Tis the season to be jolly!
Many people feel excited about the festive season. It is a time for family, food, giving and celebration. It is easy to get caught up in traditions and the joy of the season, but for some children Christmas can be an extremely challenging time of year.
Some children in care may have experienced negative family interactions, especially around Christmas time. Christmas may bring up bad memories or it may be a stark reminder of their situation, or their past. Christmas may have also carried dangers for some children, as celebrations can potentially mean parties with alcohol or drugs. Even many parents themselves can struggle with their own mental wellbeing at this time of year, which could have a knock-on effect of the children’s experience too.
Children in care may have low self-esteem and can develop core beliefs about themselves due to the social narratives of – ‘good kids get gifts from Santa’, and their real experience of no gifts, due to poverty or neglect, can be perceived as – ‘they are naughty kids who don’t deserve nice things’.
Many children in care can feel anxious around new people or in new situations, they may find the expectations set on them to enjoy, be good, be grateful, can be extremely overwhelming over the Christmas period.
Christmas is often described as a time for family. While others are celebrating, some children maybe feeling isolated, rejected or abandoned. They are not with the family they would choose to be with or have a sense of duty that they should be with the family that they are with now. And while some children in care may be shown the same amount of love and attention, they may always struggle with feeling like an outsider no matter how accepting an environment is.
This can often feel confusing for those that may be caring for these children trying to give them fun and good experiences. And if a child has come from abuse, neglect, severe poverty or even war-torn countries, carers may struggle to understand why despite everything they are doing to give the children a positive Christmas it appears to be being rejected or even disliked.
Why would a child yearn for a home where they were neglected or abused…. because it’s still home, it’s what they know, are used to, are familiar with and may have accepted as what’s right.
This desire to go home or connect with family can cause a multitude of confusing feelings and thoughts for some children. Examples may include :
– I mustn’t have fun that is betraying my family.
– I mustn’t be happy, I don’t deserve to be, as I’m bad that’s why I got sent away.
– I don’t deserve nice things, I’m bad as I have always been told
– Don’t trust nice things they will be taken away
– Don’t trust kindness …people are only kind to be able to do mean things
– If you seem happy, they wont let you go home
– Getting nice things is for good kids, and I’m not good so I need to do something bad to show them that I will always mess things up.
– These few examples of internal narratives may help us to explain why some children in care reject Christmas or seem to try and sabotage the event.
Stabilisation stage – In the early stages of helping a child to overcome trauma and transitions. While we may still be building trust, routine, boundaries and teaching them how to live in this different home with different people.
• Adapt to the child’s biography and manage your own beliefs, values and attitudes of what Christmas should and shouldn’t be – we may need to downplay Christmas depending on their perceptions and experiences. If lots of people causes destress…. minimise the amount of people in this initial stage. Help them to feel safe.
• Lower expectations on them to have fun or be grateful. Let them see that Christmas can be safe first.
• If surprises cause distress rather than joy don’t do them. If they assume they won’t get the thing they want… making them wait to see if they are getting that one special gift may just cause anxiety. It is often the anxiety of will I get it rather than the relief of getting it that is remembered. let them choose their own gift, see you wrap it, then put it under the tree. Help them build trust that nice things do happen.
• Use acceptance, curiosity and empathy to understand, manage and respond to a child’s potentially unusual reactions to what we may perceive as nice things.
• Give them tools of what to do if they feel, isolated, overwhelmed, angry or any other emotion…don’t focus on stopping the feeling or behaviour, explore with them plans of what they should/ could do when they feel these things.
• Imagine what Christmas means to them and what maybe the good things they might miss or the bad things that may cause them fear. Create plans to reduce and manage triggers, pre-planned responses to things going wrong and self care strategies for yourself to ensure that you can still have a nice day no matter what happens.
• Change is hard…be accepting of this.
Integration and adaption- where children can start to better accept new experiences, manage their behaviour more effectively and adapt their conduct and reactions to the setting can take time.
By easing in Christmas and being flexible and empathic, the hope will be that the season to be jolly can be jolly for all over time.