Supporting young people in care at Christmas

Angela Carroll, Therapeutic Practitioner/Senior Clinical Psychologist in WA talks about supporting children through the holiday period, managing parental contact and supporting the child in circumstances where they do not have contact with their biological family and relatives.

Christmas tree with family blurred in background

When we think of Christmas, most of us would associate this time with spending good times with family, friends and loved ones. As well as the religious aspect of celebrating the birth of Christ, there is the excitement of putting up the Christmas tree and decorations, Christmas parties, plays at school, planning celebratory meals, Santa arriving with presents, etc. There is the associated belief that it is a very happy and safe time for all. 

For many people, this is not always the case. Christmas can place great financial strain and emotional pressures on families to meet the commercial expectation of the ‘perfect’ Christmas. This can lead to feelings of guilt, shame and significant stress which can be played out in many ways, some of which can place extra pressure on the family unit.

Although we tend to associate Christmas as a special time of fun and festivity, the children we care for may also have experienced the festive season as a time of sadness, fear and stress. No matter their past experiences, children will forgive their parents’ mistakes over and over, and will no doubt long to spend time with the ones they love. They will want to plan time with their parents and siblings, and they may want to give cards and presents. Likewise, parents do not stop loving their children even when they are not able to care for them daily. They may feel the need to shower their child with presents to show that they still love and care for them, despite living apart. Providing many gifts may be a way of masking their own guilt, shame and sorrow.

When a child does not have contact with their biological family and relatives, it is usual for the child to feel a mix of emotions about Christmas, such as excitement and hope combined with guilt, shame and sadness. It is important as care givers and MacKillop Family Services workers that we help our children to manage their emotional dysregulation, by helping them to talk about their feelings in a safe space, develop strategies to help them deal effectively with their feelings and put a plan in place that addresses their individual needs and concerns. For example, just because a child does not have contact with his/her family now, he/she should be encouraged to make a card and/or draw a picture for their loved one. This could be placed in a special box for safe keeping for a time when the child may have contact with their loved ones again.

Christmas can be stressful for foster parents/families in figuring out how to manoeuvre their way around the challenges these situations can bring. Questions such as: What do I do when a parent provides too many or no gift for my child? How do I juggle all the responsibilities of organising Christmas whilst supporting my foster child to deal with their conflicting emotions... and so on? Remember you are not alone, you have the support of MacKillop Family Services caseworkers/support staff who can assist in the planning process and who can work directly with your child to help them develop strategies to elevate their distress. All the staff at MacKillop Family Services are happy to help.

Children that come into care are no different from other children in looking forward with excitement and hope to the arrival of Santa and presents, having a turkey dinner or barbeque on Christmas day and spending happy times with the people they love.  We as foster carers and MacKillop Family Services workers can help the children in our care to experience such a Christmas, but this will need careful planning and consideration. 

We would like to take this opportunity to wish you a very happy and peaceful Christmas and to thank you for all your hard work and commitment to the wonderful children in your care over the past 12 months.

Angela Carroll
Therapeutic Practitioner/Senior Clinical Psychologist
Western Australia