Supporting children in care through the Christmas period
It is easy to assume that Christmas is a magical exciting time for children, where they enjoy the anticipation of opening gifts, being with loved ones and Father Christmas. Unfortunately, that is not always the reality for children in care. Christmas for some children, can be a source of great anxiety, fear and heightened stress and can leave them feeling emotionally unsafe for most of the Christmas period. You might find your foster child is suddenly getting into more trouble at school on the run up to the holidays. You might see an increase in chaotic, disruptive behaviour or see a child withdraw. You might feel as though they are ruining everything fun you have tried to plan and struggle to understand why.
Their experience of Christmas
It is important to remember that your child will have had many Christmases before coming to you and these might not have been positive ones. Maybe they were removed from home, or a carer. Maybe Christmas with their birth family was hard, some children received expensive game consoles for Christmas, only for them to be later sold for drugs. Parents might have spent more money at Christmas which meant less food, maybe they got into debt which caused arguments and financial pressure. Maybe they drank a lot and became the worst version of themselves. Or maybe they had a wonderful Christmas with their birth family, and this was the only happy day each year.
Whatever your child’s experiences, those memories will be there either consciously or subconsciously and will be impacting their behaviour, thoughts, feelings and relationships throughout the festive period.
The triggering of insecure attachment behaviours
Growing up experiencing trauma, can leave a child with internal triggers that affect them later in life. If your child spent December hoping that this year would be a good one, and it never was. That repeated disappointment might mean they now no longer believe Christmas will ever be good. Their internal belief becomes, “something bad will happen”. You might find your child begin to sabotage fun or exciting things around Christmas time because the fear of it going wrong is so great that it feels easier to ruin it before someone else does.
Christmas can also feel chaotic and overwhelming, there is so much going on and the normal routine of things is disrupted. This can cause children to feel a sense of lost control and so they may try to find ways to get that control back. This can often be through difficult behaviour such as power struggles over small things or arguments.
For some children in care, their self-concept is a negative one. They might not believe they are lovable or worthy which then means that they don’t believe they deserve a happy Christmas. In which case they will sabotage it. Being told they are loved and cared for, and seeing someone do nice things for them, can increase feelings of stress and anxiety. That fear of letting you down, or not meeting your expectations means that instead, they push you away. Even feeling ‘happy’ and excited causes more stress, for fear of it being ruined leaving the child feeling un-safe.
On the build up to Christmas
Avoid conditional language
“If you are good then Father Christmas will come” – or “If you don’t behave…you won’t get…”
This is a common tactic we use around Christmas to entice our children to behave! However, for children with insecure attachment and a history of trauma this can do the opposite. This sends the message that Father Christmas / you will only be kind to them, love them and give them something- if they are good and meet certain conditions. This is what we call a ‘conditional’ relationship. If you do this…you can have this. This can cause children to anticipate rejection, because it is very hard for them to “be good” when they are constantly feeling unsafe and coping with their trauma and history. This is an unattainable expectation and so it begins to feel un-realistic for the child. It also makes the relationship with Father Christmas/ you a unsafe one. How many times have they had to meet the conditions of an adult in their life to get their needs met? Maybe they would only get food if they were quiet and ‘behaved’ when younger. We don’t want to repeat these old patterns. Or for them to feel rejected if they cannot be the version of themselves everyone wants them to be.
Instead, avoid using this language completely and allow the child to believe in Father Christmas with no conditions. They deserve for him to come to them; they are worthy of presents and love and joy and shouldn’t have to do anything to receive that love. This is a powerful way for them to see that their old belief system doesn’t apply.
The anticipation and the ‘unknown’ that surrounds Christmas can cause children to feel unsafe and unsettled. This becomes an internal state that can stay with them throughout the festive period and will impact behaviour.
1. Counting down until Christmas day
Some children love this! For others, it feels like a ticking time bomb! You might want to consider not doing a calendar with the children. Instead, you could give them 24 story books and read one to them each night on the run-up to Christmas. They don’t have to wait to open them, and they can then have connection time with you as part of the festive period which feels safer and meets their needs much more than chocolate!
2. Presents under the tree
Putting presents under the tree throughout December can make a child feel anxious and apprehensive. They might worry they won’t get the presents or that there isn’t anything for them. They might worry about what is in them, and if it will be something they want. This can cause increased stress rather than excitement. Instead pop the presents under the tree on Christmas Eve when they are in bed, to avoid all of this and help to shorten the length of time the child feels that way. At least on Christmas morning they can open them straight away.
3. Trips, treats and days out
Tell children about exciting trips on the day, rather than weeks before. The anticipation of them can cause children to self-sabotage and this in the past has meant that the nice thing was taken away. Give them the best chance possible to enjoy the experience you have planned by telling them in the morning instead.
On Christmas day
1. Use lots of verbal coaching
Christmas day can be hard work, especially for a child in care. The house is filled with lots of people, it is loud, chaotic, there is no routine, and you are pulled in lots of directions, meaning they are sharing your attention. This is a minefield for many children and can leave them feeling stressed, scared, unsettled. This will mean they demand your attention, struggle to be alone, struggle to behave and ultimately it means Christmas will be hard for everyone. Use lots of verbal coaching to help them know what is coming and to feel connected to you throughout the day. This avoids them feeling as though you are disappearing and leaving them. This can be simple statements to help them feel secure and know what is coming next. “We are going to go downstairs now and open some presents, then we will get dressed for the day and aunty Mel is coming over” …” I am going to pop some breakfast on for us, you can stay here and open presents or you can come and help me in the kitchen”…”We are going to watch a Christmas movie in in half an hour and put presents away, you can help make some hot chocolate.” This helps them know what to expect and reduces stress.
2. Give them opportunities to be alongside you
You might be running around doing all sorts during the day but remember, that can leave your child feeling abandoned and unsafe, especially if you disappear into the kitchen unexpectedly for example. Try to make a conscious effort to sit alongside your child during different periods. Can they sit next to you at dinner time. Can you sit close by whilst they open presents? Give them lots of opportunity to be ‘with you’ by inviting them to help you. They might say no, but this sends the message that you are still available to them.
3. Use therapeutic language throughout!
Throughout the whole of the Christmas period, use lots of therapeutic language. This is where you notice their feelings, “You are worried you might not get what you want” “There is a lot going on in there isn’t there, it feels a bit chaotic, you’ve come in here for some quiet” “Writing letters to Father Christmas is exciting but it is making you feel worried too…”
Christmas can be tricky with children in care, but it can also be your opportunity to show them what magic and love really feels like!! With a few tweaks to your routine, you can make a real difference in their lives!
Happy Christmas 😊
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Supporting your foster child through christmas (2)
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