Christmas is just a few days away! And whilst this time of year can stir up emotions for us as adults, it can also bring about deep and varying feelings for our foster children. Mosaic’s therapeutic lead, Aly, has been delving into the effects of Christmas on foster children and families, exploring how to handle the ebbs and flows that it may bring and how best to support a foster child at this festive time of year.
Many of our children and young people may have painful memories attached to the festive season making them fearful of celebrations, and the way that they survive Christmas may clash or collide with foster parents who are full of good intentions. We all approach Christmas armed with our own past experiences, expectations, narratives from past Christmases, internal pressures we put on ourselves and the external pressures that are put on us. But how do we carry this heavy load without buckling?
As with everything we do at Mosaic, we have investigated the thoughts and themes surrounding Christmas through our therapeutic model called SMILE. This stands for safety, multi-disciplinary, intentional parenting, long-term and environment. With this in mind, we have outlined a few considerations to remember when supporting your foster child, and yourself, through the Christmas period.
Excitement can often feel the same as stress for traumatised children, so it helps to keep things small, as by reducing excitement you are reducing stress. Otherwise, you can get caught up in a cycle where stress (overwhelming feelings e.g., excitement, anger) leads to dysregulation and dysregulation leads to stress for the adults. Consider creating a visual Christmas schedule that you can continue to revisit with the young person so that they know what is happening.
If possible, spread Christmas out across the entire month. We recently spoke to a foster parent whose ‘normal’ Christmas is to have the entire family over on Christmas day. This year they have decided to spread the visits out across the month, so they see their family in smaller doses to not overwhelm their foster child. However, if you are unable to make this change, be sure to prepare the child in advance.
Don’t be afraid to ask a member of our team for help if you feel that you need some extra support, particularly during the festive season. If friends and family are given a pre-warning that Christmas may look slightly different this year, they could have ideas to co-create a Christmas that works for you, your child and for them.
Often, adults can be tempted to make up for past deprivation by giving the child lots of gifts. However, both the giving and receiving of gifts can trigger feelings in the child of shame, fear, guilt or of not being worthy. Gifts can get ruined or discarded and as a result the adults are left wounded. Modelling the joy that you experience from the thinking, planning, making, giving, and receiving of gifts at Christmas, can slowly help your child to not be triggered, but this may take a long time.
Instead of providing lots of material gifts, our children and young people may need more of you. They need you to provide the emotional scaffolding for them, by being alongside them. However, this often results in another quandary arising - how do you find time for this alongside all the extra tasks at Christmas? Fill up your tanks with extra emotional fuel to provide you with the energy you need.
Use the “I wonder” and be “curious” to explore their expectations of Christmas, their fantasies of what Christmas has in store, and the image they hold of Christmas, which may be different from their reality. Ask the child what they used to do, what they enjoy, what would they like to keep doing in your home, and what makes them feel okay.
Let them know that it is fine to feel different about Christmas. Try to imagine what it is like for them, whether that is happy, excited, sad, worried, or just finding it hard and be mindful that their body language will tell you a lot more about how they are feeling than their words will. Please lose the naughty or nice list. Remember behaviour is communication; they are a part of your family and are loved and worthy of gifts no matter how they behave.
Remember to look after yourself as you may well have your own feelings or concerns about adapting your Christmas rituals, changing habits, and not having your family over in large numbers. Get in touch with a person you trust as you need to prioritise your own regulation. If you feel upset, broken, stressed, hurt, angry, in despair, or hopeless then your child will feel it too, just as you feel their feelings. The first job when regulating yourself is to work out if you have been caught up in any emotional snags by using our emotional reflective spaces to process. To add to this, by acknowledging your own feelings towards Christmas, you can start to see how they might impact your empathy and connection with your child and family.
You could look to connect by doing ‘Christmassy’ activities together. Start building a new culture, not theirs or yours but a ‘together’ culture. A new narrative that can be built on over years of connecting, wrapping, shopping, decorating, visiting Father Christmas, cooking, baking, playing, and lighting up each other’s lives in a gentle way. It is unavoidable that fostering brings huge changes in routine and your expectations of what Christmas looks like. You may have to avoid or adapt your own rituals to support your child and ensure they have a Christmas they can manage and tolerate, rather than having the experience of failing at Christmas. The magic of all of you is that you will try to be flexible, adaptable, curious, and open.
As the magic of Christmas dissipates you may be left with a residue of difficult thoughts:
But if you are having difficult thoughts, so is your child. They may be feeling guilty as they did not enjoy it, or worried it will never be fun again, or concerned that they ruined Christmas and they are bad, a failure and no good. Use your presence to help the environment bend back into a familiar shape with strong connection, boundaries, and nurture. Remaining compassionate and committed will help you to withstand the snowballs thrown and in reflection, you can wring out your soaked feelings.
Are you feeling concerned or worried about the Christmas period? Get in touch with us today to continue these discussions.