They also come with memories of past holidays and present holiday wishes. When caring for children who may not have the joy, connections with family, remembered traditions or familiar celebrations, it can be uniquely challenging.
If this is the first holiday you are celebrating with your child, you may want to spend a few moments reflecting on the holiday’s missing pieces, namely their family. Not having had previous holiday experiences leaves you in unchartered waters. Ambiguous loss is especially noticeable during holidays, birthdays and other important remembrances. Depending on the age of the child, you may want to ask what they like about specific holidays. Then you might share what it is that you like and see how they react. Your expectations may be that children appreciate your enthusiasm and efforts in preparing a holiday celebration.
And, it may be that they are missing that ‘family’ piece and don’t seem to care. It is possible the child may appear as ungrateful or selfish. It’s often the case where children sabotage an event not out of thanklessness but rather from their own grief and loss. Appearing uncaring or inconsiderate may be an unconscious self-defense strategy.
In your approach to seek a child’s feelings or desires about a specific holiday celebration, take care not to increase their anxiety by asking too much or requesting the child share their previous experiences.
Acting out behavior may increase due to the increased holiday stress and stimuli. Don’t overreact.
The holidays may be an opportunity to increase the bonding/attachment experience with your child. Creating new experiences and keeping your child included in the celebration can be strengthening both physically and emotionally. Helping with cooking or making holiday decorations or cards can help the child feel connected and also build new holiday memories.
Giving too much and doing too much may also increase anxiety for a child who notices that it is not coming from their family of origin and may show ungratefulness at your extravagance. I recall a family that gave very extravagant gifts to their foster child feeling that he never had all the special gifts that they purchased. He threw them on the floor and ran out crying. His foster parents were hurt and angered at his behavior, not realizing that it was overwhelming to him and possibly saddening that his own parents couldn’t provide all of those things.
One child may be enthusiastic and quickly jump into activities while the other(s) may choose to be cool or appear completely disengaged. A foster family in our county was caring for four unrelated 12 and 14 year olds during the holiday season. One child was from a strong Christian family/background, one child was from a family that did not celebrate religious Christmas, birthdays or other traditional holidays, one child was from a Jewish family/background and the fourth child came from a strongly verbal, agnostic family. The caregivers were extremely thoughtful in respecting the family backgrounds and the children’s beliefs while keeping them all included.
I have no doubt that this holiday will remain in the memories of these four children with appreciation of the thoughtfulness of their caregivers.
If the families of origin are involved in your child’s life, consider what you might do to have the child feel a connection to them during the holidays. Even in families with multiple relatives, celebrations may not be on the exact dates. My husband and I celebrated several holidays with both of our families and the children never seemed to mind that we had two Thanksgivings or two Christmas’s. Younger children may not even be aware of the specific dates. They remembered having hot chocolate on a wagon!
Donna Erickson, M.A. is a valued Help One Child Trainer and Podcasts and Blog contributor. Donna has trained Foster Parents for 30+ years through The Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children Services and served as the Foster and Kinship Care Education Program Director for 16 of those years. Donna stays current on her continuing education in her three fields of expertise: nursing, counseling, and educating. She brings experience and wisdom from her years as a foster youth, parent and grandparent!