12 Ideas for Supportive Adults to Help a Young Person in Foster Care Through the Holidays
Dec 13, 2023
Understand and encourage youth’s own traditions and beliefs
Encourage discussion about holiday traditions the young person experienced prior to being in foster care, or even celebrations they liked while living with other foster families.
Incorporate traditions the youth cherishes into your own family celebration, if possible. Investigate the youth’s culture and research traditions.
If the young person holds a religious belief different from yours, or if their family did, check into customary traditions, and avoid forcing the youth to participate in your religious traditions if they are uncomfortable doing so.
Discuss what holidays look like in your home
Discuss your family’s holiday traditions with the young person. Do you celebrate over multiple days, or is there one “main” celebration? Will certain religious practices occur, and what will the young person’s role be? Will gifts be exchanged? What should they wear? Who will they meet? What preparations need to be done in advance? Will there be visitors to the home? Will they visit the homes of family or friends? And in all of these events, will your youth be expected to participate?Avoiding surprises will decrease seasonal tensions.
Allow the youth to ask questions.
Be respectful and sensitive to the youth’s traditions and cultural practices. Ask how they might like to celebrate, and get to know past holiday experiences they are comfortable sharing. Make an effort to understand and incorporate where you are able.
Understand if youth pull away, and prioritize mental health and wellbeing
Despite your best efforts, a young person may cope by withdrawing during the holidays. Understand that this detachment most likely is not an insult or a reflection of how they feel about you, but rather is their own coping mechanism.
Allow for “downtime” during holidays that will give the youth some time to themselves if they need it (although some youth would prefer to stay busy to keep their mind off other things—work with the young person to understand their needs).
Be sure to fit in one-on-one, personal time to talk through their feelings during this emotional and often confusing time of year.
Consider using mental health supports and resources where appropriate both for the young person and for yourself!
I was invited to every holiday... with Christmas, she (my foster mom) had so many gifts there. We even went to her parents and her parents had gifts for me, which was amazing! I felt loved and cared for, but it was also conflicting because I was like, "How did I deserve this?" She made me feel like I was worth something... and now I know that I’m worth it, and every child deserves to know that they’re worth it.” — Lacy
Facilitate visits with loved ones
The holidays can be a busy time for everyone including foster parents and caseworkers. It is especially important during this time of year to help the young person arrange visits with loved ones. Don’t allow busy schedules to mean missing or postponing these important visits.
Try to get permission for the youth to make phone calls to relatives (if long distance charges are an issue, ask if calls can be placed from the foster care agency or ask a local business or individual to “donate” by allowing the use of their phone).
A youth may wish to extend holiday wishes to relatives and friends from an old neighborhood, but may need your help getting contact information together. Help the youth develop a list of important contacts.
Help youth ensure their loved ones are okay
Young people may worry that their family members are struggling through the holidays. If there have been experiences with housing insecurity in the past, the winter season may bring cold weather and extreme hardship. Young people may experience guilt if they feel a loved one is struggling while they have housing stability.
Knowing that a birth parent or sibling has shelter from the cold or their other basic needs met may ease a young person’s mind through the always emotional holidays.
Be prepared to support the young person through the other side of this too—if family members are not stable or if they are unable to reach them to confirm.
Extend an invitation to youth’s loved ones
If it is safe and allowed by your foster care agency, consider extending an invitation to siblings or birth parents through the holidays.
If an invitation to your “main” holiday event doesn’t feel right, consider a “special” dinner for your youth to celebrate with their loved ones. If this is not possible to do in your home, consider a visit at a local restaurant (ask the caseworker if an unsupervised visit would be appropriate or if your supervision would suffice).
Inviting their loved ones does not necessarily signal to a young person that you support their birth family’s lifestyle or choices — rather it tells a young person that you respect their wish to stay connected to family.
In doing this, you will also send a message to the youth that they aren’t being put in a position to “choose” your family over their birth family and that it is possible to have relationships with all the people they care about.
Holidays are hard... not knowing whose house to go to... Who's gonna cook you that plate of food, make you feel comfortable while you’re there, not rush you out the door. Nobody calls you on holidays to come see them. They all expect you to reach out to them. Holidays I’ve really felt alone a lot of the times. — Nia
Support connections and gift-giving to youth’s family and friends
If they want to, support young people to purchase small gifts for their relatives, or help them craft homemade gifts.
Help send holiday cards to those they want to stay connected with.
Thelist of people that your youth wishes to send cards and gifts to should be left completely to the youth, although precautions may be taken to ensure safety and compliance with any court orders (for example, a return address may be left off, or use the address of the foster care agency).
Most importantly, take the lead from the young person’s wishes using age-appropriate approaches to discussion.
Encourage and set the tone for positive interactions with family and friends
Let people know in advance about new family members in your home. Surprising friends or family at the door may create an awkward situation—such as a scramble to set an extra place at the table—making the young person feel like an imposition right from the start of the visit.
Your preparation of friends and family should cut down on inappropriate but reasonable questions such as, “Who are you?” or, “Where did you come from?” Set healthy boundaries with family and friends to ensure everyone has what they need to encourage positive interactions and environments during time together.
You may receive well intended but prying questions from those you visit over the holidays. If the young person is new to your home, it is natural that family members ask questions about the youth’s background.
Understand that questions are generally not meant to be insensitive or rude, but come from a lack of understanding of foster care.
Think in advance about answers to these questions that maintain the youth’s confidentiality.
Educate interested family and friends.
Discuss with your young person how they would like to be introduced and what is appropriate to share about their history with your family and friends. (Remember, they have no obligation to reveal their past.)
Growing up a lot of holidays were pretty rough; I was on my own or I wasn’t with my family. Seeing other friends and traditional families getting together... was really tough to see because at some level, even if I wouldn’t admit it, deep down I wanted that family connection around the holidays... the feeling of safety, home, and a sense of belonging. — Ethan
Arrange meeting your family before large gatherings, if possible
The hustle and bustle of holidays can make it particularly chaotic for the young person to participate in your family traditions. Anxiety may run high for young people already, and the stress of meeting your relatives may be a lot to deal with.
If possible, you can arrange a casual “meeting” in advance of “main events.”
If it is not possible or practical to meet beforehand, make a list of names of some of the people they’ll meet and their connection to you.
You can also encourage a quick call from relatives you plan to visit to deliver a personal message of, “We are excited to meet you” so that your youth knows they will be welcome.
Have extra presents ready to help offset differences
You should not expect that all relatives purchase presents for the youth.
Be prepared with other small gifts, and for family members concerned about not having brought a gift, offer one of your “backups” for them to place under the tree.
Extra presents may be addressed “from Santa,” even for older youth, to help offset a larger number of gifts other children may receive simultaneously.
Children often count the number of gifts received (right or wrong) and compare with other kids, so sometimes quantity is important.
Connect with youth who formerly lived with you
The holidays can be a particularly tough time for youth who have recently aged out of foster care. They may not have people to visit or a place to go. In addition, young people commonly struggle financially when they first leave foster care.
A phone call or text may lift their spirits and signal that you continue to care for them.
Consider including these youth on your own holiday card list.
A small gift or basket of homemade holiday goodies may be especially appreciated.
Thanks for supporting young people in foster care through the holidays. Consider continuing your support with a year-end gift to FosterClub.