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Tips for supporting children and young people in care at Christmas

Christmas can be a challenging time for children in care. The holiday season can prompt positive memories of traditions shared with family, which can create a strong sense of loss and grief. This can activate feelings of sadness, worry or anxiety.

Emotions during Christmas manifest in different ways and can be tricky to manage during what can already be a stressful and busy time. MacKillop Director of Clinical Services Dr Kerry O'Sullivan shares some practical tips that can help you to support the child or young person in your care this Christmas.

1. Talk about Christmas

A child in care may have never had their own Christmas stocking or a tree or gifts. They may never have had a Christmas like your own and it’s important for them to understand what is going to happen. Explain your attitude toward Christmas and discuss with them their experiences of Christmas. Be ready to hear about their Christmases and encourage them to share good memories of Christmases past.

2. Write a letter to Santa

Most children will do this at home or at school, and this will help a child to confirm that Santa knows where they are going to be if this is their first Christmas with you.

3. Expect this time of year to be really emotional

Consider this time of year to be emotional for the children and young people you support especially for some children who may not be able to see their family or may be worried for the welfare of parents or siblings. The emphasis on Christmas might make some children feel like outsiders in their foster home. It’s a delicate situation and a real effort should be made to ensure that the child feels treated the same as the other children in the household.

4. Maintain routine where possible

Children thrive on routine and maintaining this will help children to cope. If a routine cannot be maintained, organise and arrange a Christmas calendar ahead of each activity to help the young people to prepare. Talk through any worries and coping strategies for those circumstances which you know young people struggle. It’s always important to ask them what they may like to do and who they would like to see.

5. Lots of visitors can be overwhelming

Until you know your young person well and how they cope it can be better to limit visitors to manageable levels. If you include friends in your festivities, talk about them to the children you support. The more they know about who will be visiting, the less difficult it will be for them to relax amongst strangers.

6. Alcohol can seem scary

Think about children who have witnessed the misuse of alcohol and drugs. This could cause anxieties for children if they are aware people will be drinking at home. To avoid children from getting scared prepare them with the concept that people may drink alcohol and this will be done in a respectful and responsible manner.

7. Children might not feel comfortable to receive gifts

Children who have not had much experience of Christmas and presents may find lots of presents and attention too much pressure for them. To help, spread out present giving. It doesn’t matter if presents are still being opened over the Christmas holiday.

Avoid putting pressure on children to react in the ‘right’ way. Children in care often have feelings of unworthy and undeserving this makes it really hard for them to accept praise, gifts and rewards.

8. Arrange a visit for the child to see their family

Organise contact with parents and siblings as close to Christmas day as possible. A lack of contact over Christmas might cause a child in care to worry about their parents, grandparents or siblings. By working closely with a child’s social worker, a phone call on Christmas day might be arranged, and the child’s birth family can support a child to enjoy Christmas, without worrying about them or feeling guilty.

9. Think about diversity and a child’s own tradition

Respect a child’s culture and diversity and help the child connect to their culture and community. There are many cultural activities and traditions which the child will enjoy connecting to which supports their sense of identity and connection to family. Celebrate their customs and religions as well as your own. Try to include something from the foster child’s own ‘Christmas traditions’. There is likely to be something they did at home that is important to them. It might be as simple as helping them to make a card for mum. There are many different images of Santa depicting diversity thus bringing a more relatable and inclusive perspective of Christmas.

10. Encourage a child to feel part of the family celebrations

Small things such as having their names on their own Christmas stockings and making it clear that these are their stockings to keep for next Christmas increases the message that they are a part of the festivities. It helps to make a point of doing something special with each child in the house. Each child can have a special Christmas related duty. This gives you some one-on-one with each child and allows them to feel involved and somewhat special.

11. Involve the children in shopping for groceries

Some children may have concerns about whether there will be enough food. Let them help you shop for groceries for the Christmas meals. This will give them the opportunity to tell you what they like or don’t like or never ate.

12. Be prepared – especially on Christmas day

Children can be placed 24/7, 365 days a year, with fostering families and the Christmas period is no exception. As a foster carer it’s always worthwhile to have additional supplies and gifts – just in case. These are also useful for any guests who pop over during Christmas, who may overlook buying a gift for any additional children you might be looking after.

Acknowledgement: Adapted from