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Why the holidays can be hard and how to make them better

When I was in foster care, I received an annual letter from a local charity. It asked which gifts I wanted for Christmas. I always asked for barbies, clothes, and a diary. When asked what I wished for the most, I said ‘“to go home.”’ I wasn’t sure whether the charity could make it happen, but it was what I hoped for—to be reunited with my mother and siblings.

In the days leading up to Christmas, my foster dad would take us to the tree farm to cut down a tree. We’d excitedly decorate it with as many ornaments and tinsel as we could. It took us all night, but that was fun of it—getting to do something with others whom I cared about.

Other festivities that followed included parties, concerts, and eating wonderful food. On Christmas day, I delighted in opening the gifts I had requested on my Christmas list. I would often get what I asked for, but never received what I wanted the most—to go back home to my mom. I felt this loss as the years went by, especially during the holidays.

It wasn’t until I was older that I was able to talk with someone about my feelings and to grieve the loss of my mom. As time went on, the pain lessened, and I actually started to enjoy the holidays again. My favorite memories from childhood are from spending the holidays with my foster family. I attribute this to their willingness to fully accept us as we were and include us in their traditions.

Ways to make youth feel included during the holidays

Many youth in foster care or adopted from foster care experience the holidays as I once did—as a time of stress, disappointment, and loneliness. Here are six ways foster and adoptive families can help youth in their home feel accepted and included during the holidays and throughout the year.

1. Spend time together. Find ways you can connect with your child, whatever their age. Play a game, help with homework, or watch a TV show together. You will learn about them, and they’ll also have a chance to learn about you. This lays the foundation for building a relationship—one where they feel safe and that you can be depended on. It’ll also give you an opportunity to learn more about their personality, food preferences, and even triggers—facts that aren’t always provided by a social worker or in a case file. This kind of information can help you and your child prepare for the holidays.

2. Celebrate your youth. Let them know they are valued based on who they are, not what they do. Some youth in foster care or adopted may feel their worth comes from how they do in school or what they do for others. Not being with one’s birth family during a season of traditions may cause youth to feel rejected or othered. Giving youth genuine compliments and letting them choose activities as you spend time together shows youth they are seen and valued. Celebrating youth for who they are is especially important around the holidays, when many festivities have an element of “performance,” such as socializing and gift exchanging.

3. Find out what holiday traditions matter to them. Ask their social worker or birth family for information, then incorporate your youth’s culture, traditions, and religious activities into your holiday festivities wherever possible. If your youth chooses not to join a particular event or can’t, for religious reasons or because of other needs, prepare a different activity or food just for them.

4. Maintain visitation with the youth’s birth family. Be understanding if visits are cancelled or don’t go as well. The holiday season can be a stressful time for some people. If your youth would like to give gifts to their family, check with their social worker or local organizations to see what resources are available. Along with maintaining visitation, try to keep up daily routines, for as much normalcy as possible during the holidays.

5. Prepare for events. Before attending a holiday event, let your youth know what they can expect and answer any questions. Remind them of the event as it gets closer; it can be easy to forget during the busyness of the holidays. Let youth know they are not obligated to give gifts they don’t want to, receive affection without consent, eat foods they don’t like, or talk about things they don’t want to. Similarly, communicate your child’s needs to your friends and family and manage their expectations, as necessary.

6. Create mementos. Take photos, make a craft, or cook a recipe. Ask for your youth’s input on what type of mementos they’d like to create. It will help your youth feel heard and included.