Helping Children in Foster Care through the Holidays

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Family in Wabasha, Minn.

During the holidays, many people begin to think about how they can give back to their communities. For some, it is through bringing family spirit to kids who can’t be with their own families. Children in foster care may be missing more than their families; living in a home that isn’t their own may mean being away from familiar traditions, routines and food that bring comfort and a sense of belonging.

Where we come from is important. Culture, family and community connections are vital factors in shaping who each of us is as a person. For children in foster care, maintaining connections to each of these factors means better outcomes, improved self-esteem and a better sense of self.

Keeping Cultural Connections Strong for Foster Children

Think about some of your most comforting memories of holidays at home.

Maybe it’s the sound of your favorite holiday music or the aroma of a special meal your family enjoys this time of year. Perhaps it’s the presence of people who are of a similar race and culture, share memories with you and understand your experiences.

For children placed in foster care, suddenly leaving the home they’ve known is an inherently traumatic experience. Understandably, many children whose families are unable to care for them may experience fear, confusion and homesickness in foster care.

The holidays — a time many of us associate with closeness to family — can heighten these feelings of uncertainty and loneliness.

Foster parents can offer support, comfort and a sense of belonging to children during this difficult time by welcoming them into their family’s life and sharing their traditions with them. It is also vital to honor where children come from and help them stay connected to what matters most to them.

Honoring Children’s and Families’ Cultures

The Nelson family fostered, and ultimately adopted, three sisters who came from a culturally different background than their own. They share how they supported the girls in maintaining connections that brought them comfort and helped them retain their cultural identity.

Sisters Janelle (18), Dayanara (16) and Aliha (15) entered foster care in 2018 when their grandmother could no longer care for them as she had been while they were growing up.

Megan Nelson, an LSS Therapeutic Foster Care provider at the time, opened their family’s home to the three girls. Their care became permanent in the fall of 2019, when Megan and her husband adopted the sisters.

The first few months, Megan said, came with adjustments for everyone. Megan and her husband went from a four-person household with their two biological sons to a seven-person household with three girls.

There were also cultural differences. For the girls, authentic Mexican food cooked by their grandmother was a significant part of daily life.

“We’re very Scandinavian — we like hotdish — and the girls are Hispanic,” Megan said. “I knew I would need to work with them to find things they would want to eat and things that would make them feel at home. It was something meaningful we could all do together, and it was a natural progression to them joining our family.”

Embracing Cultural Connections as Foster and Adoptive Parents

Megan tried to recreate some of the girls’ favorite recipes from their grandmother, including pozole — a traditional Mexican soup — and tamales, which involve elaborate preparation.

“We quickly learned that my cooking skills are never going to be close to grandma’s,” Megan said.

Thankfully, the family had a lifeline: the girls were able to maintain contact with their biological family. Their grandma and other relatives offered guidance for cooking the food the sisters grew up with.

Today, Janelle, Dayanara and Aliha each maintain relationships with their biological family that is unique to each girl’s needs and experience. The Nelsons recognize the Hispanic culture plays an integral role in their identity and interests.

Maintaining a relationship with the girls’ biological family, Megan said, empowered Dayanara to uphold her Hispanic identity while easing into life with her adoptive family.

“They get the best of both worlds,” Megan said. “The girls can enjoy their Hispanic culture and partake in it as they want to while simultaneously developing a relationship and comfort level with us. Sometimes when children lose that connection to their biological family, that could mean shutting themselves out from important information and their culture.”

Children grow up to be more resilient when the caregivers in their lives work together. When children in foster care are able to maintain connections with their birth families and community, they are able to better understand their circumstances.

Each family’s situation is different. It is important to work with an organization committed to preserving those connections.

Learning to Celebrate Differences

The holidays celebrated this time of year reflect different spiritual beliefs and practices. Families who care for children whose faith or spirituality is different from their own can honor the child by talking openly about their beliefs and being open to learning about others’ beliefs. It is vital to create a safe place where children can openly talk about their faith and spiritual practices.

Families may discover similarities and differences but honoring and respecting one another’s beliefs is key. Foster parents can help children navigate interfaith spaces by listening and recognizing the role faith and spirituality has in each of our lives.

Foster parents caring for children who grew up in a different culture can cultivate a deeper sense of belonging for the children while helping them maintain a strong connection to their own culture. They may:

  • Ask them about their culture. How do they like to do things in their daily lives? What do they like to eat or listen to?
  • Incorporate foods or music that are familiar to them into your daily routines.
  • Research the values of their culture and the specific challenges they face.
  • Connect with cultural organizations, youth organizations or adults from their community who can serve as role models.
  • Maintain a connection with their biological family, whenever that’s possible.
  • Incorporate books, film and other media that feature characters who represent or reflect them or come from their same cultural background.
  • If you are celebrating with them during the holidays, look for ways you can also incorporate something from their spiritual tradition. Maybe it is lighting candle or bringing them to a faith service of their choosing — or as simple as incorporating food familiar to them in your holiday meal.

In 2019, more than 15,000 children in Minnesota experienced foster care. LSS Therapeutic Foster Care offers comprehensive, strengths-based foster care services – committed to supporting foster care providers as well as the children who rely on them. Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS) needs foster parents of all backgrounds to support children of all backgrounds.

To learn more about providing a safe, stable home for children by becoming an LSS licensed foster care parent, visit our website.