It is extremely difficult for children to cope with being separated from their families at any time of the year, but it is especially difficult during the holiday season. While they may be living with a very warm, loving family, they are still very likely to miss their biological family along with the traditions and experiences they are used to having. Many children also worry about how their parents are doing without them, wanting to rescue mom and/or dad from pain.
Foster care is a very important system, designed to provide a safe harbor for children. However, many children would rather face the trauma of their biological family rather than experience separation. While their parents have made poor choices resulting in the separation, most children love their parents and want to be with them. They tend to view the foster care system as a big bully in the way of having their family together. Early in my counseling career, I was shocked to hear children beg to be back with parents who horribly abused them. Over the years I have seen the same situation over and over: children desperate to be with their parents. Age has a significant impact on their emotions, as well as the degree of neglect or abuse. Some children recognize the toxicity of the situation or hold resentment, resulting in no longer desiring relationships. The underlying issue that I see is that most children miss their biological families.
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Children will commonly fret about how their parents are doing. They want to know how they are going to celebrate the holidays, if mom and/or dad miss them, and how things would be different if they were home. Some children are completely preoccupied with these thoughts, impacting their ability to focus on school work and their ability to make new relationships. It would be expected for these children to experience some depression, anxiety, and/or anger during this time. They are experiencing grief related to the loss of their family, even if it is only a temporary placement.
Foster parents can help by offering emotional support and understanding. Asking simple questions can make a world of difference for these children. Here are some examples: What does your family do on Christmas Day? What was Thanksgiving like for your family? Do you have any special memories of the holidays with your family? Who did you spend the holidays with? Do you have any holiday traditions that we could do this year? Remember, even if their experiences were less than ideal, they represent the culture that the child has been raised in and many memories are special to them. Being able to incorporate some of their family’s traditions could make them feel more at home.
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It is vitally important to not view the child’s biological parents as enemies. Children pick up on this very quickly and will often be distrustful of their foster parents. If the child has a bond with their parents, honor it. It is not helpful to make any negative comments about how biological parents did things. If the child seems upset, simply show empathy. Children want a safe place. If they feel that the foster parents are trying to take the place of their biological parents, they will not feel safe. If it turns into a permanent placement, things will progress without the foster parents having to make statements about how they do things better or safer. The children will recognize it over time and appreciate it more if they do not feel pressured to choose between biological and foster parents.
As a therapist, I tend to do grief work to help children process the loss of their parents, even if it is only temporary. Creating a memory box is helpful. They can draw pictures, write letters, or put special mementos in the box. It can be full of their everyday experiences, or they can draw pictures or write about their favorite experiences with their parent(s) and extended family. If a child expresses a sense of loss of not being with their parents for Thanksgiving, I would encourage them to draw a picture of what it would look like if they were home for the holiday.
I also like to use my Journey to My New Family game. It is designed to help children process feelings related to being in a new family with new rules and expectations. It allows them to express how they feel about the changes and how the new roles have impacted them emotionally. There are so many issues that children experience as part of the foster care system, such as abandonment, distrust, trauma, and anxiety. Cognitive behavioral counseling can help children process these issues and to focus thoughts on hope. I strongly believe that emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are all interrelated. If you can fix the problems with the thoughts, emotions and behaviors will also adjust.
I hope these tips help you to have a warm, loving holiday season. Remember to be patient and offer lots of love. The kids are worth it!
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