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Ask the expert: the importance of involving parents in the Christmas experience

With all the focus around Christmas-time on family, sharing, gifts and spending time with loved ones it can be easy to overlook the impact this has on children and young people in care. For many, this time of the year can be a time of anxiety, fear and loneliness.

It can be a time of conflicting emotions and an increased desire to have contact with their families.

At MacKillop Family Services we are focused on assisting families to develop and maintain consistent, strong and child focused relationships, regardless of their origin. One of the ways that we support this is through family Christmas visits. This time spent with family is incredibly important to children in out of home care and when it is actively supported it allows children to feel secure in their relationships with both family and carers.

With this in mind, it is important to encourage and support contact with parents where appropriate. Positive and enduring relationships are the cornerstone of healthy development in children who have experienced trauma. Children in care who have constructive and regular visits with their family are better able to (physiologically) manage their lives into adulthood across multiple areas including personal relationships, employment, social participation and health. It is imperative that as carers and case managers, we do everything possible to facilitate positive contact with families for the children in our care.

In preparation for family contact at Christmas, here are some practical activities foster carers can do to support children and young people:

  • Being positive about parents – it’s important to support positive relationships between children and young people in care with their parents. We are trying to build children up to a productive and happy life beyond trauma. We can only do that in a positive environment and it is our primary responsibility to provide that for children in care.
  • Encourage and assist children to make gifts for parents – perhaps using small craft items or framed artworks from the children. Being able to give a gift to someone is a great joy and children can participate in this joy when giving gifts to their parents or siblings. If you need any assistance with how to go about this, ideas or materials to use, your case manager can help.
  • Write cards – sending Christmas cards to families from carers is a beautiful acknowledgment of the importance of the role you each play in the life of the child. If a child sees your kindness being extended to their parents, it creates safety for them in their relationship with you because they know that they are allowed to have a relationship with you as their carer and a relationship with their parents. Children are very clever and will easily pick up on a carer’s feelings. If those feelings are negative or apathetic towards a child’s parents, it makes it extremely difficult for the child to feel secure in their relationships and they can become anxious about your reaction to them having a good relationship with their parents. If you feel like this is something you may need support with, please contact your case manager to assist you.
  • Write Santa letters and give to case managers – children love writing letters to Santa in which they detail their ‘wish list’ of ideal presents. Use the children’s desire to engage in the season by helping them write a letter to Santa. Then provide a copy of this to your case manager to share with parents if appropriate, to perhaps avoid double-ups of gifts. This is another way to show parents and children that you, as the child’s carer, are supporting them to develop and maintain strong positive relationships with their children.
  • Finally, keep in mind the children and young people in your care, and their parents, may come from a variety of religious, non-religious or cultural backgrounds which celebrate this time of the year in different ways. Supporting, acknowledging and respecting these beliefs and traditions will help everyone to enjoy the holiday season.

Having a plan, acting in the spirit of the season, and being mindful of the effects our words and actions have on children and young people gives us all an incredible opportunity to give them a Christmas season full of the love, laughter, joy and acceptance they deserve.

Merry Christmas everyone

Shanna White
Therapeutic Practitioner
NSW Services Illawarra Shoalhaven