Mental Health Topics

Celebrating Birthdays

For most children, birthdays are happy occasions shared with family and friends. But for children in foster care, birthdays can be a painful reminder of the family they’re no longer with.

Foster children may experience their birthday as just another loss. They may feel angry and resentful that they can’t be with their families like other children. They may “act out,” or become overwhelmed with grief and sadness. And some foster children may be confused about birthday celebrations because they’ve never had one before.

But birthdays can be a special and positive experience for your foster child, as long as you acknowledge the child’s feeling and reassure him that those feelings are normal. And birthdays can also be an opportunity to help a child feel special and loved.

What you can do to help:

Find out how the child’s birth family celebrated birthdays and include the best ideas in your celebration. If the child recalls negative memories— or no birthday celebrations at all — create new, better memories.

  • Base the celebration around something your foster child likes. Pick a theme for the cake, decorations, and hats (like Spiderman, Dora the Explorer, etc.).
  • Make a crown the child can wear to celebrate his special day.
  • Take photographs of the child as he blows out the candles and opens his gifts.
  • Let the child sit at the head of the table for the day.
  • Tell the child he can pick whatever he wants for dinner. Let the child plan the special birthday dinner with you well in advance of the big day.
  • Let your foster child choose a special activity for the day — like going to the zoo, the park, or a favorite restaurant.
  • Make the child’s birthday a “no chores” day.
  • Give the child a gift that represents his birth heritage, like something that symbolizes the country, state, or city he was born in.
  • Help your foster child write or draw something in a journal about his birth family and past birthday celebrations.
  • If appropriate, try to arrange for the child to talk by telephone with his birth parents and siblings on his birthday.
  • Make sure you celebrate your foster child’s birthday in the same way you’d celebrate your own child’s birthday. Don’t reserve more expensive gifts or parties for your biological children.

Recognize that you can’t make up for everything your foster child isn’t experiencing because he isn’t with his birth family. Don’t put pressure on yourself to give the child his “best birthday ever.” Even with the best effort, most foster children will experience some sadness during birthdays. It’s not because you’re doing anything wrong. It’s just because they miss their family.

Handling the Holidays

Holidays may be a happy time for you and your family, but they don’t necessarily mean the same thing for your foster child. Grief about not being with birth families and memories of past holidays can be very difficult for foster children. They may worry about their birth parents and wonder how they are celebrating the holidays. If they’ve been separated from siblings, they may feel and intense longing to be with them during the holidays. They may feel angry that they’ve lost the comfort and predictability of holiday traditions in their own family. Even if foster children do enjoy the holidays, they may feel they’re betraying their birth parents by having fun with you.

The combination of these emotions can overwhelm children. They might be more anxious, misbehave more often, or become more withdrawn – all of which can be hard on you, especially if you’re feeling holiday stress.

What you can do to help:

  • Take the time to explain to the child why you do certain holiday routines and traditions.
  • Ask the child what she remembers about food, music, parties, and other holiday traditions in her birth family. If the child can’t talk about it, have her draw pictures, and save the drawings in a special scrapbook. Always remember not to push your foster child to talk about her birth family. She’ll share when she’s ready to do so.
  • Be open to including traditions from the child’s birth home in your own family traditions. Encourage the child and other children in your home to develop new traditions they can share and carry out together.
  • Buy a special ornament or holiday symbol that represents the child’s family or heritage. Have the child select the item herself.
  • Make a memory box with items from the child’s birth home, or things that represent good memories about home.
  • Give a journal to an older child or adolescent in which she can write her feelings or memories about the holidays.
  • If your foster child wants to give a gift to her birth parents, help her plan what she wants to do. Sometimes it can be therapeutic for a child to make a homemade gift for a parent. Find a project that is appropriate for the child’s skills. Things like simple scrapbooks or decorated photo frames can be fun to make—and to give.
  • If your foster child wants to send a holiday card to her birth parent(s), help her pick one out. Ask the child if she’d like to write a note in the card, and offer to help with things like spelling. Ask if she’d also like to send cards to her siblings.
  • If appropriate, try to arrange in advance to have the child talk with her birth parents and/or siblings by telephone during the holiday.
  • Big family gatherings can be hard on foster children if they haven’t met your extended family. Try to introduce your foster child to family members before the main holiday event. If that isn’t possible, try showing pictures of family members to the child and go through their names before the party.

Try to stay relaxed and calm during what is often a stressful time of year. Say no to the temptation to do “just one more thing.” Some of the best memories for children are of simple things, like listening to holiday music, watching holiday movies, making cookies, and putting up decorations.

Visits with Birth Parents

It’s normal for children who have been removed from their homes to have strong reactions to visits with their birth parents. The separation process is difficult and children may have different feelings before, during and after a visit. Some of those feelings include:

  • Happiness and relief about seeing birth parents.
  • Confusion, especially about why he can’t go home with his birth parents.
  • Sadness or anger about being separated from his birth family.
  • Anger toward his birth parents for the abuse or neglect that resulted in the child being removed from his home.
  • Guilt that being taken away from his family was his fault, and fear that his birth parents will be angry with him for this.
  • Worry about whether his birth parents, siblings, or other family members are OK.
  • Worry that saying anything positive about his foster family means that he’s being disloyal to his own family.
  • Fear that he’ll be hurt in some way during the visit.
  • Anger or sadness about returning to the foster home when the visit ends.
  • Feeling “out of control” because of all the mixed-up emotions he has about seeing his birth parents.

Most children don’t put these feelings into words. Instead, their behaviors reflect what they’re feeling. Here are some of the ways that a child may act:

  • Behaves as though she’s much younger (whining, demanding, clingy, scared of everything).
  • Pretends that everything is fine or denies that she feels anything at all.
  • Irritable or angry.
  • Overactive, aggressive.
  • Complains of a stomachache, headache, feeling sick, etc.

Start a tradition of doing something special after a visit with birth parents. Go get ice cream, go for a walk, take a drive – anything that gives the child time to talk about the visit and relax.

Healing Through Humor

Humor is one of the most powerful tools for healing from trauma. It’s a simply way to counter pain. Humor can provide relief and distraction it can make life feel more ordinary again. It can immediately relax a tense, anxious body and it can help children and adolescents understand that there IS joy after trauma. Humor is not healing when it is sarcastic, unkind, or dismissive of the trauma a child has experienced. And humor can’t be forced. You can’t tell a child to “put on a happy face” or make a child laugh when he doesn’t want to. The result will usually be the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve: the child will feel his pain instead of being taken seriously and may feel even sadder and more alone.

What you can do to help a child “just have fun:”

  • Watch funny movies or TV shows.
  • Play lively games that require active involvement, like Pictionary or charades.
  • Dance around the house with the music turned up.
  • Have a puppet show.
  • Take a bike ride together.
  • Sing together.
  • Play dress-up with old clothes and jewelry.
  • Play with a pet or walk the dog together.
  • Take a trip to an amusement park.
  • Read joke and riddle books together.
  • Share bedtime stories.
  • Make funny faces.
  • Color together.
  • Go to a playground together.
  • Play card games like “Go Fish” or “Uno.”
  • Learn a new computer game together.
  • Make a snowman.
  • Do a craft project together.
  • Go to the beach.
  • Have a hot-fudge sundae night.
  • Cook or bake together.
  • Go to a local sports event, like a PawSox or Little League game.
  • “Waste time” and do nothing; it can be a fun and much needed break from routines and responsibilities.
  • Do anything else you and the child think is fun.

Healthy humor is kind and wise. And when your foster child is able to forget about his pain for a while and just have fun, be ready to join in.