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Dec 01, 2017

by Cami Haussler, Foster Home Supervisor, Bethany Christian Services of Colorado

If you are a foster parent, you know that including a foster child as part of your family, in big and small ways, helps the child feel cared for and safe. But your extended family may not know this or fully understand the role they can play to bring that message home.

As we enter the holiday season, be aware that aunts, uncles, and grandparents may be unsure about “the rules” for how they interact with the child in your care. They may have questions about how to engage the child in family gatherings and gift-giving occasions.

The following seven questions will help you and your extended family set expectations for your time together over the holidays.  

Should we include the foster child in our family photo/Christmas photo cards? 

Due to confidentiality restrictions, you can’t send Christmas photo cards that show a foster child’s face, and identifying photos cannot be posted on Facebook (you may need to remind family members about this). But in your home, display the child’s photo or photos of the family that include the child. Some children may never have been part of a family photo before, and it would be hurtful to ask the child to step out of the photo so you can get a shot of “just our family.” I saw a Christmas photo card where a foster family used a photo that was taken in such a way that the child’s face wasn’t identifiable, but the child was there in the photo, part of the family.

Should we hang a stocking for the child?

Yes. If there’s a cultural or religious difference, or if the biological family has asked you not to, then respect the parents’ wishes. Otherwise, include the child if opening stockings are part of your family tradition.

Should we incorporate the child’s traditions into our family gathering?

Yes. Explain to your extended family that kids in your home may have traditions they want to observe. Ask the child if he has favorite foods or activities he likes to do at Christmas that you could do together as a family. If he always had green Rice Krispy treats on Christmas Eve, incorporate that into how you usually celebrate Christmas Eve. Let extended family members know ahead of time to avoid someone asking, “Why are we doing that? We never do that…” or other questions that might make the child feel as though his tradition isn’t important.  

Should grandparents (and other family members) spend the same amount on a gift for the foster child as they plan to for the other children in the family?

Yes. Try to encourage your family to keep things even among the children. If your family exchanges gifts, encourage them to do the same for the foster child as they would do for the grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc., even if they don’t know the child well or haven’t yet developed a relationship.

Doing so communicates to the child that the world is a generous place. If she has had a rough childhood and has only known scarcity, it will mean a lot for her to know someone cared about her and sent her a gift. That gesture can form a memory that stays with her into her adult life.

How should we address triggers?

Explain to your extended family in advance if the child has sensory issues or environmental triggers such as crowds or loud noises. Holidays can bring out emotions (and related behaviors) in children in care that others don’t comprehend. Explain to extended family that while the child’s behavior is typically consistent day-to-day, the holidays may be especially hard for him to be away from his family. His fear or grief may show up in some difficult behaviors. So…

Should we make a contingency plan?

Yes. If Grandma always hosts a large family gathering, and you’re not sure how your child will do with a large group of people she doesn’t know, let Grandma know in advance the reality of your child’s needs. You may need to take the child out of the noisy house for a quiet walk. You may need to leave early if the child isn’t handling it well. Advance communication will promote understanding so you’re not left explaining the child’s behavior in front of the child while she is melting down.

How should we introduce the child to our relatives?

Information you can share up-front removes some of the “who’s this?” awkwardness when you gather with relatives you see just a few times a year. You can’t always anticipate what people will say, but be prepared that you or the child might hear some awkward questions and comments from your family.

Try to assume the best—remember they don’t live in the world of foster care like you do, and they haven’t been through training like you have. You can take the family member aside later and gently explain why their comment might have been insensitive. They might feel embarrassed or defensive. Holidays are a great time to practice extending grace, showing love, and promoting understanding with friends and family.

One family sent a post card to their extended family and friends to let them know about their foster care journey. The message said something like this:

“We became licensed foster parents this year. That means at any time of year, any time you see us, we may have different children with us in our home, at the park, or at the store. No matter how long a child is with us, if they are with us, they are family. We’re excited for you to meet our extended family.”

Holiday gatherings with friends and relatives can reinforce the central message that the child is safe, loved, cared for, and part of the family. Communicate in every way you can, “You belong here.”

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