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FFT Special

Foster Children & Holidays
Making New Celebrations for Your Family

by Stan Waddell, MFT, M.Ed., LPC

Growing up I loved Thanksgiving. The whole family — aunts, uncles, cousins — would come to town and eat at my grandparents’ house. Food, fun and family were the theme of the weekend; it was the one time of year the whole family would get together. Then we started building toward Christmas. We would get one big gift for Christmas, but my dad would always end up not being able to wait for Christmas to give us the big gift. One Christmas I ended up with four big gifts before Christmas day. These great times were burned in my memories. Then my dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and the next three Thanksgivings were spent in hospitals, and we only got one gift as money was tight. Shortly after my father died, my grandfather died and my extended family moved further away. Our Thanksgiving traditions were lost! I still miss those Thanksgivings of my childhood. Those were the best celebrations.

Many foster kids have lost their family celebrations due to things beyond their control. How do we, as caretakers, help make new celebrations that will build positive memories so the holidays are not a time of pain over things lost, but celebrations of what we have?

Many studies show that holidays are stressful times in general, but the stress is increased all the more when family stress is high. The kids we care for are in stressful family situations, and the holidays are often a painful reminder of the trauma they endured, the loss of family, and the loss of their holiday celebrations. That does not mean that they can never have great holiday memories, but we have to be proactive to help build new positive memories.

Helping Kids During Holidays
Talk about the season ahead of time. That seems like a simple thing to do, but this may create some level of stress with your kids, but in the long run will help reduce holiday stress. Expect some conflicting and confusing emotions as you talk about the holidays. Talk to them to help imagine what to expect in your home during the holidays, making sure to share any religious meanings of the holidays with your family. Tell them why you have some of the holiday experiences and traditions you have.

Once you have shared your views and traditions, let the child share his or her family views and traditions. You can also find out from the foster kids’ birth parents about holiday traditions. Once you have identified some key traditions for your child, see if you can incorporate that into your family traditions.

Do not forget about food, that one food item that lets you know it is a holiday. I cannot imagine a holiday meal without black olives, and I am not talking about a can for the whole event, but a can per person ratio is right in our family. For my cousin’s husband it is brussel sprouts.

Try to keep the holidays as low key as possible in order to help minimize the stress that impacts us during the holidays. Try to limit the amount of parties, especially around Christmas. I had one year that my family had to be part of 14 parties, and at some point you cross a line. The same is often true for foster homes where parties can start piling up. It is OK to say no! A few fun parties are far better than many stressful parties.
Make sure to reassure your kids, if you can, about the safety and care of their birth family. It is normal to worry about your family when you are not with them during the holidays. Help the kids in your home make small gifts and send cards to their birth families or old neighbors and friends.

Making Family Gatherings Easier
Talk about upcoming events and the people who will be there, in particular prepare them for the characters in your family and also tell them about other children who might be there. Describe the home or place where the event will be held, what some of the rules in that setting are important. Let them know if your celebrations are quiet, loud, silly, big or small.

At a minimum, remove the stress of the unknown. Make sure you and your extended family are on the same page about gifts. There is nothing like signing your Christmas cards and including their names so they know they are part of your family. If they see a stocking hanging just for them, and presents under the tree for them it will help them feel they are part of the family.

Be realistic about holidays
Holidays are stressful even in the best of times. Recognize that what your child is feeling is perfectly normal given the situation. Give your child freedom to talk about holidays on his or her terms. Let the child talk when ready. Avoid the temptation to push him or her into talking about feelings or the past, but do not try to avoid it either. Identify with the child. Tell the child about a time that you felt the same, so he or she understands that others struggle as well.

The reality is families change and, as a result, family traditions change. Change is a good thing when we chose to grow from it. My kids enjoy Thanksgiving when we invite other families or individuals who would otherwise be alone that day. We have a big group with food and fun. It is not the same as my childhood, but it has been great for my kids’ childhood.

My mother had to start building new traditions after my father died, and she did. The traditions have changed and grown throughout the years, especially as new people have come into our family. This is a great blessing when you foster. You can grow and expand your family traditions as you add new people to your family. May this holiday season be something traditional, but also mixed with the building of great, new memories for everyone.  a

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stan Waddell, MFT, M.Ed., LPC, began working with underprivileged children and youth in 1986, and specifically children, youth, and their families in the foster care system in 1993. He has worked in numerous church settings, in multiple settings as a therapist, and has managed a number of child placement agencies in Texas and New Mexico. Most recently in 2008, Waddell began working for Cenpatico in both a clinical and training capacity. Waddell earned a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy, and a Master of Religious Education, both from Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Waddell is licensed as a Licensed Professional Counselor in Texas and New Mexico. He is married to Connie and has two kids, Beth and Spencer.

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