As the Holidays start to gain steam this year, it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season. But, what if “The Holidays”, does not invoke a picturesque scene of family gathered around the piano singing Christmas carols and drinking hot cocoa, but rather it is a reminder of a traumatic experience such as the death of a loved one, abuse, or being separated from family. This is the case for thousands of foster children throughout the country. Despite being in the best interest of the child, being placed in foster care is itself a traumatic experience, and adding Holiday pressure can be overwhelming for youth who are experiencing constant change or instability. In this article, we will outline how the holidays may be difficult for youth in care, how you can better support your foster youth during the holidays, and how you can become a short-term foster parent and make a difference in a foster youth's life.
A New Family for Christmas!
Isn’t that exactly what every foster youth wants?! NO! The vast majority of the foster youth who are placed through Quality Youth Services do so with the goal of being reunited with their family or to transition to adult living and move into their first apartment. During the holidays, the importance of family is reiterated over and over and foster youth can feel isolated or angry for being separated from their own family. Foster youth can experience pressure to feel happy, express gratitude and participate in the foster family’s holiday fun, when they actually may be feeling a great sense of loss not spending the holiday with their families of origin. Foster parents can help by not personalizing the youth’s sad or angry demeanor and instead affirm the youth’s feelings, “I understand, it’s hard being away from family.” It may be helpful to provide the foster youth in your home with breaks away from “family time” where they can decompress alone if they need to and listen to music or read a book.
Prepare friends and family before you/they visit
Let people know in advance about new youth in your home. Surprising a host or hostess at the door with a “new” foster youth may set up an awkward situation — such as a scramble to set an extra place at the table — making the young person feel like an imposition right from the start of the visit. Your preparation of friends should help cut down on awkward, but reasonable questions such as “who are you?” or “where did you come from?”
Also prepare the youth for what to expect. Talk about upcoming events and the people who will be there. If they have not met before, introduce them with old photos or stories about them. Prepare them for the “characters” in your family. Tell them if the celebration will be formal or informal, what to wear, what they will do there, if is a quiet or loud affair, and how long you will stay..
You may receive well-intended but prying questions from those you visit with over the holidays. If your young person is new to your home, it is natural that family members ask questions about your youth’s background. Understand that questions are generally not meant to be insensitive or rude, but simply come from a place of not knowing much about foster care. Think in advance about how to answer these questions while maintaining your youth’s confidentiality. Use the opportunity to educate interested family and friends. Pre-establish the boundaries for information sharing.
Discuss with your youth how they would like to be introduced and what is appropriate to share about their history with your family and friends. (Remember, they have no obligation to reveal their past.) Help them to set boundaries and consider a private “signal” to use if they feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed.
Arrange meeting your family in advance, if possible
The hustle and bustle of the holidays can make it particularly chaotic for your young person to participate in your family traditions. Anxiety may run high for young people already, and the stress of meeting your relatives may be a lot to deal with. If possible, you can arrange a casual “meeting” in advance of “main events.” If it is not possible or practical to meet beforehand, make a list of names of some of the people they’ll meet and their connection to you. You can also encourage a quick call from relatives you plan to visit to deliver a personal message of “we are excited to meet you” so that your youth knows they will be welcome.
Some foster youth have experienced trauma directly related to the holiday season such as sexual/physical/mental abuse, poverty, and loss. This time of year can be full of triggers (sights/scents/sounds) that remind foster youth of perhaps one of the worst times of their life. For some foster youth, the holidays may also serve as a reminder of what does not exist or is lacking in their previous home life—a safe environment in which they are stable and cared for. When trauma is associated with the holidays, it can make managing symptoms especially difficult because there is an expectation for everyone to be happy. If the thought of gathering with your own family members during such trying times invoke feelings of anxiety and stress in yourself, imagine being in a home full of strangers and their family.
Foster families can take a trauma informed approach to the holidays by talking with their youth and their treatment team about what the holidays may bring up for them. Every youth placed with Quality Youth Services will be assigned a treatment coordinator and a therapist to best help the foster parent support the client’s current and future success. By being proactive, you are taking their feelings and experiences into consideration when making plans. Even if clients have nothing to say, you have opened the door for conversation. And by talking to your treatment team, you can be prepared as a team to support one another and those you serve.
Listen, people do some unusual things in the name of Holiday Family traditions and your foster youth may have things that are important to them this time of year. A great way to make your foster youth feel included is to ask them if they have any holiday traditions that they enjoy and incorporate them into your holiday routine this year. Perhaps they have a special dish they like to cook, and teaching you the recipe would be a great way to spend time with them and celebrate their tradition. Don’t be afraid to invite your foster youth to participate in your family holiday traditions and like previously stated, do not personalize their response if they are not interested.
Foster youth can come from all different cultures and backgrounds and some may not celebrate any holidays during the Holiday Season. Use this opportunity to investigate your youth’s culture and research customary traditions. If the young person holds a religious belief different from yours, or if their family did, check into the traditions customarily surrounding those beliefs and ask the youth about them. A good idea for foster parents is to provide alternative activities the youth can partake in during certain times should they decide not to participate. The alternative activities should not be punitive or isolating in any way and get the youth’s input in what they would like to do instead.
Facilitate visits with loved ones
Many foster youth have family or other loved ones they are allowed to have both supervised and unsupervised visits with for a specific period of time ranging from a few hours to overnight. The foster youth’s treatment team consisting of a State Case Worker, a Treatment Coordinator, a therapist and the Foster Parents will approve visits as a team on a case by case basis. During the holidays, it is especially important for the treatment team to evaluate the length and details of visits during the holidays to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the youth.
Steps to Becoming a Foster Parent
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent for Quality Youth Services, please check out our recruitment page at this link HERE.