Children generally seem to like knowing what’s going to happen and what they’re going to be doing next. It’s a reassuring knowledge that takes away some of their uncertainty and helps quieten their anxieties.
But for our children, it can be much more than that. The changes and lack of structure in their early lives can give them a dread of the unknown. The anxiety can be overpowering; the need to know can be desperate.
It was a lesson we fully took on board from our preparation group. In the first few weeks of our placement, we took great care to explain exactly what we were going to do and when, and then made sure we did what we said we were going to do.
We stuck to the same routines day after day; we used a calendar to run through the weekly plan; we signposted unusual events, such as a visit from a relative or going to a different park, well in advance.
In short, we did everything we could to provide a consistent, predictable, even a boring, routine.
But one day we were completely thrown when we realised we had slipped up in an area we had never even thought about.
I was brought up a Christian and my husband a Muslim, so when a social worker was looking for a match for two boys born to a Christian/Muslim couple we must have seemed like a good fit.
Even though we are now both atheists, we made all the right noises about bringing the boys up with a knowledge of both faiths and respecting religious traditions, etc., etc. (This was all entirely sincere, by the way, and is something we have stuck too, almost religiously.)
So when Eid fell shortly after they were placed with us, it seemed a good idea to make a bit of a fuss about it and take them out for a meal to celebrate.
That all seemed to go well, the boys got a taste of Muslim tradition, probably their first, and everything appeared to be on track.
Next stop was Christmas, an occasion that, as a couple, we had always made a song and dance about (despite our lack of religious belief).
Everything seemed to be fine, until one day a month or so before Christmas, our eldest’s Year 1 teacher called me over after school.
They had been discussing Christmas in class, she said, when she’d noticed that, as the discussion went on, he had started looking more and more distressed, until he was practically in tears.
She had asked him what was wrong, and after much prodding, he’d said that his family celebrated Eid, and he didn’t know whether they celebrated Christmas at all.
His foster carer had made a big fuss about Christmas, with lots of presents and a visit to Santa, and he was worried that in his new home there would be no Christmas, no Santa and no presents.
He hadn’t wanted to say anything to us in case it upset us, but at school he couldn’t hold back the waves of anxiety.
It almost broke our hearts. I’ve always loved Christmas; my husband has grown to love it too; we make a big deal out of it… it had never occurred to us that our boys wouldn’t know that.
We had been focusing on the everyday details, making sure they knew what was coming next, but we had neglected the wider picture, and failed to spot the mounting fear that there would be no Christmas for him this year.
We have gone on to have four amazing Christmases and are now gearing up for our fifth but, as well as being a time to celebrate, for us Christmas is a reminder of what happens when you think you’ve got it all under control.