‘Tis the Season to be Jolly’ – but not for everyone
Written by Noel Macnamara
It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the fun and happiness of Christmas and forget that, for others, the season isn’t necessarily a joyful one. For some the young people in the ITC system, Christmas has not been a happy time and can bring back difficult memories. Arguments, violence or aggression in the home, strangers or police coming to the house, parents sleeping through Christmas to sleep off the effects of alcohol or drugs, getting no presents or presents going missing, no food and so on. Currently, they may be separated from and unable to see family members and siblings.
Luckily ITC staff are in a strong position to support the young people through what is a stressful period for many young people. Ignoring or failing to acknowledge the feelings of loss that inevitably emerge for young people during the Christmas holidays is a poor strategy and one that may actually increase acting out and behaviour problems. Instead, ITC workers would be well-advised to employ a calm, supportive stance and to acknowledge the feelings of loss that accompany any special time spent in residential care.
Do not let your own sense of helplessness prevent you from attempting to connect
Overwhelmed by feelings they may not be able to understand or have the language to explain, young people in your ITC service during Christmas may appear unapproachable, inconsolable, or even out of control. Accept your inability to “fix” or take away the pain as a natural part of your interactions and extend yourself anyway. Validate feelings – young people need to understand that what they are feeling is real and that yes, it does suck.
Expect to have to tolerate strong emotions/reactions
Resist the impulse to dampen their emotional responses (acting dangerously is different). One of the most difficult things for some young people is that they really don’t know how to respond to receiving presents – they can get really angry and throw them back at you or refuse to take them. They can run to their room and hide them, or they will break them. They may try to take or damage other people’s presents.
Some young people will go to any lengths to avoid the actual day. They may want to spend all day on their phones in their bedroom. Refusing all your efforts to get them to join-in or have lunch.
This can be incredibly hurtful for staff who may have gone to lots of trouble to make a really nice day (perhaps at the cost of their own families). However, the young people are entitled to a full range of emotions as they struggle to traverse the bumpy terrains of the Christmas period. We want to assist the young person to remain within their Window of Tolerance. See this video for an explanation of the Window of Tolerance
It is important not to personalise the hostile reactions the young people may deploy or project upon you as their carers who are stand-ins for absent parents or missed family members.
Recognise the value of therapeutic presence
In an effort to assist distressed or upset young people, ITC staff may rush into a problem-solving mode when no solution may exist. Instead of trying to “rescue” distressed young people, offer “the gift of presence.” This takes enormous bravery and determination—especially for less-experienced staff—but its value can be profound: “Don’t just do something; be there!”
Do not push your own religious/spiritual/cultural/philosophical beliefs on the young people
Unwanted requests to attend religious services and other ideological platitudes are unlikely to soothe young people who are not so inclined. Take your cues from the young people: if they are requesting spiritual connections, provide it. Otherwise, well-intentioned efforts may be interpreted as insensitive, and young people will feel even more alienated than is already the case.
Do not encourage silence, avoidance, isolation, or repression
Given the fact that the enforced togetherness of holidays can be stressful for some young people, allowing them to spend some time by themselves is reasonable. But, be attentive to isolation and silence. Do not be afraid to bring up the topic of loss and its impact. Invite young people to talk about how they feel. Many may not be ready, willing, or able to discuss their feelings, but giving them permission to do so is powerful. Provide opportunities for nonverbal expression like art, journaling, scrapbooking or music-making.
Facilitate therapeutic rituals
Ritual is defined as “symbolic behaviour that develops in groups and is repeated ‘for its own sake’ because of the meaning and satisfaction that participants get out of it”. Rituals give symbolic expression to thoughts and feelings young people may be unable to articulate. Plant a tree, light a candle, write a letter, make a Christmas T-shirt and/or release a balloon. There are so many other ideas. Involve the young people in deciding and planning the rituals.
Adequate self-care ensures greater calm and clear thinking—a bonus for both you and the young people in your care. ITC staff endure a considerable amount of physical and emotional stress as they carry out their daily duties. Self-care is frequently neglected, compromising youth workers’ ability to remain effective.
Do the things that you know are good for you. Always remember have some fun!
Though staff in the ITC system may find solace in the oft-quoted aphorism “Christmas comes but once a year,” the calendar foretells its coming. It is foreseeable, so preparations can be made in advance. That some young people may find the Christmas to be unhappy is perhaps unavoidable, but that does not mean that stress and chaos cannot be minimised. The Christmas season, in fact, presents an opportunity for staff to support and assist the young people in regulating themselves and processing issues of loss and disappointment as well as hope.
All of the staff at CETC wish you all a Merry Christmas and very Happy New Year.