Christmas is a happy time for many children and families. But for parents with children in care, it can be a sad reminder that their children will be spending Christmas with another family. At this emotional time of year, foster carers play a vital role in helping to build positive family relationships.
Around special days like Christmas and birthdays, parents whose children are in care often cope with an acute sense of separation and loss by going overboard with gift giving. Emanating from a place of love, the need to shower their children with gifts is a way of compensating for not being physically present in their lives. But too many, and sometimes inappropriate, gifts can create challenges for foster carers as well as the children.
Knowing what to give
For a parent whose child is in care, it can be difficult to keep up with what their child likes – the gifts they buy don’t always hit the mark. For example, clothes might be too small because the child has had a growth spurt since the last visit. A toy may have small parts or be inappropriate for the child’s developmental stage. Or the child may simply not be interested in that toy.
If you have a good relationship with the child’s family, you can let them know ahead of time what the child is into right now, what their favourite colour is, or whether there is a toy they desperately want. Without instructing family members what they should or shouldn’t buy, foster carers can drop hints naturally into a conversation (e.g. ‘Mia is crazy about trains right now’) or make specific gift suggestions, if the opportunity arises. You can also talk to your case worker who can pass this information on to the family.
Accepting gifts graciously
Especially if you have several children in your care and minimal storage space, you may find the volume of gifts from family overwhelming. But a negative comment by a foster carer in front of the parents and/or the child, or later throwing gifts in the rubbish, can sabotage the sometimes fragile relationship between parent and child. The child will pick up on the negativity which could increase feelings of anxiety about family visits.
‘Parents do their best to pick out the right gift. Telling them you don’t like what they have chosen, or that it’s not appropriate, is very hurtful,’ says Challenge Community Services case worker Nu Daniel. ‘The gift exchange needs to be a positive experience free from judgement. A genuine “thank you” goes a long way, regardless of the gift. It really is the act of giving and receiving that’s important, not the gift itself. If it also turns out to be the right gift, that’s a bonus.’
Making the most of family time
Receiving too many gifts can be overwhelming for the child. They may become overstimulated or quickly move from one toy to the next, unable to concentrate fully on each toy. The unwrapping of many gifts can also significantly cut into the visit, which is usually only 2 hours. This leaves little opportunity for the parents and children to interact meaningfully with each other and build stronger connections.
‘If the child’s parents tend to over-do the presents, you could tactfully suggest for next time a special outing you can all share,’ says Nu. ‘For example, you could have a picnic in the park, go to the zoo, or go bowling and suggest only one or two small gifts from the parents.’
Sending good wishes on Christmas Day
As the Christmas visit with the child or children usually happens earlier in December rather than on Christmas day itself, foster carers often arrange a phone call with the parents on Christmas day.
‘A parent’s sense of loss may be heightened on Christmas day itself, so it’s vital to honour any arrangement,’ says Nu. ‘It can be devastating for a parent to be waiting for a planned call that doesn’t come. Even if the child doesn’t want to talk, still make the call to wish them a Merry Christmas and explain that the child is in the middle of something and can’t talk right now.’
Another suggestion would be to send photos –if not to the parents – offer to send it to the caseworker to pass on.
Children are usually in a good mood at Christmas – it’s summer, they’re on school holidays and it’s an exciting, festive time for them. Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to create positive links between parent and child.
Start planning early, prepare the child or children for the family visit, and try to stay flexible if things don’t go to plan. Keeping the experience positive and being sensitive to the parent’s need to spoil their child at this time, will go a long way towards building positively on the parent-child relationship.
If you’re not sure how best to arrange a family visit this Christmas, talk to your case worker today. Call 1800 084 954.
Find out more about the support foster carers receive.