Christmas can be a tricky time of year for foster children. Our care leaver explains what Christmas was like for her at home and in care, and how Foster Carers can help ease the stress that this time of year may bring to the young people in their care.
Christmas is supposed to be a happy time of year for many people. Children look forward to it all year round, hoping that they’ve been good enough this year to get a surprise from Santa. Christmas always looks so beautiful with a tree standing in the front room, all decorated with glittery tinsel and baubles, with that beautiful angel sat on the very top of the magical Christmas tree…
Everyone has their way of doing Christmas. Growing up in my house meant decorating mid-December. I remember one night when my mum decided to do the decorating - it was very random, she just suddenly said, “Come on, get up, come help me get the Christmas stuff out of the loft!” We re-used everything, every year, always the same things. We had the same plastic tree, until one year the electric base over heated and melted the bottom of the tree. We kept it for a few years afterwards, but couldn’t plug it in. Soon though, it started to bend so we had to get a new one. I wasn’t very happy when mum replaced it with a new white one; it didn’t seem like a real tree and the few good memories we did have, were connected to the old tree. My mum had a china-like angel that we always had at the top of the tree and as we grew older and taller, we were allowed to put it on. It was the kids’ job to decorate the tree, but if mum didn’t like the way it was done, she would move it about and the tinsel had an order of colour it had to follow.
My dad collected Christmas talking toys, we had so many, and it was our family tradition. They all went under the tree, they where the best. The big Santa always had to go in the middle and we would put tubes of chocolate, crisps and cookies underneath the teddies or in their laps. It was a fun time when my little sister was really young, because she would always hide some chocolate in her toybox, we did all the same, we would sneak down at night and fill our stockings up with chocolate and hide it in our rooms! It sounds like a true magical Christmas doesn’t it? Like a type of family that you see in Christmas movies. It had some magic to it, but it was always ruined by my father drinking on Christmas, or my mum complaining about making Christmas dinner.
I have many fun memories at Christmas, but I also have so many bad memories too where it just didn’t feel like Christmas anymore; it just felt like any ordinary day. As I grew older I found Christmas became more of a burden, because in all the years I’ve had Christmas with my family, there was only one Christmas where my dad didn’t drink and didn’t destroy Christmas. Because of the trauma this caused at Christmas, I now have trouble enjoying Christmas, even if I’m no longer at home. When it gets to October, I start to think about Christmas and start to feel sick, sometimes just by the music and thought of a tree. It doesn’t always affect me, sometimes I can get excited, but it’s more often followed by dread.
When I’ve spoken to people about this, some people say it’s PTSD, and others just don’t understand. I sometimes wonder why I can feel this way, when I know Christmas won’t be the same this year, because I’m not at home. But, what others don’t realise is, that Christmas is filled with memories, and the main reason people get excited about occasions, is because it’s what their brain has associated with them over the years. So, if every time of year you feel excited for Christmas… then your brain is going to start learning to link those two together. It’s hard to say how to get yourself out of the situation with feeling this way with Christmas, and my birthday, because it’s what I’ve learnt to feel over the years. If you think about it through a therapists eyes - they may say that you need to break the cycle and by doing that, you need to always think positive and happy thoughts when you think about certain occasions. Try not think about the memories and tell yourself over and over again, that it’s going to be different, you’re not in that place anymore.
When I was in foster care, with my foster family, we had Christmases that were fun, but there were parts that I just couldn’t enjoy, because my brain was just waiting for a bad thing to start, because it’s what it had learnt over the years. Sadly, the first Christmas I had with them, was followed by something bad, and it sent me into a panic attack. This is because of a memory I had, when this thing happened. Sadly, they didn’t know why I freaked out, because they didn’t know about the memory flash back I had.
To foster parents, really all I can say to you is, it’s not the presents that matter, sometimes it’s just to have a Christmas where you decorate the tree and the house together. It may help the child break the bad bonds with Christmas, but there’s a lot more to it and may take a lot of tip toeing around the subject. But the world wasn’t made in a day, and neither can you fix a traumatised child so quick.
All I can say is, don’t push the child too hard to join in with things and speak to the child. Maybe talking about what normally happens at their home at Christmas may help them get it off their chest a little, and give you some insight on what not to do, but don’t push the child to speak if they don’t want to speak about it. Making new traditions and making your foster child feel safe and calm, making them feel wanted and not a burden, is the stuff they do in movies… maybe try some of those things, because a lot of children I knew, who didn’t have a good Christmases because of their parents, grew up watching those dream Christmas movies wishing they could have Christmas just like that.
Christmas is a difficult time of year for many, but maybe this Christmas, you could make a difference in helping yourself or your foster child. Well that’s everything I have to say and I do hope some of it has helped you and I wish you and your foster family a Merry Christmas. I hope it all turns out as calm as it possibly can.