In my last post, I discussed some ways to meet the challenges that blended families face during the holidays. If you are a foster parent, you will face the same challenges, only more so. With step-children, they are with at least one of their biological parents. Foster children are in a family with neither biological parent, and perhaps without even their siblings. No matter how nice, kind, and wonderful you are, you simply are not the person who is supposed to be in their lives. There is nothing you can do to change that fact, but you can follow some principles that may make the season easier for them.
Discuss the Challenges
Sit down with your child and discuss what they want to do during the holidays. Your child may or may not want to discuss how they feel, but you at least can talk about your family traditions and what he or she can expect. Maybe you can learn whether your foster child has his or her own traditions that you can incorporate into the family’s celebration. Maybe there are particular steps you can take to make your child feel more comfortable. Maybe they have different religious beliefs that you need to accommodate. You will not know any of these things unless you ask.
If you will be spending time with extended family, warn both your children and your relatives what to expect. Let your foster children know about Aunt Emma’s strange sense of humor, or Uncle Bob’s tendency to argue politics (loudly). Help them prepare how to react (politely and respectfully), and remind them that it’s only temporary. Be alert and prepared to extricate them from uncomfortable situations, such as nosy questions about their biological family.
Give your relatives a heads-up that you will have a new foster child with you. You may need to give your relatives some information about potential triggers or ask them to ignore unusual behavior such as food hoarding, but don’t share confidential information. Most adults understand need-to-know limits.
If you can, include your foster child’s biological family in the planning. Do what you can to help your child spend some time with them over the holidays. This coordination is particularly important if they have siblings in other placements. Keeping those relationships as strong as possible should be one of your highest priorities. If in-person visits are impossible, then help your child select presents and send messages to the extent that they want to do so. Of course, follow the rules of your placement agency and caseworker, but advocate for your child to have whatever contact is safe and helpful.
Treat Children Equally
Foster children are particularly sensitive to signals that they do not really belong in your family. You need to take special care to counter that narrative. If your extended family gives presents to your biological children, make sure that they do the same for your foster children. If necessary, take some wrapped presents to slide into the pile. Children will keep score, down to the prices if they know them. Your child will remember forever the year that he or she got a sweater while other children got video games.
Don’t Be Offended, or Surprised, If They Pull Away
Holidays are a difficult time for children away from their biological families. It is normal to be sad when surrounded by constant reminders of happy families that are not theirs. It also is common for foster children to feel guilty and disloyal to their biological family if they let themselves be happy in another family. Young people have a lot of complicated feelings to sort through, and they may cope by withdrawing, by regressing to younger behaviors, or turning to negative behaviors from their past. None of these reactions is unusual, and you have to be patient while they work through their emotions. Watch for clinical levels of depression, and get help when you need it from therapists or counselors. Above all, don’t take it personally if they need space to be sad or alone. Sometimes all we can do is wait and watch while children figure out their place in the world.
Holidays are a difficult time for those of us raising other people’s children. We cannot change reality, but we can find ways to help reduce their stress and maybe make some positive memories. Take a deep breath, lower your expectations, and help them find what they need to get through the season.