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Christmas Isn't always a Time of Joy for Children in Foster Care

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Christmas Isn’t Always a Time of Joy for Children By Peter Mutabazi

Christmas doesn’t always mean peace, love, and joy for children, especially those who have experienced trauma or are separated from those they love. This time of year can be a reminder of where they came from, of the family each one has lost. Older children remember times of joy but perhaps other memories of loss, disappointment, or trauma. Younger children feel the loss of those they love at this time of year.

As a foster dad to almost 30 children over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about the holiday season for children. I’ve seen the acting out, the anger, the tears, and the trauma triggers that make Christmas one of the toughest times for these precious children.

One day I asked one of my older foster children what he wanted for Christmas. He didn’t tell me anything specific, just saying that I could get him whatever I wanted. This puzzled me—every kid has a list a mile long, I thought. I asked again, but again nothing specific. I soon realized that he wasn’t going to tell me what he wanted because he assumed he’d be disappointed. He was protecting himself from that disappointment by not asking for anything specific. With so much disappointment in his young life, is it any wonder?

Trauma behaviors seem to kick in especially hard at this time of year. Children see intact or healthy families and wish for their own family to look that way. Anger rises, disappointment boils up, hopelessness turns their wounded hearts inside out. I’ve seen my foster children withdraw into silence, lash out in rage, cry uncontrollably over seemingly small things. I’ve held them, comforted them, let them cry it out.

Yet it’s not all sorrow for these children. The littlest ones love the presents, tearing into the wrapped gifts with eagerness and joy. The older children love all the eating that goes on, the special treats and holiday meals. Yet they also yearn for what they don’t have with the families they’ve not seen, with the parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles they miss.

You no doubt feel their sorrows with them. I know I do. I feel helpless when they ask me whether they will see their families over the holiday season, because I just don’t know. I feel their frustration at not being with their mom, dad or other relatives. I feel their fear that they’ll never see relatives again. Their sorrows become my own.

Let me share with you a couple of things I’ve learned to help yourself and your children navigate the holidays.

1. First, take care of yourself. You may be experiencing some of your own triggers this time of year, along with the general busyness of the season. Take time to relax, spend time

alone, take a walk, exercise, visit your therapist, read. Whatever you can manage that

gives you joy and a little peace.

  1. Expect and prepare for trauma behaviors. Each child acts out if different ways, but if you

    expect and look for those behaviors and triggers, you may be able to prevent them or at least make them less severe. A child needs understanding and patience, which you can give them during tough events.

  2. Manage expectations. If you are a foster parent, help the child understand that seeing family may not be possible right now, but that you love him or her and that the season can still be joyful and fun. You can also manage expectations of your family members, reminding them that these children may not know how to express gratitude for a gift (so don’t make it a requirement), may exhibit trauma behaviors, and need to be treated as a member of the family. You don’t want the nieces and nephews getting great gifts and your foster kids getting a can of soup or boring socks. Give family members gift ideas for your foster kids. Also, manage your own expectations regarding behaviors and emotions.

  3. Find the joy. Small victories regarding behaviors, enjoying down time, special things like movie nights, even walks outside can be times of joy. Embrace them.

Peter Mutabazi is an advocate for children, foster dad, and speakerwho lives in North Carolina. He is author of the book Now I Am Known: How a Street Kid Turned Foster Dad Found Acceptance and True Worth.

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