For better or worse, holidays highlight the unique dynamics, traditions and culture of a family. For many, getting together to prepare or share a meal is the centerpiece of holiday traditions. For others, the holiday wouldn’t be complete without the traditional athletic activity, whether everyone gathers in the outdoor air to play or in front of a TV screen to watch.
Whether openly acknowledged or tacitly denied, holiday traditions often include predictable arguments, an annual unpleasant drama and/or the expected misbehavior of one or more family members. Whether these are relatively serious or benign, they are part of the family tradition and, ironically, part of what holds some families together.
All the players know their parts — after all, they play the same roles year after year – but a visitor might feel uncomfortable and confused by the unarticulated history and meaning of a family’s own swirl of dynamics.
For many foster children and youth, holidays often bring feelings of displacement, confusion and being with a family but not of a family. This feeling of being on the outside can be as overwhelming for foster children as an abundance of food gracing a holiday table.
Feelings of unease are just one of the ways that holidays can be emotionally loaded for foster youth, particularly for those who enter the system because of neglect, which is the case for 85 percent of those in care. Many of these children were removed from incredibly chaotic environments where food was often scarce, and actual meals were rare and unpredictable. Parental attention may have been just as scarce and capricious.
Holiday traditions in these families, if they existed at all, are more typically marked by disappointment.
The move to a family with sufficient food served at regular times offers healthy routines that govern waking and sleeping and almost everything in between, which can be a welcome relief. But it can also create for foster children a painful awareness of what has been missing from their lives.
Shifting into an environment that is relatively stable, in which positive actions or feelings bring smiles or praise and misbehavior elicits appropriate disapproval and/or consequences, can be a surprisingly difficult adjustment for children who have known only chaos and unpredictability.
The holidays often add to this already complicated mix by evoking internal states of excitement, confusion and vulnerability as a child or teen ventures to hope for a special gift or nurtures the even more dangerous wish to feel a part of the family.
The experience of belonging is our heartfelt holiday wish for all foster youth.
Toni Heineman is the founder and executive director of A Home Within, which connects children in foster care with high-quality psychotherapy services.