Lucy Stevens - 23rd December 2022
For many children, Christmas is a magical time. They are at fever pitch over the sparkling lights, the decorations, sweets and presents, and the prospect of Father Christmas. Christmas consolidates that feeling of being loved and safe in the heart of a family who is in celebratory mood.
But for many children and young people living in foster care, Christmas is a really difficult time.
A darker side of Christmas.
The traditions that so define this time of year can act as triggers for children in foster care who have had adverse childhood experiences. These triggers could be anything from the sight and smell of alcohol to loud music or noises, laughter and booming voices. Sensorial experiences like these can remind children of previous abuse or neglect or of traumatic events that have happened at this time of year.
Equally, everywhere you look you find images of Christmas being about family: happy, cosy households. Children in foster care are faced with the enormity of their loss or the contrast of their own situation. This can lead to feelings of grief, anger, frustration and resentment.
Most children who have experienced adverse childhood events will experience some form of stress response to this in the long term. They may find it hard to regulate their emotions and be in constant fight, flight or freeze mode. The triggers, memories and sense of loss that Christmas can bring will often force these coping strategies to the fore. For foster carers this can make Christmas very tricky indeed.
When you foster, Christmas comes hand-in-hand with family contact. Contact between children and their birth families can be complex for both children and carers at the best of times. Young people need a good deal of support to manage family contact, the emotions it can throw up and the repercussions afterwards. Much family contact is positive and is in the best interests of the child yet nonetheless it can serve as a reminder of what is lost or not yet possible.
Fostering the Christmas spirit. How can I support my child?
Good fostering is always child-led. Every family has their own, unique Christmas traditions and children will come to Christmas with their own expectations and schemas.
- Spend some time speaking with your foster child. Try to understand what Christmas is/was like for them at home, if appropriate. Do this sensitively and choose your moment well. This could help you contextualise and manage any emotional fallout. It may also help you to predict some triggers.
- Get your foster child involved. Could you introduce new traditions? Are there things your child would want included on the day? It’s important at this time of year that children and young people feel they have some control over what happens.
- Try to manage everyone’s expectations. Talk about what will happen on the day and keep it simple. Christmas can be overwhelming and over-stimulating and knowing what to expect can really help. The temptation can be to try and create “the best Christmas ever” but this can put inordinate pressure on the child and on carers.
- A safe and calm space. For children who experience stress responses over the period, it can really help to think about sensory overload and how to “calm the mind.” Could you use more soft lighting? Introduce aromatherapy? Invest in soft, cosy blankets. Could you introduce quiet time into the celebrations?
- Introduce activities to ground your foster child. For those who may dissociate or go into “freeze” mode, you might want to consider activities to ground children and connect them to the moment. Christmas offers a great opportunity here to do those activities which help such as crafts, cooking or writing. These activities also enable children to contribute to Christmas in a tangible and visible way.
- A flexible Christmas. Flexibility is important when fostering, whether this is around contact, activities or running order on the day, maintaining flexibility will help give the period the best chance of success.
- Make sure you are realistic. Setting expectations too high can leave everyone feeling disappointed by the reality of Christmas. It is ok to keep things low-key. Equally, it is normal to see tantrums and meltdowns. Family life does not necessarily know it’s Christmas! Go easy on yourselves.
- Don’t be afraid to seek support. If you are struggling and need help or advice, seek out support. This could be from your support network but more importantly from your supervising social worker, who will be able to offer ideas and a listening ear.
How do Eastern Fostering Services support carers at Christmas?
We know that Christmas can be a really challenging time for foster carers and that often you enter it with some trepidation. We spend a good deal of time thinking about how we best support our families at this time.
- 24/7 phone support. There will always be someone on the end of the phone to give you guidance and to help with any problems or concerns. Because we are a small team, we all know our carers and children very well so you will never need to relay your life history to us amid a crisis. Sometimes you just need a friendly voice and a bit of reassurance, and we can offer that whenever it is needed.
- We spend time with carers and children. We always take time to visit carers and to spend time with the children and young people they care for. In the run up to Christmas, we tend to do even more of this. Recently, one of our social workers did a bit of Christmas decoupage with some of our young people. This allowed them to speak freely whilst doing a grounding and creative activity and went down really well.
- Children and young people can also contact us over the period.
- Training. Lots of the techniques that carers will have to draw on over Christmas are covered in the training that we offer. Understanding what is driving behaviour and how best to tackle it and to de-escalate helps foster carers enter the season with confidence and reassurance. During these times, we have been offering a wide range of training on these subjects via our online training hub.
- Festive treats. A small thing maybe, but we like to give our carers and the children a treat over Christmas. We want them all to know they are loved, valued and greatly appreciated.
If you would like more information on Eastern Fostering services, there is lots of useful information on our website, or you can get in touch with us via our Facebook page. If you are already a foster carer and are looking to transfer fostering provider, do get in touch.