Christmas can be a busy time for all of us but there is no doubt that as foster carers, there is more planning, more to think about and more of an emotional balancing act between enjoying the festive season and being mindful of all this may bring up for a looked after child. On top of that we have a pandemic to navigate.
So, whether you have years of experience or this is your first Christmas as a foster carer we hope a few of the tips below give you some ideas and strategies to help you, your family and those in placement with you make the most of the festive season.
This is not an exhaustive list, and you guys really are the experts here. If you have any further tips or advice for fellow carers during the festive season, we would love to hear them.
Christmas can be an emotional time for a looked after child, they may find it hard, not being with their birth family or it may bring back all sorts of memories (good and bad). They may be looking forward to Christmas and then find the celebrations overwhelming and not know how to cope. Sometimes the happiest of times can be some of the most difficult for your child or young person so be aware and try to be available to step in if you can see their emotions starting to build.
However, you do Christmas in your home, one thing that is guaranteed is that it will be different to what your looked after child or young person has experienced in the past (with or without the changes due to Covid restrictions). It will be important for them to understand what is going to happen. Explain your attitude toward Christmas and discuss their experiences of Christmas with them so you both know what to expect.
Be Inclusive but Tread Carefully
The usual Christmas traditions of lots of visitors and being away from their own family, which may all emphasise feelings of ‘not belonging’ or being ‘an outsider’ in the home, should not apply so greatly this year, however think about the child’s own culture and religion and the festive traditions they may be used to prior to coming into care. Incorporating some of the child’s own Christmas traditions can be a great way of making them feel part of the family but just be careful it is not going to bring up too many negative triggers. Talk to the child, or their social worker, about how they normally celebrate Christmas, and even whether or not they believe in Father Christmas. The more you know, the more you can support and find the right balance.
Understand it might be Emotional
Not being able to see their family or friends, things being different from their familiar routine, worrying about their parents or siblings. Be alert, there are so many reasons why Christmas could be an emotional time. Your child or young person may just need a little time out, reassurance, extra preparation, or explanation to help them through.
A Christmas Planner
Children thrive on routine and maintaining this will help them to cope. However, Christmas is often a time when familiar routines go out the window, which may even be more unsettling due to all the disruptions this the year so far due to Covid. A planner or calendar outlining each activity may help them feel prepared and therefore cope better. Encouraging them to be involved in suggesting activities or even decorating a wall planner could be an excellent opportunity to talk through any worries or coping strategies that might be required.
A Family Advent
We love the idea of bringing the family together with a shared advent calendar. Each window suggests activities you can do together, e.g., watching a Christmas movie, playing a game, making a gingerbread house together, drinking hot chocolate etc. If you really want to go for it each day could include a small parcel to open that includes the activity for the day or for a less expensive option each day could be a simple suggestion of things to do together (it could even help with the Christmas preparations, e.g., make a decoration for the tree).
Children find it more difficult to relax among strangers and may find lots of people overwhelming, even if they are people that they already know as part of your Covid ‘support bubble’. We are still not sure at this stage if it will be considered safe for people to have small groups to visit due to the virus, however it is a good idea to introduce children to any people who may be visiting over Christmas in advance, which should help your young person to cope. If this is not possible, talking about visitors, showing photos, or maybe facilitating a video call in advance will help lessen any anxiety. Where people will be visiting you could include this on your planner, so the child knows exactly who to expect and when.
Go Visiting Instead
As an alternative to hosting everyone at home over Christmas, visiting other people means that you can respond immediately and leave if the child is finding it overwhelming and return to their calm familiar environment. Visiting and hosting arrangements will obviously depend on government guidelines on household mixing, and we suggest that these are adhered to.
Promoting Family Membership
Small things such as being involved with planning the menu, putting the tree up together, having a personalised bauble on the tree, each child having their own name on their individual Christmas stocking which can be kept for next year all promote inclusivity and the feeling of family membership.
Keep Them Involved
It may help to make a point of doing something special with each child in the house or everyone chooses one special activity over Christmas that you can all do together. Giving each child a special Christmas related duty can help them feel involved and important, promoting feelings of co-operation and self-worth.
For younger children, writing a letter to Father Christmas will help a child to confirm that he knows where they are going to be if this is their first Christmas with you, it could also be quite therapeutic for the child and give you some insight into how they are feeling about the upcoming festivities.
Remember sneaking into a child’s room at night is an absolute ‘no go’ in fostering. Father Christmas will have to find somewhere else to leave presents.
You may also need to talk to the child about ensuring that you are keeping Father Christmas safe by social distancing etc.
On the subject of presents – when it comes to giving gifts it important to show the child they are as much a part of the family as anyone else. UK Fostering provides a festival allowance but whatever gifts the looked after child receives, they should be fair and comparable to others in the home. Do not put pressure on children or young people to react the right way to receiving gifts. They may struggle to accept praise, gifts or rewards and may not respond as you expect. Appearing ‘ungrateful’ may actually be a sign that they are feeling ‘unworthy’.
Let Them Reciprocate
It will also be important for the child to have the opportunity to give gifts to others, so that they feel they are contributing, and it is not just a one-sided process. Again, this builds co-operation, family membership, self-esteem, and feelings of self-worth. If a child does go to the effort of buying you a gift – no matter what it is make sure they know how grateful and appreciative you are.
Be Alcohol Aware
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 and this could bring up a lot of anxieties for them. If you fancy a festive drink, be aware of the impact it may have. Talk to the child in advance so they know that any alcohol will be consumed in a responsible manner and, if necessary, wait until they have gone to bed, or even avoid it all together.
Don’t Forget about the Child’s Birth Family
The child certainly won’t have forgotten about them. Encouraging them to make a card or helping them buy a thoughtful gift for birth family members reassures them that it is ok to think about them at Christmas. By working closely with the child’s social worker, a pre-Christmas contact or a phone call on Christmas day might be arranged, which could support everyone to enjoy Christmas without worrying or feeling guilty about those who are not around.
Especially if you have a vacancy. Children can be placed in an emergency situation at any time even on Christmas Day. If you have got a vacancy and are prepared to take a placement over Christmas it may be worthwhile having a few extra supplies. Even if you do have time to get gifts for a child placed over the festive period, guests who pop by over Christmas may have overlooked this. It may be worth having something on hand so that they can still give the child a small present if necessary.
Small Gestures Mean the World
A small gesture like asking the child what they like to eat on Christmas day or letting them help with Christmas preparations shows that you are trying to make them feel involved. For older young people maybe, they could prepare an item of food… watching everyone enjoy this on the day will be a fantastic confidence boost.
Don’t Panic if it Goes a Bit Wrong
No matter how much planning and preparation you do, don’t expect everything to run smoothly. Aiming for the perfect Christmas is unrealistic and if everything goes great – well hey that’s a real bonus! If things go wrong don’t worry or dwell on it, reassure the young person (and yourself if necessary) that everything is not ruined, and you can all move on.
Congratulate yourself – you make it through!! But also remember the children and young people may need some support getting back into their routine after all the excitement and festivities.
Relax and Enjoy
In amongst all the planning, preparation, celebration, clearing up and repeating the process try to take time out for yourself (even for just a few minutes at a time). Children and young people are going to feel much more at ease if they can see you are relaxed and enjoying yourself.
This Christmas will be a strange one, but we wish you a safe and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from all at UK Fostering.