While the holiday season is joyful in so many ways, for many children in foster care, it can be the hardest time of the year.
They may be struggling with feelings of loss, loneliness, and conflicting loyalty while under the care of guardians who are not foster parents or other caregivers.. They may be missing their home, their friends, or their pets. And of course, they may be dealing with the trauma of abuse or neglect.
Recent federal data shows that there are more than 400,000 children currently in the foster care system in the United States. The holidays can provoke anxiety and depression in many adults, so imagine what these children might be going through.
While gifts are great, children need safe, caring adult mentors who will help them cope in these difficult times when feelings of sadness, grief, and shame are easily triggered.
Here’s how we can better support children this holiday season and those to come:
Initiate a conversation (or two) with them
Don’t let bad feelings simmer in silence. It is important to have conversations with children in foster care to know what they’re expecting from the holidays this year and to communicate your own plans. Ask them how they are feeling and what they might be nervous about. Then give them space to ask their own questions and listen carefully. Leave them with a good understanding of how you celebrate the holidays in your home so they know what to expect.
Communicate with extended family members or guests
Because the holidays usually bring together extended family members and friends under one roof, it’s important that you communicate the needs of the child to others to avoid misunderstandings or sudden surprises. A stable environment is one of the biggest gifts you can give a child who has endured a lot of abuse or neglect. While the holidays will probably bring a rush of activity, be mindful of your foster child’s mental and emotional health in these times.
Incorporate their preferred traditions or customs
Most families have cherished holiday traditions, especially if they come from a religious or ethnic background. Be aware that the child or children in your care might be of a different religion or background than you. Hold space for them to communicate their preferred traditions. Focus on one or two of these traditions, and plan an activity together with the child dedicated to this tradition. This is an excellent opportunity for a beautiful bonding experience so that they feel seen, heard, and loved.
Create life-changing moments
While all kids love getting toys and other gifts for the holidays, there are other ways to show a child that they are cared for and loved. Consider creating unique experiences that can turn into lifelong memories and have the power to shape a child’s outlook on life. This might be a trip to somewhere special like a weekend in a cozy cabin in the woods, or something as simple as ice skating and a visit with Santa. Whatever it might be, the idea is to make that day or activity feel really special for the child in foster care.
Give children space
As a mentor or guardian, you may feel worried about how the child is holding up throughout the holiday season. For them, the emotional toll is likely amplified. Don’t allow withdrawals and pulling away to discourage you; it is common around this time of year. Give them space to decompress. Allow them to check out early if they request it, or better yet, schedule downtime into the calendar.
Providing a safe, comforting environment for children is a wonderful start, but having the tools to emotionally support them is bound to make a lasting impact on the way they spend their holiday season.
At For The Children, we believe every child deserves to feel Free to Dream—which also happens to be the name of our year-end campaign. Each of our Royal Family KIDS programs are created to provide children a safe space to play, heal and create life-changing moments. Help support our efforts to make dreams possible for the most vulnerable children all year. Donate today!