Navigating the Holiday Season with Your Foster Child

‘Tis the season! For many people, the next few weeks will be filled with more events and gift-giving occasions than any other time of the year. Between the parties and parades and recitals and gifts to buy and people to see, it’s no wonder that so many of us arrive at the New Year exhausted and ready to simplify things quite a bit. Our schedules and to-do lists are enough to drive anyone to the breaking point, so much more so for kids in foster care, whose big emotions are already right at the surface, ready to spill over into a full-on meltdown.

But forewarned is forearmed, so as foster parents, there are some things we can do to set the tone for a good holiday season. And the first step may surprise you, because we have to start with ourselves.

Manage your expectations

For those of us parenting children in foster care, our tendency can be to spoil our children with every holiday experience we can. We feel compassion for their circumstances and may grieve the holidays before they lived with us. In some cases, we may be all too aware that their time with us is temporary and we may feel the urgency to squeeze in as much as we can. We also may have our own expectations of delighted children and perfect holiday moments.

That Polar Express train ride is a great idea, but not if your child is so over-stimulated that it sends them into crisis mode. Adorable photos with Santa lose their appeal when the cost of that unhappy photo is a battle of wills. We must always be careful to check our motivations and dreams of holiday moments against the reality of our kids’ needs, personalities, and circumstances. Remember, too, that these things might change throughout the season. Make plans, but hold them loosely, and always keep the goal in mind: a healthy, joyful holiday season for your entire family.

Be smart about Santa

Taking a child to visit Santa can be a fun experience for many kids, and the pictures are adorable, but a big man whose face is covered in a big white beard can be scary for some little ones. And for our children who have experienced trauma, this is even more true. If they show any signs of fear or anxiety, it might be best to skip the photo for this year. Remember, too, that lots of kids in foster care need to learn appropriate boundaries for themselves and their bodies. Depending on their experiences, encouraging them to sit on a stranger’s lap might actually do more harm than good, so use your judgement when it comes to your specific child. Also, remember that many others (such as Santa himself or his helpers) might not understand the best boundaries for your child, so be ready to step in if necessary.

Plan for the helpers

There are a lot of people and organizations that want to support foster children and foster families, and these may increase during the holidays. This can be a great experience for your kids, but depending on the nature of the support, it can also be unintentionally painful. You are your child’s best advocate, whether they are a foster, adopted, or biological child. Is someone offering to buy Christmas gifts for your foster child? How do they plan to deliver them, and will it make your foster child feel singled out, or your adopted or biological child feel ignored? By all means, acknowledge someone’s good intentions, but don’t be hesitant to direct them to the best way to help.

Acknowledge the loss

Even with the most carefully orchestrated holiday plans, there is no getting around this fact: all but the youngest foster child will feel loss during this season. This may be the loss of loved one, who can’t be present in the same way. They might miss a family tradition, even if they can’t articulate it. Or they could simply grieve the lack of permanence in their situation. Create space for your foster child to experience their sadness or anger or frustration without feeling like they need to put on a joyful front. You might even share from your own experience, not for the sake of comparison, but to remind them that they are not alone.

What are some other things you’ve encountered as you navigated the holidays with your foster child? What has worked well, and what do you wish you had done differently?