or help you unpack Christmas

2. On the 2nd day of Christmas my foster child said to me… ‘How will Santa find me?’

A number of common questions crop up for foster carers when Christmas decorations start appearing in the shops. These include: ‘Will I be staying for
Christmas? How will Santa find me if I’m not at home? For a looked-after child these questions are important. They may be a sign of bigger questions,
like ‘will I ever go home again?’, while others are just ensuring they don’t miss out on the latest gadget.

How you might handle this:

If the plan is unclear, contact the social worker and try to find out whether the child will definitely be staying for Christmas. When asked to make
a decision, most social workers will give you a clear answer.

With really young children we sometimes visit Santa (his helper in the local shopping centre). Some amazing Santas have reassured children that his
team of helpers know where their presents need to go, even if they’re in foster care. These serious enquiries and relieved smiles from my little
ones have sometimes left Santa a little misty-eyed.

3. On the 3rd day of Christmas my foster child said to me… “Is it OK that I am here for your holidays?”

Some older children may worry about imposing, because there is a perception that it is your house, so your occasion. If they are a child of a different
faith or culture, this needs to be navigated carefully so you can work out what they want to do about the occasion. A child should not feel pressurised
to participate, nor left out.

How you might handle this:

Sewing their names onto Christmas stockings and hanging them by the fire can provide a sense of belonging and inclusion, much like their picture on
the mantelpiece and the name plate on their door does outside the festive season. Sometimes the small wordless gestures say so much.

If they cannot receive direct positive words, joke about something, like noting you’d miss the constant sound of One Direction and would have to buy
the downloads yourself to fill the silence if they weren’t there. Ok, so it’s not particularly funny but you get the message that they hear!

You could also broaden it into a ‘winter celebration’ so that children of all faiths can participate. Speak to the child’s social worker to get their

4. On the 4th day of Christmas my social worker said to me… “Can you take a sibling group of four?”

This happened to me a few days before the kids broke up from school for the holidays. I was dashing and dancing my way around the almost-empty shopping
aisles to buy presents in the two days I had to shop without the children. What do you buy children of different ages, who are strangers to you?
Talk about Christmas stress.

How you might handle this:

You can only do your best. I bought presents in a parallel fashion (the same category of gift, just a different item) and got more low-priced items
in the hope at least some would hit the mark. I also called someone on Christmas Eve, after I’d known the children a few days, and asked them to
buy extra gifts I knew the children wanted.

If you can, ask a partner, friend or family member to help with the pressure of purchasing, wrapping and hiding presents.

5. On the 5th day of Christmas my foster child said to me… ‘Will Santa give my big sister more presents than me?’

In this time of emotional turmoil, some children will be checking (not only at Christmas but all year) if the person caring for them likes or loves
a sibling more than them.

How you might handle this:

Always try to secure some alone time with each child. It communicates a lot about your desire to hang out with them and can create a sense of value
and self-esteem. Even in a busy house, rotating who can be the helper in a task, like cupcake making, can carve out special moments.

Children with cognitive impairments may find it difficult to understand that the same amount of money has been spent on each child if one has four
expensive presents and the other has ten less expensive presents. Consider what will work for your child’s level of understanding.

6. On the 6th day of Christmas my foster child said to me… ‘What do you normally do at Christmas?’

I love this question. This is where I explain some of the routines and fun things that can be done at Christmas. Some children think my celebrations
are ‘lame’, but others want to join me. We do early baths and pyjamas on Christmas Eve then have popcorn and sweets with a Christmas movie. We
also watch NORAD online to see Santa delivering presents. Just before bed we sit in front of the fire,
with Rudolph’s carrot and Santa’s mince pie sitting on the hearth, and read T’was the Night before Christmas. Sometimes the older children
sit pretending not to listen, but then you hear them filling in the rhyming words. Of course, I don’t let them know I noticed.

7. On the 7th day of Christmas my foster child said to me…‘My family will be sad at Christmas without me.’

Some of the many children who’ve come through my doors have expressed this sentiment, in many different words or through a variety of behaviours. A
number are concerned about a parent or family member’s wellbeing, and more so at Christmas when TV advertisements present pictures of families
and togetherness. Sometimes a few have meant, ‘I will be sad at Christmas without my family,’ but that statement may be a bit too personal and
difficult for them to say out loud.

How you might handle this:

Where appropriate, you could use family contact, via phone calls or Skype, on Christmas day. I’ve also found involving parents in the run up to Christmas,
such as school nativities, has been a good way to encourage positive, managed involvement. If you agree to do a contact phone call – makes sure
it happens at the appointed time. Some parents are counting down to the last second for the phone to ring.

If there’s a good relationship between carers and families, arranging how to handle Christmas can ensure they are on board and upbeat. This reassures
the children. Having a pre-Christmas at the contact session with families can provide children with their own family celebration.

If children are worried their family will struggle with food, or with spending Christmas alone, we sometimes work creatively by making up a parcel
of goodies.

8. On the 8th day of Christmas I shout out… ‘Merry Christmas! Santa’s been!’

At what seems like a minute past 5am the wiggling in the beds and the whispers start. ‘Is it Christmas? Is it morning yet? At this point I run out
and say loudly, ‘Santa’s been and left you some presents.’ We all cheer and run downstairs to check. Christmas day begins.

How you might handle this:

Important questions to ask yourself before include: Have you all the batteries you will need? The item may get thrown away if it is perceived to be
broken. Does anything need putting together? Impulsive children cannot wait long. Do you need scissors to undo packaging before the kids start
attacking it with their teeth?

Be prepared for tears and laughter, arguments and playing nicely, to all happen intermittently during the day. It goes with the territory. Do the best
you can with trying to make the dinner, while supervising numerous children and fielding arguments. Even if it burns a bit around the edges, it
will all get eaten.

9. On the 9th day of Christmas my foster child said to me…‘I hate Christmas.’

I have known children try to sabotage Christmas and break new and much longed-for toys. Others have separated themselves from the day, not wanting
to join in or feeling suddenly overwhelmed.

How you might handle this:

Don’t overreact, remember this is an outward sign of painful emotions. Show you understand by giving them time and attention after they cool off. Don’t
rush them.

Sometimes trying to draw them into a movie or a new game will transition them into reconnecting with others. Sometimes hot chocolate, sweets and downright
silliness can hit the reset button for a young person to re-engage with festivities too. You know your child, you will find a way.

10. On the 10th day of Christmas my foster child said to me… ‘I’m bored!’

A day or two after the big day those fearsome words may be uttered. Is your lovely child going to ease their sense of boredom by displaying behaviour
that may not be pleasant, constructive or safe?

How you might handle this:

Get the children outside in the fresh air to avoid cabin fever. Hope for snow! Go somewhere you have never been before – a trip, a pantomime, a show
or a concert.

Tell them that if they are bored you can think of lots of household chores you need help with. Some are magically no longer bored and some even accept
the offer to help.

11. On the 11th day of Christmas my social worker said to me… ‘Did you have a lovely Christmas?’

Hmmm, how do you respond? You have gone through a long winter holiday where the kids were over excited in the run up to Christmas, hit a huge high
on the day (or not, depending on the child’s perspective of Christmas), coped with the cold temperatures and the lack of outdoor activities.

‘Yeah, it was great!’, I reply and my social worker smiles knowingly. She is relieved we haven’t had to call the out of hours service over the Christmas
break. Now there is just the small job of printing off pictures, writing up memory books, ensuring all the paperwork is up to date and packing
away the decorations for another year. I leave aside the children’s stockings, that way they can take them when they leave and hang them for Santa
wherever they may be next Christmas.

12. On the 12th day of Christmas, finally… I sit down, enjoy the silence and take a sip of my first hot cup of tea in weeks,
comforted by the fact that it’s all over for another year.


Acknowledgement and Appreciation: Article written by Maria Catterick for Community Care Magazine

December 19, 2012 in Community Care. Maria is a foster carer with Team Fostering, a fostering agency based in the north east of England.


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