Tips for Foster Families during this Holiday Season
The holidays are generally thought of as “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, particularly for children. We associate Christmas with gifts, Santa Clause, Christmas trees, and big family meals. Unfortunately, many aspects of the holidays serve to remind foster children of what they don’t have, what they never had, or what they are longing for.
Foster children, of course, miss their biological families during the holidays. Most children have secret landmarks in their mind that serve to keep their hope up – for instance, children may tell themselves “I’ll be home by Christmas” – and when those landmarks come and go and the child is still not home, there is often a great disappointment that gets expressed behaviorally. To add to this, children may be promised lavish gifts by biological parents at visits. These promises are not always met, which, of course, leads to more disappointment.
For many foster children, Christmas traditions are celebrated for the first time when they are in foster care. While they may enjoy putting up a tree and getting gifts, it can also be very overwhelming. Keep in mind that children are almost always loyal to their biological parent, no matter what abuse or neglect they may have suffered at their hands. To enjoy Christmas at a foster home can feel like a betrayal – and this “betrayal” can elicit feelings of guilt and shame. The child may feel guilty that they are enjoying themselves while their biological parent suffers. Many foster children worry about their biological parents more than they let you know – keep this in mind when their reaction to your holiday traditions is different than you expected.
Foster parents often want to “make up for” the things their foster children have missed out on in their past. Avoid the temptation to over-spend and over-buy to make your child’s Christmas a happy one. Too many gifts can be overwhelming for children who are used to having very little. Many children in foster care carry a lot of shame, and may not feel “worthy” of the gifts they are given. In these situations, the feelings are almost never expressed verbally. It is more common for the gifts to be broken; for the foster family’s efforts to be sabotaged.
Rather than lavishing your children with gifts this year, make efforts to teach them the values conveyed in the “Spirit of Christmas.” Encourage them to pick a toy for the “Toys for Tots” bin and talk about the importance of giving. Let them choose small gifts for their foster and biological family members. Encourage them to make Christmas cards to send to their loved ones. Talk about your family’s traditions while you prepare your meals, wrap your presents, and trim your tree. Ask them how their biological family celebrated the holidays and what traditions they would like to carry into their future. Talking about the events at Christmas and asking questions can help your child to verbalize feelings about not being with their biological parents over the holidays.
Above all, keep your expectations realistic. Do not expect a “perfect” holiday. Do not expect a perfectly-behaved, very grateful child. Even our biological children can disappoint us when we expect gratitude. Your foster children are likely to have a lot of mixed-feelings this holiday which is likely to be reflected in their behavior. Carve enough time and space into your holiday schedule to talk these things through and normalize them with your foster child and with your extended family. This Christmas, give your foster child something they never had – but don’t make it something that comes in a pretty package. The true spirit of Christmas exists among and between us. And it is not something that can be wrapped.