Helping children in foster care to manage holiday stress and emotions

The holidays can be a stressful and busy time for everyone. For children in foster care, this time of the year can be especially difficult. Many children experience feelings of guilt, shame and sadness during the holidays. And their feelings might be really mixed. One young adult remembers how hard the holidays were for her and her conflicting feelings: she was sad because she was constantly reminded of how she was not with her biological family but she also felt guilty because she looked forward to presents and time with her foster family.

Understanding how difficult this time may be for foster children can help us support them and let them know we care. Here are some ways to help these children cope during the holiday season:

Give them space for difficult emotions. Children may show an increase in negative behaviors when they are feeling upset. This can be stressful for everyone. There are some things you can do to help:

  1. Help your child recognize their feelings and normalize that it is ok to feel upset. Especially for young children, they may not have the tools they need to be able to recognize
  2. Identify with the child and talk about a time when you too have felt upset. Empathy can be one of our most powerful allies for connecting in a meaningful way when children are upset. This lets them know they not alone in how they are feeling.
  3. Be mindful about setting aside time for your child’s needs. To cope, some children need downtime to relax with quiet activities. Other children may need to stay busy by being outside or participating in an activity. One of the greatest strengths we have seen with foster parents is their ability to be in tune with their foster child’s needs and understand the best ways to support them. This can be especially helpful during the holidays. It can be hard not to want to buy children every present in the store but in the end, spending special one on one time with your child on an activity they enjoy can be one of the greatest gifts they can receive during the holiday seasons.
  4. Routines and predictability are very important to children, especially in times of high stress. The holidays are filled with parties, recitals and events that interrupt our daily routine. Efforts to maintain your family’s routine as much as possible will help minimize children’s feelings of stress or becoming overwhelmed.

Let their voices be heard. Many children in foster care feel a lot of conflict about wanting to be with their birth families and also to be with their foster families.

  1. Learn about the child’s holiday traditions and culturally relevant customs along side your child. This gives them the opportunity to talk about memories that are meaningful to them and lets them know it’s ok to talk about their life experiences.
  2. Encourage your child to talk about the positive holiday experiences or traditions they had with their birth family. This can be an important way for them to feel like they don’t have to choose between families.
  3. Help them to write letters or make small gifts to their family and friends. This is a great way for children to express their emotions and thoughts about wanting to be with their birth families. Pinterest is full of fun and easy card and gift ideas for children to take part in such as the finger painting Christmas tree.
  4. Create a scrapbook or start a life book that can incorporates their artwork, poems, photos and other items that celebrate their life and memories. The holidays are a great time of the year for you and your child to sit down and do this. Click here to learn more about life books.

Share your holiday traditions

  1. Preteach about the holidays and events that will take before they happen. Many of the events and people they meet during the holidays will be new experiences for the children. Spend some time before the holiday season talking to your child about what the holidays will look like in your house, the new family members and friends they will meet, and your family traditions. There are many ways this can be done such as: role-plays, drawing a picture or showing pictures of the new people they will meet, and/or reading books about the holidays. Starting these conversations early will help reduce anxiety and set the children up to be successful during the new experiences.
  2. Include the child in your family’s traditions. This can be an empowering way to build self-worth and help your child feel like part of the holiday celebration. You can do this in a number of ways such as: giving children stockings with their names on them, incorporating a holiday tradition from their own families, letting children help decorate, and asking friends and family to include the child’s name on cards that they send. Another fun activity is to give the child the special job of recording the celebrations and experiences in pictures or video.

The holidays can be a great time to share enjoyable activities and traditions. Children in foster care may have more difficulties with this but they should not be left out. Helping them to manage their feelings and to be part of the activities and celebrations will help them to build memories of positive experiences for years to come.
Useful links to more suggestions for helping children in foster care during the holidays: (Check out p. 11 for tips for older children and teens in foster care on managing holiday stress and emotions.)


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