By David Jones*, a residential child care worker
Christmas day in a children’s home can prove an emotionally rewarding and testing time for both the children and staff.
We are acutely aware that the festive atmosphere can risk appearing forced or be too upsetting for some children, and so while it is a fun day in many respects, staff are careful to negotiate it as sensitively as possible.
Some children will be with their own families on the day, while others, whether by choice or not, will be in the home. When there is more than one child it’s easier for everyone to navigate emotionally, but a kid can still become sad or angry at any moment.
One time a child, having opened her presents in rather a subdued mood, suddenly started throwing them around the room in a rage and ran into the garden. She was consoled by staff and did eventually calm down, her mood also eased by the emotional support given her by the other kids. They know that it’s a special day and while most of them wish they were with their families – and know that staff are aware of this too – the sense of camaraderie in the home is very real.
It’s almost like a feeling among the kids of ‘we’re all in this together’ and the family feel engendered is actually heightened. But such flashpoints can also hit staff hard.
“I really felt for him”
Kids will also deal with the day in their own way. One Christmas we had a full house and I spent most of the day with a lad playing computer games in his room. He didn’t want to come downstairs and engage with the other young people, and while he ate his dinner with us all, he said little at the table and returned with me to his room afterwards. I really felt for him even though he appeared to be quite content doing his own thing with me, I don’t know how happy he actually felt.
On one occasion there was only one child in the home and twice during the day he asked me to sit down with him so he could show me his life story book. He pointed out members of his family in photographs, describing their personalities to me and some of the good times he’d shared with them. The book also contained Birthday and Christmas cards from previous years that his family had sent him, plus notes of support and love from his siblings and mum.
Sharing the day with his family in this way both cheered and upset him, as it did me. Initially very quiet he did however gradually relax and enjoy his presents and watching television.
Christmas is a time to reflect on the value of the work
Ten or more years ago, depending on the relationship between the staff member and the child, some workers would invite the child to their home for a few hours on Christmas day. Some kids liked the idea of meeting the worker’s family while others preferred to stay in the home. This is no longer allowed, although it can still happen when there is only one child to look after. The other staff are fine with this and we agree to keep it to ourselves.
The build up to Christmas day is always more emotionally relaxed. The young people write their presents lists and they know that their Christmas allowance ensures they won’t go without. They also enjoy decorating the home with staff and take great pride in doing so.
A former colleague once told me that residential child care workers are “glorified babysitters,” but the times when I’ve paused and reflected on what we try and do with these kids, particularly on Christmas day, couldn’t prove him more wrong.
*Name has been changed