Christmas in residential care: It doesn’t need to be the most wonderful time of the year

Dec 2022

Written by Alex Novak

Christmas is a time of joy and celebration for many Australians, but it can also bring pressure and unrealistic expectations. The shops are decorated, Christmas songs are everywhere, and cheesy ads show happy families celebrating. However, for young people in residential care, these seemingly innocuous things can be a blunt reminder of their own challenging situations and experiences, triggering big emotions and behaviours. As residential care workers, we want to help characterise Christmas as a time of sharing joy safely, but this takes time and consideration for the needs and experiences of each young person living in the house.

No two young people have the same experience of Christmas, but in residential care there can be a wide range of positive and negative experiences to consider. Some young people may associate Christmas with tense relationships, violent experiences, rare quality time with beloved family members, or certain games and traditions that can’t be replicated in residential care. Grief can trigger big feelings, sometimes of rejection and shame, which can result in some big pain-based behaviours that can be challenging for young people, for their housemates, and for carers to support.

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How can we balance the needs, experiences, and meaning of Christmas for multiple young people?

Ask young people what they want to do, don’t guess

What does this time of year represent for each young person in the house? We can use Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy to sensitively talk with young people about what this time of year brings up for them. Let’s have these conversations, rather than avoid them, or else provide opportunities for these feelings to be expressed in other ways (e.g. art, journaling, music-making etc.). Ask young people how they wish to spend Christmas and use that to create space and opportunity to promote fun play.

Validate feelings, and check in with your own expectations

Validate any feelings about Christmas that young people may share – both positive and difficult ones. For some young people it’s important to acknowledge it is a difficult time of year, and yes, maybe it does suck, but we are here to listen and understand. We also need to reflect on how we support young people’s perceptions of Christmas that may conflict with our own views. We must resist the urge to ‘rescue’ young people by pressuring them to engage in festivities, no matter how heart-breaking it may feel when they say no.

Support young people as individuals and together as they need

It’s our job to make sure we support Christmas to be as close to what young people want as possible, particularly in residential houses where some young people may be excited to be involved while others feel overwhelmed by hurt. This may include thinking about which areas in the house can be decorated while common areas could remain ‘Christmas-free’, or planning activities that are easy for each young person to buy-in or opt-out of. It’s important to respect that not all young people will want to celebrate Christmas.

Collaborating with young people to agree on a checklist of Christmas activities and traditions can give them agency and power to plan for what will be occurring around them, especially if they plan not to participate. This also creates a space where young people can talk about Christmas memories, what is important to them and what hurts, which deepens our understanding of what it has been like for them and how we can provide trauma-informed responses.

Anticipate challenging emotions and behaviour, and how to respond

Some young people may seek to damage, isolate themselves from, or disrupt Christmas in the house – many of us have seen our fair share of toppled Christmas trees. The lights, music, and visual stimulation of Christmas may be too much for some, and when outside the norm of their own experiences, Christmas may be perceived as a threat that raises an internal warning to tread with caution or externally react. Many young people in residential care may feel unworthy or undeserving of all the fuss and attention provided by carers at Christmas, making these interactions overwhelming or even frustrating.

When we see behaviour we find surprising or difficult, we must remember that this is a young person trying to make sense of their world and we can’t place expectations on them around how to react. We need to keep ourselves regulated in order to share our calm, and to model the intention of kindness. We show acceptance and understanding of young people’s situation by acknowledging their feelings, listening actively, and creating some space away from the festivities for them to take breaks as needed. We must walk alongside and take it at their pace, a pace where they can feel an element of control in an environment that is so far out of their control.

Support young people when the festivities are over

Expectations of Christmas don’t always match up to the reality. While some young people may get to have time with their families, it doesn’t always go to plan. A family argument or a forgotten gift can be traumatic, so additional support needs to be ready for when things do go wrong. Even when things go wonderfully, this too can be a painful experience that resurfaces feelings of grief and loss. Taking time to debrief with young people and making ourselves available to them in the lead-up, during, and after emotionally complex events is vital to supporting their ability to regulate.

Finally, with these complexities and challenges that is Christmas in residential care, we need to remember to find the time to look after ourselves. We give so much of ourselves to this role, a role we put our heart into, that sometimes we need give to ourselves the gift of doing what’s important for us. Have fun through play, show kindness and in turn, modelling this to young people can be one of the most valuable gifts you offer them this Christmas.

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