Preparing for Christmas when you foster – Louise and Andrew’s Story
Most children show great excitement at Christmas time and it can be a wonderful time for foster carers. But Christmas can be an overwhelming time for some foster children, as Louise and her husband Andrew foster parents from the East Midlands experienced.
Louise had been fostering two girls – Chelsea, aged 11 and Jessica, aged 9, for just 6 months when she experienced her first Christmas as a foster carer and as she explains; it wasn’t the Christmas experience she was expecting.
“I love Christmas, it’s one of my favorite times of the year. I decorate every room in the house and really enjoy it and always go out of my way to make it a special time of the year. Being new to fostering, I was really looking forward to making a difference for the two girls, giving them what they hadn’t experienced before and making Christmas a magical time for them.
Chelsea and Jessica are in foster care due to abuse and neglect. Christmas hadn’t been a particularly special time of the year for them before, but I didn’t have any concerns. Both girls had settled in well with our family and were enjoying living with us”.
Contact can be a stressful and emotional time for foster children, seeing family members can often bring feelings of guilt, shame or regret to the surface and for Jessica this appears to have been a trigger point in the approach to Christmas, as Louise explains.
“It was just a week before Christmas, the girls had contact with their mum and we noticed afterwards a change in Chelsea’s behaviour. It started small at first, she was exhibiting ‘attitude’ in the way that she spoke to us, this was usual for Chelsea, as her behaviour was normally very good.
As we approached Christmas, her behaviour escalated, attitude turned into spitefulness and making personal, unpleasant remarks, shouting and getting very angry.
We have been trained in PACE parenting as foster carers with Fostering People, and we used PACE to help us manage the situation, but it didn’t seem to help. So we called Fostering People for support and even through it was Christmas, a social worker came out to see us, this gave us reassurance as new carers that we were doing everything right and we continued to parent with PACE.
As soon as Christmas Eve arrived, Chelsea’s behaviour improved and we had a wonderful Christmas and all was quiet until after Boxing Day. We were not prepared for what came next, we thought we had come through the other side when we had all had a lovely Christmas together.
But on the 27th December, Chelsea started to be verbally cruel to Jessica and she absolutely hounded me, shouting in my face that I was the problem, I had to take myself off into my room just to give us some space and for me to reflect on what had happened.
Chelsea then started to destroy her room, taking marker pens and writing cruel comments about myself on her wall. She drew a dead flower and in a speech bubble said it was dead because I’d looked at it. One day I must have made her bed back up for her 40 times, she just kept on pulling it apart, and then there was the occasion when she pours talcum powder all over her room – it was just everywhere!
In the evenings, her verbally aggressive behaviour would stop, but was replaced by something far more heartbreaking. She would curl up in a ball and simply sob, saying how she couldn’t come back from this, I’d explain to her that she didn’t need to come back from anywhere – that she was already here.
I again called Fostering People, I burst into tears on the phone and straight away even though it was the Christmas Break a social worker came out to see us and spent a couple of hours with us and Chelsea. This really helped to put me back together – but didn’t have an impact on Chelsea’s behaviour which had now got so bad Chelsea was demanding to be put into Emergency Respite.
Using PACE, I kept reminding her that we were not going to do that, that we weren’t going to give up on her.
The turning point came when Chelsea threatened to break something in the house to force herself into emergency respite, again I told Chelsea that breaking something wouldn’t make me send her away. But Jessica, her younger sister was in distress at this, she was clinging to me, sobbing.
Chelsea walked off into another room and my son followed her. I could her him, being very calm with Chelsea but he was firm, asking her ‘What are you doing, really what are you doing?’
From that point onwards her behaviour simply stopped. She realized that we weren’t going to give up on her or her sister”.
This behaviour, along with the very personal, none stop barrage of verbal abuse experienced by Louise could have ended the placement and it’s testament to Louise and Andrew that they were able to work through it. Louise believes this is because they understood that the behaviour was due to the emotional pain Chelsea was suffering, which Christmas had triggered.
“I told Chelsea that her behaviour was understandable, that she used personal comments against me, because she felt safe with me enough to let those feelings out. When she moved in with us, we hadn’t seen any emotion from her at all about her past. Christmas was the trigger that sent all of her hurt and anger to the forefront. She had so much she was trying to process and didn’t know how to communicate it.
There have been many positives as a result of this experience, going through this has made our bond stronger and now Chelsea has found her voice and we have developed strategies to help both Chelsea and Jessica if they have feelings they are struggling to verbalise.
We have a worry tin and the girls can write their concerns and pop them into the tin if they don’t know how to talk about them. Chelsea also writes me little notes when she is struggling with an emotion and pops the note under my bedroom door.
I also use a book which was recommended to me by Fostering People, called A-Z of Theraputic Parenting, which helps you understand what could be the cause of a particular behaviour and gives you practical tips on how to manage it – I’ve found it invaluable ‘go too’”.
Because of Louise’s experience last Christmas, we’ve asked her to share her top tips for new foster parents who are preparing for their first Christmas:
- Provide as many different ways for a child to communicate with you as possible.
- Explain what Christmas is like in your family, don’t expect a foster child to instantly understand what a ‘normal’ family Christmas is like.
- Pick up the phone to Fostering People – they will help you
- Don’t put too much pressure on children to have a good time, let them take Christmas at their own pace.