The holidays are supposed to be the best time of the year, right? Most of us have wonderful memories of past holiday celebrations – brightly decorated Christmas trees, the lighting of the menorah candles, Christmas eve midnight mass, and fun times with family and friends.
Yet, we know some people who don’t enjoy the holidays so much. Grandma gets a little melancholy right after Thanksgiving, ever since Grandpa passed. And we wonder why Uncle Joe drinks too much when we get together for Christmas. The month of December can bring about some sad feelings for those grieving for a loved one who has passed or experienced a terrible loss, particularly around the holidays.
Yet we don’t always realize the same sadness can apply to children. We expect children to have fun and look forward to the holidays with happy anticipation. We assume they are always resilient and able to easily forget and overcome difficult experiences when Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah arrive.
Instead of enjoying festivities, they are often struggling with fear, grief and loss with those feelings manifested in tantrums, outbursts, disrespect, and defiance.
To begin with, any child who has lost his family of origin, cannot help but continue to think about them. It seems every other family is “normal” and happy and having fun together. The foster child knows his life is far from fun right now. He misses his family the all the things they did together at Christmas time and the special foods they ate. The adopted child can’t help but think about what her birth family is doing now and wonders if they are missing her. She may worry how her mom is and hopes she is okay and not lonely without her.
Adopted children also experience guilt for loving their adoptive parents and enjoying the life they now live. They have a pervasive fear they could lose the things they have and their new family. After all, if the first mommy and daddy went away (and other parents if they have been in foster care), what’s to keep this mommy and daddy from going away or getting rid of them too?
Finally, any child can become easily overwhelmed with all the activity and busyness of the season and end up in a meltdown from fatigue or too much sugar. But for children who have experienced trauma and loss early in their life, they become easily dysregulated and inevitably resort to blow-ups. A child with a traumatized brain can only handle so much activity and excitement before she becomes overloaded and experiences a breakdown.
If you have an adopted or foster child in your home and experienced difficult holidays in the past, you might be wondering how to be prepared this season. And if you are a relative or friend of an adoptive or foster family, you can learn how to better support your loved ones.
1. Expect that children are going to have a difficult time. Acknowledging that they experience grief and loss and are affected by a traumatic past will help you to be prepared for the inevitable emotional outbursts.
2. Lower your expectations. Put a limit on activities. Kids may not be able to handle big Christmas parties or noisy family gatherings without becoming dysregulated. Choose a few special activities for the season and focus more on quiet family bonding time.
3. Keep up with your normal routines as much as possible. While the holidays are a fun break from the typical routines, schedules help a traumatized child to feel safe and secure because they know what to expect.
4. Don’t force your child to participate in an activity if they are uncomfortable or insist he spend time with a relative or neighbor if he doesn’t know them well. If he seems afraid, spend time helping him to feel safe again. It’s not rebellion when a traumatized child is triggered into a rage by something or someone that reminds them of something fearful in their past.
5. Redirect their wild or disrespectful behavior before they have a meltdown. If she does end up in a meltdown, remove her from the situation and give her the opportunity to work out her emotions. Ask her what she help her to figure it out. Be the safe person by using a calm tone without injecting judgment or anger or shame.
6. Limit the number of gifts you give your children and ask your family to as well. Don’t use gifts to fill the hole in their heart due to the loss in their lives. Some children equate things or performance with worth. Instead, give meaningful gifts that help your children to feel safe or facilitate permanence – a picture of you as a family or even of their family of origin. Or give experiences like a zoo membership, enrollment in a dance or art class, or a magazine subscription.
7. Create new family traditions. Baking cookies facilitates cooperation and together time. Participating in Advent readings or Jesse tree shares your faith with your child and helps grow theirs. Take family pictures every year in ugly Christmas sweaters. Share a special treat reserved just for Christmas morning or Hanukkah. These traditions build the bonds of family and attachment.
Over time and with experience, the holidays can be less of a source of pain and stress for adoptive and foster families. With each year, your children will grow in attachment and bonding. Keep at it – you’ll build new positive memories and help your children to heal from the past.