It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

Posted on 21 December 2016 by LeAnne Ross

Young girl with Santa hat

LeAnne Ross, Senior Therapeutic Practitioner, Clinical Services at MacKillop Family Services shares her insights.

Christmas and summer holidays… it can be a time of joy, excitement, families and togetherness. But for many children in care, many of whom have experienced abuse and neglect, it can be a time of conflicting emotions, higher stress and altered behaviours.

While children and young people in care may be excited for the summer holidays and spending time with their foster family, they can also experience feelings of loss and sadness. Sometimes this period triggers memories of past trauma (for example, very little food, no gifts, witnessing arguments, violence, alcohol and drug use). It can be easy to forget that all children who have been removed from their homes have experienced loss through separation and miss their families, even in cases when a child was unsafe to remain. There is still hurt and loss.

The Australian Childhood Foundation provides a great resource for foster carers navigating the Christmas period with children and young people in care. In an article which first appeared in 2014 on the Foundation’s blog, Prosody, the authors investigate the neurobiology of Christmas, why it can be a time when children and young people in care can feel stressed and sad, the triggers to watch out for, and the top 10 things carers can do to help a traumatised child cope with the Christmas and holiday period.

The article comments that the children we are all working with, especially those who are in alternative care, will likely require additional support and understanding at Christmas time.

Common behaviours observed around this time are:

  • A return to behaviours that had previously been resolved
  • Poor impulse control
  • Difficulty following instructions and remembering rules
  • Increased levels of arousal and rapid mood shifts
  • Excessive eating, loss of appetite or food hoarding

Some of the reasons include:

  • Changes in daily routines and being away from home
  • Awareness of others stress levels resulting in further destabilisation
  • Reconnecting with family
  • Meeting new people, visiting new places, parties and celebrations
  • Sensory overload
  • Additional demands on key adults which challenges their capacity to stay attuned

The top 10 things carers can do to help a traumatised child cope with the holiday season are:

  • Develop an understanding of the stress responses of yourselves and the children in your care. This will help you respond to their behaviour as a manifestation of them needing help and not knowing what to do with their feelings.
  • Keep as many routines as possible. With busy, full days the anchor points at the beginning and end are particularly important.
  • Prepare the child for any changes to normal routines in advance with as much detail as possible.
  • Allow extra time to prepare the child for transitions.
  • Have open and honest conversations with children regarding their family if they wish.
  • Identify a safe person at any parties that the child can stay with.
  • Develop a ‘special sign’ with the child so that they can indicate when they need some support.
  • Build opportunities for quiet time and relaxation every day.
  • Help them to organise and name their emotions and body sensations by taking some time to talk and acknowledge feelings.
  • Make sure to find time for self-care – take time to self soothe and calm which will promote co-regulation.

You can view the full article at the Australian Childhood Foundation website - www.childhoodtrauma.org.au/2016/december/the-neurobiology-of-christmas

For more information, visit www.childhood.org.au/for-professionals

Acknowledgements to the original article’s authors T’Meika Knapp, Nicole Litter and Caroline Brown of the Child Trauma Service Tasmania and the Australian Childhood Foundation, published on the Prosody Blog.

Image: Stock image used