As we head into the new year, all of us at AFA Fostering, along with our busy foster parents, are getting ready for Christmas.
For many, it’s a time of big grocery shopping trips, school plays, hanging festive decorations, lots of mince pies, secret Santa presents, office parties and Christmas gift-buying for all the family.
It’s also a time for reflection on the past year and enjoying time with loved ones; as well as making plans for the New Year.
So how might the seasonal festivities be felt differently by children and young people who are living in foster care?
During the Christmas period, children and young people who are in foster care can feel anxious and vulnerable, as well as excited. Some children may have come from a background of neglect, and for them Christmas may have been a very lonely time, with very few presents or even none.
There may have been no celebrations or family time, and no Christmas dinner. It may even have been a time when some children were fearful of contact with other family members. Christmas may have been a time when some children, before coming into foster care, may have felt a need to make up stories about presents they might get — but knew they wouldn’t — just to ‘save face’ with their school friends.
It can be very tough on children who have experienced neglect and abuse to let go of unhappy memories and ‘get into the Christmas spirit.’ Here are some things to think about if you have, or are wanting, your own foster family…
1. Fostered children can be overwhelmed by too much merriment.
Children come into care for all sorts of reasons, through no fault of their own. They may have come from a background of neglect or abuse, or both. As such, their experience could be very different to most peoples’ Christmas.
Some children may have spent Christmas alone, with little to celebrate and having no presents of their own. They may be very aware of the excitement of their school friends on Christmas Day. This could make Christmas time a sad and miserable time, highlighting how different their birth family is compared to other families.
If a child is living at home and experiencing neglect, they may only be looking forward to the start of the New Year, eager to get back to their friends and a familiar routine, or just wanting to have a hot meal every lunchtime.
When a child is in foster care, it can feel overwhelming to be surrounded by so much food and drink, to be meeting relatives of the foster family — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents… and more! A foster child may feel quite shy or anxious about meeting so many new people, all of whom seem to know each other so well!
A member of AFA staff is a ‘foster-uncle’ and he shared this insight with us:
“I visited my sister, who is a foster parent, and the family at Christmas and upon arrival, as usual, I rushed into her house and made a huge fuss of my young nephew and niece, lots of hugs and kisses and general over-the-topness, which they loved, and had come to expect from me as their uncle. I put my nephew down, and turned to my sister’s two foster-kids, who were a little older, and who were stood watching us, rather awkwardly. It was a bit of an odd moment, as I didn’t really know how to greet them both, given the ridiculous fuss I’d just made of the two little ones.
To cover up my embarrassment, without thinking, I simply swept them both up into hugs as well, as I didn’t want them to feel that I was ignoring them, or not treating them the same. It sort of back-fired, as my sister later shared with me that her two foster-kids had come from a background of abuse, and that my physical contact with them had made them feel very uncomfortable — as a strange man, giving them hugs and affection.
I learned from that experience to check in with my sister before I meet new foster kids, to know what’s appropriate! Generally, I am now warm and polite and try to give them time to warm to me, rather than being swept up in an over-enthusiastic uncle-whirlwind!”
2. Contact with birth family can be challenging.
Getting ready for Christmas Day can be quite a challenge in any family, and it can sometimes be even more demanding to ensure your availability to arrange and facilitate contact between your foster child and their birth family. Whatever the circumstances that led up to a foster child coming to live with your family, for the child or children, Christmas can be a fraught, emotional tug of war.
Foster children may feel quite a big difference between the atmosphere in your home and the home of their birth family. They may feel under pressure to show ‘loyalty’ to their birth family or the foster family, torn between them and not wanting to let anyone down. Foster parents can help ease these feelings of anxiety and conflict by asking fostered children how they’re feeling about Christmas and reassuring them that they don’t have to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
It’s often wise to think ahead about any areas of potential conflict and ensure support is available to help smooth things out if unhappy feelings rise to the surface. Giving visiting relatives and family friends an idea of what is or isn’t appropriate can make things easier for everyone.
3. It’s tempting to ‘spoil’ fostered children, but ‘spot-lighting’ can bring unwelcome attention.
It can be very tricky buying presents for children at Christmas…is it what they really want? Is it ‘on trend’? Can I afford it?!
For fostered children these concerns are still valid. At AFA Fostering, our allowance for foster carers includes an amount that can be set aside each month to help with the cost of Christmas or any other festival. However, part of the allowance is specifically for buying presents to celebrate special days, such as Christmas, Birthdays or Eid.
If children in foster care have come from a background of neglect, this can create a feeling of wanting to compensate for their past experiences, perhaps by going ‘over the top’ with more gifts than a child really needs. If you have children of your own, it might be impossible to prevent a situation of ‘compare and despair’ as it’s in children’s nature to take stock of everyone else’s presents as well as their own! It’s best to avoid sibling rivalry between all the children in your home by taking a measured and thoughtful approach to giving gifts.
Most foster children want to ‘fit in’ both with their school friends and at home, and they may feel embarrassed if they receive too many presents, or are given gifts that have come from a well-meaning charity as part of a ‘presents for needy children’ campaign. It’s a level of attention that can often leave fostered children feeling awkward and under the spotlight for being ‘fostered’, rather than just for being part of a family.
4. On the other hand, fostered children may feel left out if birth children receive presents that are obviously more expensive and ‘better’.
Most of us would understand that spending several hundred pounds on a gift for one child, and far less on a gift for another, is likely to create tension. For this reason, we would recommend that you avoid this situation. However, fostered children may also receive Christmas presents from members of their immediate and extended birth family, and foster parents should take this into account when buying gifts.
Birth parents may also feel a need to ‘compensate’ for their children being in care, overwhelming a child with presents, or sadly empty promises. Foster parents may want to talk to their Placement Manager (Supervising Social Worker) to get a sense of what to expect so that they can be prepared and help the child manage expectations and potentially difficult situations for the child and foster parent.
5. Make an effort to help fostered children feel ‘part of the day’ — without going over the top.
How well you know your foster child, or children will depend on how long they have been a part of your family. Some foster parents may have had a child in placement for a long time, and they will have been through Christmas together a few times already. In these circumstances, you may feel more comfortable and better prepared.
You may also want to speak with your Placement Manager about how you, and all the family, can best support the child in your care. They may well have direct experience of what works best which they can share with you! Foster parents often provide support for each other and they can be a fantastic resource over the Christmas period.
Overall, it’s helpful to strike a good balance for all those living or visiting your home, which means including everyone, children included, in ‘getting ready’, perhaps by helping to decorate the Christmas tree or carrying out a job or two. It’s a great way to help them feel part of the mayhem that’s going on!
We hope you found this helpful this Christmas!
All of us at AFA Fostering hope this blog has given you a helpful insight into the reasons why fostered children may view Christmas differently to your own birth children.
We’ve found, from talking to foster parents, that planning ahead for Christmas Day can go a long way to ease some of the strong emotions that come to the fore during this time. Keep it simple, involve everyone and give a foster child a happy and memorable Christmas that everyone celebrates and enjoys.
If this blog has inspired you and made you want to make it a ‘Happy Christmas’ for a child who can’t live at home, then we’d love to hear from you. At AFA Fostering we’re always keen to hear about your fostering experiences, and we’d love you to share any helpful tips with us.
If you, or someone you know, is interested in fostering a local child, please let us know by filling in our enquiry form. We will call you for a friendly, no-obligation chat. But for now, ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!’
Fostering at Christmas: hard work and heartache, but worthwhile in the end | The Guardian
I’m a foster carer, and this is what it’s like trying to make Christmas magical for frightened children in the care system | The Independent
Stories about fostering at Christmas | The Fostering Network