How the Holidays Hurt Adopted and Foster Children

7 Practical Tips to Help During the Holiday Season


Picture courtesy of Viktor Hanacek/picjumbo

Picture courtesy of Viktor Hanacek/picjumbo

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.

Picture courtesy of Viktor Hanacek/picjumbo

Picture courtesy of Viktor Hanacek/picjumbo


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.

Picture courtesy of Viktor Hanacek/picjumbo

Picture courtesy of Viktor Hanacek/picjumbo

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.



Do Children Really Need Families?


Half of families with children experience a divorce and of parents that remarry, half of those marriages end in another divorce. One-third of kids lives apart from their biological father. Sometimes these children suffer by becoming latchkey kids, shuffled between homes, spending significant time in daycare or after school programs, and the absent is parent emotionally and/or physically checked out.


There are over 400,000 kids in foster care in the U.S. due to neglect or abuse. Only 28% are placed with a relative, the rest are in foster homes, group homes, or institutionalized. More than half of foster children were out of their home for a year or more. Over 100,000 kids are currently available and waiting to be adopted. Sadly, each year 20,000 kids age out of the foster care system without having been adopted. This means they effectively have no home, no family, and no support system.


Many more kids live in severely dysfunctional homes with parents struggling with poverty, addictions, or serious mental health problems. Some people think kids raised in dysfunctional homes or by welfare moms should be removed and their parents don’t deserve to raise their children.


Parents are perpetrators of 80% of abuse cases. Those who are abused as children experience dramatically higher rates of mental illness, imprisonment, addiction, and teen pregnancy. It’s estimated one-third of abused kids grow up to abuse their own children, continuing the cycle.


It begs the question, do children really need a family? Aren’t kids at a greater risk of abuse and neglect within their family of origin? Would we as a society be better off raising children with professional caregivers who have been trained, licensed, and appropriately vetted? Children could be virtually guaranteed to grow up in a system in which they are protected from abuse, abandonment, poverty. Instead, we could ensure children are well educated, fed nutritious foods and not indoctrinated with too fundamentalist ideals. Could this result in less mental illness, lower crime rates, and fewer unplanned pregnancies?




I believe God created the family as the primary means in which to raise children. Children benefit in numerous ways, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, when raised in a family. Assuming the family of origin is reasonably nurturing, safe, and healthy, here are six reasons a child belongs in a family.


  1. To develop an emotional attachment 

A baby learns to bond with their mother (or primary caregiver) through skin-to-skin contact, eye contact, communication with voice, and attention and care. The baby experiences love and learns to reciprocate love. If young children do not receive this kind of attention, they’re at risk of developing an attachment disorder. As the mother responds to the baby’s cues, he learns his needs will be met with diaper changes, feedings when hungry, and soothing when lonely or afraid. A healthy attachment ensures a child feels safe both emotionally and physically. Without it a healthy attachment, a child’s brain development is gravely impacted.


2. To protect them from harm

The primary concern of any parent is keeping their children safe from harm. We naturally want to protect our children. So, a reasonable parent sets boundaries: where a child goes, who they play with and that they’re not left alone. While other adults may share concern for the safety of kids, no one else will be similarly invested or knowledgeable about the child’s needs or know when something is not right with them. A healthy family models appropriate boundaries. They teach their children to evaluate the consequences of risky and dangerous behaviors and to respect themselves.


3. To learn responsibility

In most families, children have chores they are expected to do. When they’re done, they may earn a reward such as an allowance, TV time, or an outing. When they don’t complete the chores, consequences result.

Children learn about the importance of showing up and working hard at a job, making sure healthy food is bought and prepared, and bills are paid on time by watching their parents consistently model this. When parents tie an allowance to completion of chores, use of computers and phones to responsible choices, and teach them how to use a checkbook, credit card, and make a budget, kids learn to become responsible and reliable adults.


4. To develop a sense of morality and spiritual self

As children grow, they learn to value what their parents value. Character is defined by watching parents who exhibit honesty, integrity, respect for their spouse or boss, and persevering through difficult times. As children become adults, they become capable of abstract thinking and reasoning. Thus, they’re able to decide what they believe based on what they’ve first learned at home. When parents make positive values routine, children will adopt the same attitude of virtue.

Children also develop a sense of their spiritual self by how it is modeled at home. A child who has had an abusive or absent father may not reflect a positive view of Father God without some conflict. If parents reflect their own spiritual relationship in a healthy mature way, it will be viewed by children who see their mom reading her Bible early in the morning, or their dad who leads prayers before dinner. Parents who give to others in need – tithes to their church, financial support to charities or missionaries, serving at an animal shelter, packaging care bags for the homeless, building homes in Mexico, and visiting the elderly in nursing homes are modeling the importance of giving and sacrifice.


5. To know they are valuable

Children learn they are treasured and important by their parents spending time with them and caring for their needs. Their silly quirks are tolerated, and their physical or intellectual disabilities are cared for. No one else will be up at 3 am with a sick child or inspect a half-dozen schools to see which one is right for their special needs child. No one else will spend hours researching ADHD or autism to get their daughter assistance.

There will be a village of teachers, counselors, or friends who will also come alongside and help. But at the end of the day, they go home to their own families and houses. Mom and dad are the ones consistently there loving and meeting their little boy’s needs.


6. To create a sense of identity and belonging

A child’s identity begins in infancy. Parents notice a child’s inclinations and can reinforce their love of reading, artistic bent, or tenderness towards other children or animals. When dad enrolls his roughhousing son in football or constantly twirling daughter in ballet, when mom feeds a love of adventure by reading bedtime stories, or we enroll the curious in the robotics club, we recognize our children’s identities and help them to become who they are created to be.

As much as children need to differentiate from their parents, they will always need to belong. Each of us, no matter how old we are, long for home and a sense of family. Kids need the welcoming sight of mom cooking dinner in the kitchen or dad when he walks in from work with hugs for all.

Family traditions also play a big part in belonging to a family. It could be Nana’s tamales you make every Christmas, Thanksgiving every year at Aunt Nancy’s house, or taking a picture of all the kids on the doorstep on the first day of school every year. When the kids become adults, the family traditions and legacy continue, taking their own kids to the lake house they visited every summer, making Saturday morning pancakes, or bundling up the kids to see Christmas lights with a hot mug of cocoa.




Family is not perfect and never will be. There has to be room for kids to learn from their parents’ mistakes. Our experiences make us who we are and help us to become our best selves. It starts at home within the walls of a loving and nurturing family home. There will never be another institution that will do a better job of shaping children into the unique individuals God created them to be. No one else will be more invested in, or more tolerant of, or more responsible for children than the mom and dad who loves and teaches them well.