For many children and young people in care, Christmas can trigger fear instead of cheer, bringing back memories of family violence, missing presents, or no food on the table.
This year, due to lockdowns, restrictions and disruptions to routine, getting into the Christmas spirit may feel difficult, not only for young people but also for carers. Some children might want to simply cancel Christmas as it all feels too overwhelming. Others may be beyond excited as they have something to look forward to, and their energy and enthusiasm might feel hard to manage. For others, the sensory overload of noise, lights, carols and throngs people could be too much to process, resulting in overpowering emotions.
This year, due to lockdowns, restrictions and disruptions to routine, getting into the Christmas spirit may feel difficult, not only for young people but also for carers. This year, due to lockdowns, restrictions and disruptions to routine, getting into the Christmas spirit may feel difficult, not only for young people but also for carers. Some children might want to simply cancel Christmas as it all feels too overwhelming. Others may be beyond excited as they have something to look forward to, and their energy and enthusiasm might feel hard to manage. For others, the sensory overload of noise, lights, carols and throngs of people could be too much to process, resulting in overpowering emotions.
This time of year is called the “silly season” for a reason. Highs and lows are often extreme due to pressure to trim the perfect tree, create a flawless meal, or deliver the best presents. This pressure comes from a desire to make the day special for those we love the most, but it may make children and young people more anxious. Children could also feel pressure to be on their best behaviour, interact with people they may not know, be polite, not be too noisy, be grateful, eat everything put in front of them or not eat too much.
Kids in care are very attuned to noticing others’ anxieties, it is a protective factor they have learned from a young age, said Deniliquin Behaviour Support Practitioner, Anna. Expectations of perfection may add to anxieties felt by children and young people at this time of year. This could be from fear that they might ruin the perfect Christmas, or stress that their sibling’s present is better than theirs so, in their mind, they are more loved.
There are many different reasons and many different triggers that may cause a child to struggle with their emotions in the lead up to, during, and after Christmas.
Anna said planning is the key to a calm Christmas.
“Children like routines so involving them in planning Christmas will help them to know what the day will hold,” she said.
“Planning a Christmas meal and buying food together means they know there will be something on the table to eat. If they are old enough, taking them shopping to buy a small gift for someone, and talking about a gift they would like, signifies that there will be presents under the tree.
“One of the families we are currently working with has a child who gets easily overwhelmed around people they aren’t familiar with who come into the home. The carer is working alongside the child to prepare her for the Christmas rush by telling her who’s coming into the house and explaining their role in the family. The carer will also make sure the child knows there is an opportunity to have time out whenever she needs it. A child’s bedroom is good for this, and the child shouldn’t be made to feel they are being rude if they leave the celebrations for some time out.”
Anna also points out that children and young people who feel anxious throughout the Christmas period could display aggressive behaviour or have meltdowns.
“It is important for carers to remain calm and supportive and not be alarmed if there is a regression in behaviour,” said Anna.
“Preparing everyone, including the carer’s extended family, about potential trauma triggers, is a really good idea, especially for those children who are new into care. I think it would also be lovely for carers to reach out to children and young people who have previously been in their care if they can and send them a card letting them know they are still in their thoughts.”
Anna also suggests asking children and young people about some of their happier Christmas memories, such as family traditions they might have, and incorporating these into their Christmas routines.
It is important for carers to recognise that a child’s birth family will find Christmas challenging. Carers play an important role in building positive family relationships. Acknowledging a parent’s sense of loss and separation around special occasions like Christmas will mean a lot to families.
Carers should prepare children for Family Time visits in the lead-up to Christmas and remain flexible and positive if plans don’t work out. It is a difficult time of year for birth parents, so while they may be desperate to see their children, plans may fall apart at the last minute.
Anna recommends carers have an alternative plan in place to distract children from the disappointment of not seeing their birth family.
“Even if children and young people can’t see their birth families on Christmas Day, carers should allocate a time for a phone call or video call so they can speak to their families,” said Anna. “Carers could also help children and young people buy a gift or write a card for their families to show them that they are thinking of them over Christmas.”
Birth parents may overcompensate for their loss with excessive gift giving to show their child how much they are loved and missed. This can create challenges for birth parents, foster carers and children, especially if the gift is large and there is limited storage space in a carer’s home, if it involves technology that may cause ongoing battles, if the child is no longer into a particular toy, or if gifts don’t fit as children have grown since they last saw their parents.
Anna recommends gifts should be accepted with grace and in the spirit they were intended; to shower love on a child.
“Around this time, we can all go a little bit overboard with gift giving,” said Anna. “I think after the year we have had, giving children and young people an experience, such as movies tickets or a visit to the zoo, would be greatly appreciated as they have missed out on many opportunities during lockdowns.”
If you or your young person would like to talk about the highs and lows of Christmas further, please contact your caseworker, call us on 1300 554 260, or email email@example.com.