Foster care at Christmas: advice for the festive season

Monday 17 December 2018

Christmas can be a challenging time for foster families. Of course, you want your family to embrace the joy of the season, but doing so whilst being sensitive to your child’s feelings can be a bit of a balancing act.

Often, the happiest times can be the most difficult for looked after children, as they may reflect on memories and experiences from the past, or experience mixed feelings. There are other things to think about during the festive season, too, like what to do if you and your child follow different religions. You or they may not celebrate Christmas, so you need to approach the festive season sensitively.

Here are things to look out for, and insight from some of our current foster carers.

Behavioural changes

Happy memories of Christmases spent with their birth family can often trigger behavioural changes in children, while the fact that it’s such a big event on the calendar could emphasise the loss they might feel about being away from their parents and siblings.

Recently, we spoke with Lorraine, a current NFA foster carer, who experienced a difficult Christmas with one of her foster children – and one which highlights just how much the time of year can have an impact on the feelings and behaviour of looked after children.

“I had a particularly difficult experience with a young boy of 11. He had only been with us for a couple of months before Christmas, so we didn’t know him that well at that point. Our social worker informed us that Christmas was a difficult time for him as he had lost his father around this time of year, and that he had been the one who found him.

“Christmas Day came and he became very agitated, throwing and breaking a number of the presents he had received. He refused to come downstairs but fortunately relented at dinnertime. He spent a large portion of the day hiding in the cupboard under the stairs and when he did appear he was quite rude to our family members, and displayed aggressive behaviour towards me. Upon asking him about his behaviour in the New Year, he responded by saying that he ‘didn’t know how you did Christmas’.”

Lorraine’s experience of Christmas isn’t uncommon. That’s why it’s so important to have an open discussion about Christmas with your child well before the season, so you can come up with ways to make the time easier for them.

For Lorraine, the following Christmas was much better, thanks to a lot of careful pre-planning.

“The following Christmas, having gotten to know him over the preceding 12 months, we took the approach of introducing Christmas to him around mid-November. This involved talking to him about our plans for Christmas and how the day would run. We drip fed this to him over around six weeks leading up to Christmas and also talked about how his dad would want him to enjoy Christmas, and that it was OK to talk about him.

“I’m pleased to report that our 2nd Christmas with him was a joy and so fantastic that he told us that ‘it’s been my best Christmas so far!’”

Indifference towards the festivities

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the fun and happiness of Christmas, and forget that, for others, the season isn’t necessarily a joyful one. Young people in care can grow indifferent towards Christmas because of past failures, disappointments and upsets. So, you need to be prepared to deal with different attitudes to the time of year and not work on the assumption that everyone is as excited about the festivities as you and your family are.

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Tracy, who has been fostering for over six years, has experienced first-hand the challenges of celebrating Christmas with a child who wasn’t excited about the holiday. Here, she recounts two occasions when the festivities didn’t quite go as planned for two young people in her care, and the steps her family took to resolve the problems:

“One of our foster children had never had a Christmas when she came to us at 16. She hated everything to do with Christmas, and we found the first year with her particularly challenging when she became upset at receiving lots of presents. The next year we deliberately spaced out giving gifts to her over three days. To this day we do the same thing, even though she now has a family of her own.

“We have also dealt with a young person who ran away on Christmas Eve and only returned on the afternoon of Christmas Day as he wanted to spend time with his own friends. We just remember to not take it personally, be pleased that they have returned to you, and no matter what, show you’re there for them and care about them.”

Issues with faith and the celebration of Christmas

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Perhaps one of the most common issues relating to Christmas is faith, and the fact that you or a child in your care might not celebrate the Christian holiday. This can be a complicated issue for foster families who take care of children who follow different religions, and one that never has a one-size-fits-all solution.

It’s situations like this when a close relationship with your child’s social worker is key, as they’ll be able to offer advice and input on how to approach Christmas, no matter what your personal beliefs.

Naturally, as the foster carer, it will fall to you to make compromises if a child in your care follows a religion which doesn’t recognise Christmas, and you should try to be respectful and sensitive to this issue. If it’s the other way around and the child is from a Christian background, some Christmas celebrations should be enjoyed, but you can introduce elements of your own faith as a way to promote multiculturalism in your household.

One of our current foster carers, Cathy, has a lot of experience in fostering children from different backgrounds, some of which have been unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (or UASCs). In her experience, taking a sensitive approach to Christmas is the key to ensuring all children feel comfortable and included throughout the festive season.

“As we foster unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, most of whom are new to the British culture and follow another religion, we have to ensure that the children understand why we celebrate Christmas, and that they are included in the festivities. We also ensure that we are aware of their own religious festivals, and help them to celebrate those.

“Christmas is always regarded as a time to be spent with family, but for UASCs, their families (if still alive) are in another country, meaning it can be difficult for them to enjoy this time of year, and not to dwell on the pain of missing loved ones.

“Despite differences in faith, we always try to encourage our children to get involved in every way possible, no matter what their age, background or religion. Even though we currently foster older teenagers who are Buddhists, they love helping to decorate the Christmas cake, put their own stocking out on Christmas Eve and receive lots of presents!”

Other things to consider

In a foster care environment, there are things you need to consider in the run-up to Christmas that you might not have previously thought about – especially if you have children of your own. Here are some practical tips to make Christmas an inclusive, comfortable and happy time for every member of the family.

  • Tread carefully around Father Christmas traditions – If you’re looking after young children, talk to their social worker about how they normally celebrate Christmas, and whether or not they believe in Santa. Some children may have traditions which they like to stick to, so try to accommodate these so their routine can carry on as normal as possible.
  • Another thing to note about Father Christmas traditions is the fact that you won’t be able to put presents in their room at night on Christmas Eve, so you may have to come up with a different version. Tracy, who we heard from earlier, suggests:

“With the nature of the children we look after, we never tell them that Santa will leave presents in their room, we say our adult son stays up and lets him in the front door!”

  • Be inclusive about gift-giving – It goes without saying that you need to be fair and inclusive about the gifts you give to your birth and foster children. Christmas is a time to make your child feel like part of the family, so buy them gifts that show that you care.
  • Don’t force Christmas on your foster child – As we touched on earlier, it’s important to have a clear understanding of your child’s wishes at Christmastime. It may be that they have little interest or enthusiasm for getting involved in the festivities, so don’t try to force or overload them if they don’t seem up to it.
  • Consider how your extended family could impact on your child’s Christmas – Christmas is a time to share with family, and often extended relatives that we don’t see for much of the year. Introducing lots of new people to your foster child in a small space of time could be somewhat overwhelming, so make sure you plan your Christmas carefully and alert all your family of any boundaries or requirements that are in place for your child’s welfare over the holiday period.
  • Don’t overindulge – For many, Christmas is a chance to let your hair down and indulge in a little more alcohol than normal, but remember that your child may have been exposed to alcohol and drug abuse in the past. If you fancy a festive drink, wait until they’ve gone to bed, or maybe avoid it all together.

As a National Fostering Group carer, you will have access to round-the-clock help and support in person and over the phone. Whatever challenges you face, you know help is always at hand.