Christmas should be a magical exciting and memorable experience for children, creating memories to be recalled later in life of the smell of fir trees, twinkling lights, sparkling decorations and the anticipation of tasty treats. Days should be lost in heady dreams of wondrous presents and fantastic beliefs. But for some children in the care system this time of year can be particularly stressful and emotional. Memories of birth families both good and bad will surface in the mind of the children we support and care for.
Children and young people in care have cited reasons for feeling stressed: “As hard as my foster family try I still feel like I shouldn’t be here as they are surrounded by their family” another reflected, “I felt guilty when asked what I wanted for Christmas as I didn’t have that choice at home and even went without presents some years.”
All around at this time of year is the symbolic pressure of the happy family coming together and we can fail to register the effect this can have on our children who are either removed from their own family or are reminded of events of the past. Children have expressed “how will Father Christmas know where I am, and will he visit my brother and sister in their new homes?” Even when presents have been delivered and opened the fear indoctrinated into some if they mentioned the item didn’t fit or they didn’t like the taste of a treat still resonates inside.
What if you were entering care for the first time this Christmas and had never celebrated this time of year with Christmas trees, presents, special food, decorated tables, hanging a stocking on your bed or fireplace, playing loud festive music…pretty daunting and scary in its own right wouldn’t you think?
So what can we do to ensure the children and young people feel at ease?
Above all continue to listen to our children and young people, involve them in the preparations, share some of your traditions and even incorporate some of their traditions into your family celebrations. Reassure children it’s ok not to like something and not to agree …just to protect themselves. Encourage its ok to return a gift for a size that fits or a colour they like, not everyone likes the same things and that’s ok.
Nobody said having a good time was easy, we all feel pressured at some point but as a foster carer you will find a way; your compassion and understanding will help. As parents we relive Christmas through our children and your legacy will be to enable the children and young people you care for to pass this on to their families in the future, this opportunity is the least we can provide at this time of year.
But what of the young adults that have gone through the care system and no longer have the comfort of a foster carer to turn to. Foster carers can make a big difference to the children and young people within their care and we hope those experiences are carried on into later life, but many care leavers dread Christmas and find it an isolating time. For a lot of young people, they are not in touch with their previous foster family and spend the day alone in independent accommodation. Despite many having positive Christmases in foster care those can often be eclipsed when support is withdrawn. “When you are living by yourself, everything is so much more difficult and you really are alone. Generally you are alright when you’re in care, you still have someone there. But when you leave, that’s when you realise it’s only going to get scarier.”
Check out the following Christmas dinners aiming to give care leavers a day to remember and care for the care leaver on Christmas day:
The Tope Project was named after a 23-year-old care leaver who took his own life in 2010. His death had a profound impact on the young people who knew him, and after this tragic event, the group came together to look out for and support one another. Each year since, the group has come together during the holidays for a Christmas celebration, could you help, get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org
Lemn Sissay is also coordinating three Christmas dinners for care leavers one in Leeds one in Manchester and One in East London with a similar message of support for care leavers. Christmas Day can be the saddest most distraught day of the year. We intend to stop this in its tracks. – See more and get involved at: http://www.lemnsissay.com/projects/?p=94
Fosterline and I wish all children, young people, care leavers and foster carers a very happy and wondrous time of the year.