The mere mention of “the holidays” triggers a beautiful response in most of our minds.
Memories start to flow….of picking out a tree, of hanging ornaments, of Christmas parties with delightful little sugar cookies, of caroling out-of-tune to neighbors, of long days spent with family and friends, of the early Christmas morning scramble to open the long-anticipated gifts.
For adopted or fostered children, however, the holidays triggers a stress response. We want them to grow to enjoy the beauty and fun of the festivities, but we must be gentle, patient, and fully aware and prepared for the possible reactions and struggles brought on by the holiday season.
Here’s SIX ways we can help keep the holidays stress-free for adopted or fostered children:
- Simplify whenever possible. For these children, bigger isn’t always better. It’s tempting to want to “make up” the holidays they’ve lost in the past. We really, really want them to enjoy EVERYTHING. But the ugly truth is that holidays trigger stress for trauma kids. So whenever possible, simplify. Don’t over-build the excitement in advance–instead, stay matter-of-fact about any special events. (Sometimes it’s best to not even mention big days too early.) The bigger deal you make about the holidays, the more “pressure to perform” your child feels, and the more they may begin to act out. For at least the first year or two, keep things very simple.
- Just say NO to changes in sleep or food routines. Staying-up-til-midnight-on-Christmas-Eve-while-eating-junk-food may be your favorite family tradition, but with a newly fostered or adopted child, healthy food and good sleep are absolute essentials. Grandma may be used to keeping all the grandkids overnight during the holidays, but your child needs as little change as possible in order to not over-stress during the holidays, so you may need to gently say “no” to anything that will drastically change the sleep or food routines for your child.
- Keep gifts “fair”. My younger adopted girls have never struggled with this, but “fairness” is a huge trigger for older adopted children. I don’t know if it’s that life has just been so “unfair” for them, if it’s the insecurity of joining an already established family (“Do you love you so-and-so MORE than you love ME?”), or if it’s just a trauma behavior formed from years of institutionalized living, but whatever the reason, your child is keeping track of the gifts at Christmas. 🙂 Be fair and even when passing out gifts, and be very clear in advance if a gift is a “shared” gift (like a family game or puzzle).
- Expect unusual reactions to Christmas gifts. Remember that pressure to perform I mentioned earlier? Your child may feel uncomfortable and react VERY unusually when they’re receiving (or giving) gifts. I’ve seen or heard of everything from tears to jealousy to anger, from “I don’t like this” while handing it back to us, to collecting all the gifts and hoarding them on their bed for literally months. All of these responses are normal and need to be met with a reassuring, non-angry parental response. That gift that you saved and searched for? It may lay untouched because the emotional pressure was too high for the child to fully enjoy it. Buying gifts for others may also be extremely stressful. Prepare for unusual reactions to Christmas gifts, and reassure your child that their feelings are acceptable.
- Have a safety plan in place if the holidays lead to meltdowns or rages. Even if your child seems to be doing great, please talk with your spouse and children about the possibility of extra behaviors during the month of December. Being prepared emotionally and physically for the real possibility of your child acting out will go far in helping you not over-react if and when it happens. Put a safety plan in place so you can effectively manage your other children. Don’t take it personally (How dare you act like that after all I’ve done for you??!!) when your child struggles. This is another opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Gentle acceptance and guidance is the key here.
- Look for creative ways to communicate with your child about their feelings. Knowing when and how to help your child “air” their emotions is a delicate art. (One that I messed up on frequently the first couple of years!) Sometimes talking too “big” causes panic in a child, so keep track of their reaction to those deeper conversations. At the same time, great healing can take place as your child works through their grief and loss during the holidays. Looking at you during these conversations may be too much for your child, so consider talking while doing something your child enjoys, like taking a walk or creating an art project. Tread carefully, but don’t be afraid to gently discuss their feelings and see if it helps.
- Find little ways to connect with your child over the holidays. Parties, large gift exchanges, big family traditions, and overnight stays at Grandma’s house may prove too much, but there are still so many ways to connect with your child! Do a puzzle together, play an old fashioned game of hide-and-seek, snuggle together and watch a family movie, or cook a meal from your child’s birth country (if that applies). Embrace the little memories over the holidays and create new family traditions that include your adopted child.
How about you? What have you found helpful for keeping holidays stress-free for your adopted children? Please share in the comments below or on the Perspectives in Parenting Facebook page!