Thanksgiving, as the name would suggest, is a natural time to reflect on the things we are thankful for. Oftentimes, families will gather around a dining room table and name these out loud, expressing gratitude to each other. However, for youth in foster care, this may not come naturally, or at all.
“During holidays, we as Americans who consume a lot of media, are ‘expected’ to be feeling joyful, happy, and thankful,” says Kealey Roach, Trauma Informed Clinician at FosterAdopt Connect. “We are flooded with imagery (movies, TV, commercials, and social media) of being surrounded by loving and super-attractive family, fancy food, and expensive gifts. But, for children in care, divided or conflicting loyalties and broken promises and dreams can make it a very painful time.”
Roach elaborates that youth in foster care often experience loneliness, sadness, and vulnerability at a time when they are societally meant to feel something entirely different. Thanksgiving can be a dysregulating and triggering time for them, and even if they are thankful for a warm home, a loving foster family, and a break from the chaos they may have come from, they may not be able to feel it fully, let alone express it. She says that even asking them what they are thankful for could be a distressing experience.
“They might benefit from some coaching on what to be thankful for,” she says. “I often talk about ‘praise for doing’ vs. ‘praise for being’.” If we can talk about what people, youth in care or others, do (set the table, make the meal, help with chores) it is much easier for them to accept and believe than “praise for being” (you are helpful, you are a talented cook, you are so smart).”
“This shows them ‘I can be thankful that someone made me some mac and cheese yet still miss my family,’” she continues. “’And I can still feel that people are validating my feelings (sad, lonely, angry, hurt).’ Discussing this with kids in a time when they feel safe and regulated before Thanksgiving might make answering the question ‘What are you thankful for?’ a little easier to handle.”
If you are a foster parent, you may notice that the kids you are caring for aren’t quick to say thank you, which can come off as ungrateful. But this is likely rooted in trauma, and they may just be in survival mode trying to make it through the holiday. Roach says that there are some simple ways that can make Thanksgiving, and other holidays, easier to handle for youth in foster care. “Make holiday schedules and traditions clear and predictable,” she says. “Be curious, ask them what holidays have been like for them in the past. Do your best to understand and validate all feelings, especially the unexpected ones. Help them let go of the expectations and the ‘should’ around their emotions.”
This Thanksgiving, we at FosterAdopt Connect are grateful for the foster parents everywhere who have welcomed youth into their lives. If you are interested in learning more about foster care or becoming a foster parent yourself, click here.