Kris’ Corner – Holidays and Birthdays Are Not Always Joyful

January 13, 2021

I already discussed how holidays can look with the addition of (or at least acknowledgement of) biological parents and the inclusion of foster children in the foster family festivities. But, we still have a whole year of other holidays and birthdays in front of us. So, I thought I’d take a minute and talk about what those days are like for kids in foster care.

While holidays and birthdays are typically joyful and full of fun, they can trigger a memory of pain, loss, and separation for kids with trauma history.

These events can bring up memories of past events and lead them down the path of wondering what things would be like if they were celebrating with their biological family, even for kids who were young at the time of removal and have no actual memories. The child still might fantasize about what those times would have been like.

And these thoughts and memories can manifest and take hold of the child in several different ways. It may look like anger, or all-out rage. And this anger might be about things that actually took place (trauma, abuse or neglect), or may be about things he believes SHOULD or  COULD have taken place…if he only got to remain with his biological family.

In some children, the feelings they experience during holidays or birthdays may look like deep sadness or depression. Memories and fantasies about holidays and birthdays versus what they are now, or may be in the future, is difficult for a child to process. So, he is often left with the feeling of deep loss.

Other children may be managing it silently and internally processing the situation. On the outside, they may appear to be happy and engaged; but on the inside, the experience is emotionally eating away at them. Which brings me to this little reminder: if a foster child is not visibly triggered by birthdays or the holidays on some level, more often than not they are struggling on the inside.

Each one of these events, in their own way and for their own reasons, can niggle at the trauma that is always right there, just below the surface. And they are reminders of what used to be and what is not anymore, at least in the present time. They can awaken a child to the realization that he is not necessarily a permanent fixture in the current living situation, and that permanence might also not come from his biological parents either. And on top of that, quite possibly in a year’s time, a birthday or holiday may look different again…with different people, a different house and different traditions.

Can you even pause for a moment and fathom how that would feel to you as an adult, let alone how it must feel to a child?

So that said, please know that each one of these coping mechanisms listed above assists the child as he deals with the stressful situation; and they are helpful for foster parents to consider when confronted with any (or all) of these responses from your foster child on a day you expected would be a happy one.