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Navigating the Holidays with Youth in Foster Care


The holiday season is here! Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, Kwanzaa: all times of celebration for their adherents. This time of the year is typically associated with joy, family, food, and an overall sense of togetherness. While these emotions may be the case for most, it is not always so for current and former youth in foster care. For many, this is a time of year when they are faced with the realization that they will not be “home for the holidays” with their birth family members. This can bring up a lot of conflicting emotions for the youth and be a difficult time. Around the holidays, we are constantly reminded that families are supposed to be together, yet this is not attainable for these children, through no fault of their own.

In one recent informal poll1 of foster youth, over 80 percent said they miss their families during the holiday season, while another 8 percent said that the time of year can be hard when it seems like everyone else has their families around. Though foster children may have a foster or kinship family to spend the holidays with, they may struggle with feelings of guilt and not being “loyal” to their birth family if they are enjoying that holiday time. This may lead to feelings of both anxiety and grief. As Benchmarks’ providers and partners plan for the extended holiday season, here is a short list of tips and guidance for social workers, current foster, adoptive and kinship parents to help make the holidays easier for children struggling during this time of the year:

Preparation can make all the difference! Before any events begin, it can be beneficial to let fostered youth know what is going to be happening. As a resource let them know what to expect-including who they will be seeing or meeting, as well as what type of event they will be part of (formal, informal, etc.) and what to wear. This may also look like discussing the “characters” in your family, what they will do there, if it is a quiet or loud affair, and how long you will stay. Ensure you are preparing others you plan to celebrate the holidays with. Make sure that these individuals know about foster youth and will not be surprised by their presence. If possible, it is always a good idea to arrange for foster youth to meet your family casually in advance of holiday gatherings as this could help reduce some of the stress of the holidays by limiting the meeting of new people at new events.

Remember to respect their privacy. If a foster youth is still new to the family, it’s natural for extended family members to have some questions about them and their background. Have these conversations ahead of time as much as possible, without the youth present. A lot of times these questions aren’t ill-intended but come from a place of not knowing much about foster care. Think ahead about how to answer these questions while maintaining confidentiality and use this opportunity to educate your family and friends. Discuss with your youth, if appropriate, how they would like to be introduced, and what they are okay with sharing about their history with your family and friends. Pre-establish these boundaries before any holiday events or gatherings.

Incorporate or celebrate the youth’s traditions and customs. All families have their own way of celebrating the holidays. While certain traditions may be more common than others, everyone has their own unique take on festivities. Try to include as many of the youth’s traditions or customs during the season, consulting with the youth about what is most important to them. This is one way to make them feel more comfortable and accepted during celebrations. Always respect that foster youth may celebrate holidays that you do not, and vice versa.

Extend an invitation when possible. If it is desired by the youth, safe and approved by the foster care agency, think about inviting siblings or birth parents over around the holidays. It does not have to be an invite to your “main” holiday event but could simply be a ‘special dinner’ for your youth to celebrate the holidays with their loved ones. If this is not possible for you to do at your home, you may consider meeting at a local restaurant (ensure you check with the caseworker on supervision guidelines). Extending invitations tells a young person that you respect their wish to stay connected to family. You will also send a message to the youth that they are not being put in a position to “choose” your family over their birth family and that it is possible to have a relationship with all the people they care about.

Be aware of their feelings and understand if they pull away. As previously stated, the holidays can bring up many conflicting feelings and be emotionally draining for some children in foster care. This means that it may bring out new feelings and behaviors, as well as exacerbating some existing ones. Try to be understanding while youth process through all their emotions during the holidays. Respect their mental health and provide help when it is required or asked for. Allow for some ‘downtime’ during the holidays to allow them some time to themselves if they need it. Also be available for one-on-one time with you for them to talk through what they are feeling during the season. Despite your best efforts, your youth may simply withdraw during this time. Do not take this as a personal rejection or an insult from the youth. Let them know you are there for them if they need you.

Though the holidays can be a complex time for foster youth, these tips can help everyone to cope and move through them with acceptance, understanding, and hopefully even some joy!


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