For many, the holidays are a time for family to spend time together, partake in traditions, and practice being grateful. For youth in foster care, the holidays can be scary, lonely, and a reminder of the challenges they are facing. While it may not be easy, here are 4 tips for supporting youth in foster care during the holiday season:
Holidays in your home may look different from their experience. Discuss your family’s traditions and customs to help relieve some anxiety about the season. What do you celebrate? When? How long? Who will be there? What food do you eat? Is it religious? Is there anything needed to prepare? Providing as much information as possible about the holidays in your home can help to ease tension and avoid surprises for both youth and parents.
If your holiday traditions include visiting friends or family, talk to them beforehand about the new addition in your family to avoid the last-minute scramble to add another place setting for dinner. It may be a good idea to arrange a meeting beforehand so they can get to know the youth outside the pressures of the holiday.
If your traditions include gift-giving, make sure to have a few “spare” gifts for your foster youth to avoid any awkward situations where a friend or family member forgot a present, or to offset other differences with other children. The goal is to make youth feel safe, welcome, and comfortable.
2. Ask Questions
Many kids in foster care feel as if they don’t belong or they’re a burden on foster families, especially during the holiday season where routines can change, and expectations can differ. Encourage discussion about holiday traditions they had prior to foster care, or celebrations they enjoyed in another placement. If they are from a different culture or hold different religious beliefs, do some research about their traditions and customs, then incorporate them into your holiday celebration.
Asking youth what they would like to celebrate, and how, can give them more control over the holiday experience. Not every kid will be comfortable participating in your traditions or may have trauma connected to the holidays, it is vital to listen to and understand where your youth is coming from so you can best support them during challenging times.
3. Help Them Connect with Loved Ones
Being separated from family over the holidays can be traumatic for youth, especially younger kids who are new to the system. Staying connected to loved ones could be an extra visit with the bio-parents, writing a letter to a former foster family, or making a craft for a friend. Youth may have other relatives or friends they want to reach out to but may need assistance obtaining contact information. Help them to create their own address book so they can keep track of the people they care about over the years. Encouraging these interactions can help youth to feel less alone and more in control of their own lives.
The initial goal for every youth in foster care is reunification. To support this goal as a foster parent, you may want to consider extending an invitation (if allowed) to siblings and/or bio-parents to participate in a festive activity. It is important for children on a path to reunification to see their family regularly for happy events, like a special dinner or ice skating. An invitation is not an endorsement of the bio-parent’s behavior or lifestyle, but rather respect of the youth’s wishes to stay connected to their family.
4. Give Space
Some youth may not feel comfortable participating in holiday festivities and become distant. The holidays can be a very triggering and confusing time, allow for some “downtime” for youth to be by themselves if they need it. Understand that this reaction is most likely not a reflection of how they feel about you, but rather is a coping mechanism to protect themselves. Make time to spend one-on-one time together to check in and talk through what they are feeling.
Kids and parents (yes, even foster parents) are not perfect. The pressure of the holidays gets to everyone, but the experience of being separated from your family and placed into a stranger’s home is unique to foster care. Though it may be difficult, patience, compassion, understanding, and respect is the best way you can support the youth in your care.
If you or a loved one are considering opening your home to youth in foster care this holiday season, visit our website to find out how to get started. Our caring, professional staff will support you every step of the way.