The Challenge of the Holidays for Youth in Residential Care

Authored by: Denise Pilz, Executive Director

‘Tis the season for celebration, joy and reflection of the great experiences we have had over the past year. Many of us are already making holiday plans, buying presents, baking cookies and penning holiday cards to send to all of our family and friends. For many children and families, this time of year’s hustle and bustle is a normal part of life. But for children in residential care, the experience will be very different. Some children and families will not be able to spend time together during the holidays and this sparks a lot of emotion – sadness, depression, low self-worth and loneliness. Working in this field for over 27 years I have seen the impact of the holidays on children who have challenging family circumstances and my colleagues and I are always talking about ways to make this time of year as comforting as possible for those children. What is most difficult for the children who cannot go home for the holidays is seeing the children who can go home, leave and then return with gifts and stories of how much fun they had while away. Or in the worst case scenario, there may not even be any family to go to. As difficult as this is for the children, our staff to experience and for you to read, there are ways that children can be supported during this challenging time of year:

  • Validate feelings – children need to understand that what they are feeling is real and that yeah, it sucks.
  • Find ways to maintain family connections – if possible, facilitate a phone call or FaceTime with family. If that cannot happen, allow the child to make a holiday card or gift for their parents/family and ensure it gets to them.
  • Make their current environment festive – allow children to choose the holiday decorations they want to see displayed in their room, common areas, etc. 
  • Plan a holiday dinner and activities with the children.
  • Be aware of and check emotions regularly – expect moments of sadness and allow for that expression.
  • Use art as a way for children to express emotions they cannot talk about.
  • And finally – presents! It is the holidays after all and as much as we don’t want to promote materialistic things as the key to happiness, children associate the holidays with gifts so a few nice things will go a long way without giving the wrong message.

My guess is that many of you reading this do not work in a residential setting so you may be asking, “What can I do to help?” Just asking the question is the first step and here are some suggestions for you to consider:

  • If you know a child who is not with their family for the holidays, reach out and to just say “Hi”. Any connections a child has during this time is important so don’t minimize the positive impact you could have by just picking up the phone.
  • Donate gifts or money to an organization that helps children who may not be able to go home for the holidays.
  • Volunteer during the holiday season at a social service organization.  
  • Hold a holiday gift drive at your school, place of business, church, etc.

Most importantly, find ways throughout the year to connect with children who have limited family interactions. Sometimes these connections become life-long and will make the biggest impact in the life of a child. Connections matter.

Happy Holidays to All!