Holiday Blues

At a training I ran for the staff of the Sacramento Children's Receiving Home, I began by having each person take five minutes to draw a picture of themselves and their family doing something for the holidays.  This is often something I do when I start meeting with a client to get a better understanding of what they consider to be family.  It helps me to identify strengths and weaknesses in their support system, or lack thereof.  Kids often ask for more direction, and I tell them that the only thing I can say is to draw a picture of themselves and their family, whatever that means for them, doing something.  Adults ask more questions when given directives, so I used an example, and I held up a drawing I did of myself and my dog opening presents on Christmas.  "To me," I said, "this is my family."

After the five minutes were up, I asked for some volunteers to share their drawing.  Some people drew a picture of only immediate family, others drew so many family members that they ran out of space on the page.  Some included pets, others had children and grandchildren.  I stopped everyone and asked them to imagine for a moment what life in foster care must be like during the holidays.  None of the support people they just drew would be with them for the holidays, and instead, they would be in a home with complete strangers, strangers who were likely not the first strangers they lived with for this time of year.  These strangers would be "comforting" them by saying things like, "It's okay, we are always going to be here for you."...."We are your family."  "We love and care about you and can start traditions with you that we can have next year also!"  My personal favorite is, "What would you like for Christmas?" ....Um, "to be with my family," is likely what every one of these kids would like, but that is not going to happen.  So, a fake response is created to appease the foster parents.

Words of comfort seem like a good idea, but to a foster youth, they are slaps in the face of an already grieving child.  The holidays in foster care means a giant reminder of just how lonely you are and how far away your family actually is.  Some kids have parents in jail.  Others have parents whom they have never met.  Some have siblings that have been split from them and are residing in other homes.  For a foster child, the holidays are reminder that nothing you love ever sticks around, and you cannot trust anyone.  This is exactly why foster kids are often more reactive this time of year.  Loss is open and exposed constantly in their brain, but for a caregiver, these losses are invisible.

A caregiver can be doing everything in their power to show a child love, and the child will likely reject this love.  I have heard this story many, many times from various foster and adoptive parents over the years.  They ask what they are doing wrong and why the child continues to act out.  It is then that I bring up what their family picture might look like in comparison to their foster child.  Caregivers, therapists, social workers, and anyone involved in a foster child's life too often only looks at their own actions but does not take the time to put themselves in the shoes of the child.  An adult in a foster child's life can be doing everything correctly, but this child comes with pain that needs to be healed.  The healing comes in the form of acceptance of exactly where each child is at emotionally, and the emotional range between various children is endless.  Each feeling felt is correct; none are to be dismissed, because if a child does not have the power to state their truth, how will they trust anyone else?  Hopefully, the following will provide some tools you can use to help make the holidays more bearable for yourself and for your foster child.

The first tool is to validate feelings without assumption.  This is to say, "It is okay to feel however you do, and I am here to listen if you would like to talk."  DO NOT say that you "understand" or "know what it's like."  Even if you were in foster care yourself, each experience is different, and you cannot know what a child is feeling or thinking.  For example, when I first meet with foster youth, they often will tell me that they hate therapists and don't trust them.  My response is always, "You're smart.  Most of them let you down or say one thing and do another, right?  You gotta protect yourself."  It's amazing to see the light go on in their eyes when I say this.  They often laugh at me, but then they go on to tell me of a scenario in which a therapist told them something that they would or would not do and then turned right around and did it.  Foster parents are the same.  Most foster parents like to make what Mary Poppins calls "pie-crust promises" that are easily made and easily broken.  They like to say things like, "We will always be here for you," and this is rarely the truth.  Most foster parents come in and out of a child's life, especially if the child is in any way difficult to handle.  Instead, say that you will try your best and acknowledge any feeling a child has as being true for them.  A child's feelings have nothing to do with you; keep yourself separate.

The second is to practice honesty.  It's very common for the truth to be glossed over or even lied about when a child is in foster care.  This is the main reason why so many foster youth do not trust, so be honest about things down to the simple things like going to the bathroom or why you cannot have pizza that night.  It will go a long way in building a solid foundation for a child to come to rely on you.  It is much easier to trust someone who is seen as human than to have an idea of what a foster parent should be built up in their mind.  Humans make mistakes, and if you are honest about them, it is more likely that the child will be too.

The third is to acknowledge their past.  Most foster parents completely ignore that a child has an entire family whom they likely spent holidays with prior to coming into your care.  Ask about past holidays.  Ask what they liked and what they disliked.  Ask if there are any family traditions they had that they would like to incorporate into your home.  It is heartbreaking to be around another family during the holidays when there are traditions and food that you have never seen or experienced.  I can remember one Christmas I spent with another family in which the grandparents got me a stocking to open along with the other grandchildren.  I had to excuse myself to cry in the bathroom, because I could not remember the last time I had a stocking on Christmas.  No one understood why I was sad and asked if they had done something wrong.  It was difficult to say what the reason was as it seemed so silly to them.  If someone had told me it was okay to cry, it would have been a little easier.  Instead I had to go into this story of why I was upset when I did not really want to share the details of my childhood with strangers.

The fourth is to provide a grounding object.  This can be a stuffed animal, a pretty rock, an action figure, anything that the child can take with them if they ever move.  Foster youth move so often that lots of the gifts they receive do not always go with them or get lost in storage in between foster placements.  It can be especially helpful to have a significant item that they can grab if they are ever feeling alone.  However, once this item is given, it cannot be taken away.  DO NOT ever give a child something like this and then threaten to take it if they are "bad."  This item should be theirs no matter what.  I had a stuffed animal as a kid that was named Puffy.  Puffy went every where with me.  She came to camp, to the doctor, sometimes even the bathroom.  No matter who came or went from my life, Puffy was a constant.  She soaked up my tears when a pie-crust promises were broken, and she listened when I was too afraid to talk to the people claiming I could trust them.  Remember that this item is not about you; it is about the child and their need for safety in a world that has hurt them more often than not.

The fifth and final holiday helpful piece of advice for foster parents and the like is, when all else fails, laugh.  Laughter decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) in the brain, thereby, relaxing the body taking it out of fight or flight response into resting mode.  Children who have been in foster care are used to chaos.  Their lives have not been consistent or safe, which is what is needed to create a secure attachment schema in the world and relationships.  These children's cortisol levels never reach the resting level that a so-called "average" child's brain does after a stress response.  Instead, the foster youth's brain is in a constant state of arousal.  This causes the immune system to be worn down as well.  So many social workers I have worked with will say that a foster youth is "faking sickness."  I ask that social worker to live the same unstable, unsafe life that child has and see how they feel.  Stress has very real affects on our bodies.  However, providing a child with laughter and some physical exercise can really improve their mood.  If things get awkward around the table at a holiday meal, make a funny face or a joke.  This can only help everyone involved.  Also, remember to take time for yourself during this time of year.  You cannot help a child if you are unable to help yourself, so take breaks when you need them, nourish your body, and laugh at your mistakes.  We all make them, so own it.

The holidays can be a very chaotic time for foster youth and are often a reminder of how lonely life is without the family they once knew.  It is okay for them to feel sad, and it is more likely that they will react negatively to things that do not appear to be a "big deal."  Kids will make mountains out of molehills this time of year, but it is not because they want to make your life harder.  It is simply because they are probably hurting on the inside where it is invisible to you.  If you can be empathetic to their life's journey and honest with them, you are sure to make a positive Holiday impact.