Holiday Tip #1: Sad Looks Mad

Nov 9, 2020

So, this year the holidays may end up looking a bit different than we’re used to, right? Maybe you’re excited about the opportunity to try out some new traditions or have a more simplified season. Or maybe you’re grieving the changes and wish you could go back to the way things were. Regardless of who you are, you’ve likely experienced some loss this year.  

Loss of relationships. Loss of familiar things. Loss of control.  

I can’t help but see 2020 as an opportunity for those of us who welcome children into our homes through foster care, to grow in our empathy for our children and their experiences.  

Loss of relationships. Loss of familiar things. Loss of control. 

This holiday season remind yourself and your family that the child in your home went through a lot before she came to you. And with her experience, comes many conflicting emotions that may show themselves at any time. Excitement. Sadness. Disappointment. Anger. Confusion.  

Consider these few ideas to set your family up for success this year as you navigate everyone’s range of big feelings during this holiday season: 

1.Prepare your family by talking about how your new child might feel this holiday season. Talk to your children in a way that is age and developmentally appropriate and help them to grow empathy for your new child. That way, if there is a moment in which your new child is melting down or seemingly sabatoging your holiday joy, you can all take a moment to remind each other about what the child is likely experiencing. This awareness as a whole family can lead to unity, empathy, and the grace to work together to meet each member of your family where they are at.  

2. Talk to your new child about what the holidays were like in their biological family. She may not have any memories she can offer you and that is okay. If your child does remember specific family traditions, see if she’d like you to incorporate some of it into your traditions this year. This will go a long way in helping her feel seen and a part of your family. Be willing to change for your child. Don’t expect your child to do all the changing.  

3. Recognize that with our kids, “sad often looks mad” (  This means that her feelings of grief, disappointment, and confusion often comes out as anger, defiance, and other behavioral challenges. The holidays can uniquely bring this out in all of us as we face unmet expectations, holiday stress, and sensory overload. Not to mention the number of triggers present during this season. Learn to recognize this when it is happening so you can have empathy and engage your child in a way that helps her uncover her real feelings. See past the challenging behaviors to the heart of what she’s going through in that moment. As a foster friend recently told me, “Those tears weren’t really about the Halloween candy. Those tears were her processing what she is going through.” Yes. See past the behaviors to the heart.  

4. Talk to your child in advance of all the big feelings showing up. Talk to her about how her “sad often looks mad.” Give her permission to feel sadness this holiday season. Or anger. Don’t be afraid of her feelings but become a safe adult she can come to when she’s experiencing them. If you see only her behaviors, never acknowledge what’s really going on, and punish her; you will miss the opportunity to grow her trust in you and help her to make sense of what’s going on in her life. Become comfortable with expressions of big feelings.  

5. Celebrate with your child’s birth family. If you have the privilege of being in contact with her biological family during the holiday season, consider what plans you can have with them. Are you able to get together in-person to celebrate? Are you able to arrange a phone call or facetime? If you have the ability to do so, you should try to create this opportunity for your child. In our house, this looks like “Sister Christmas,” in which we set aside a day during the holiday break to spend time with my sons’ biological sisters. Each of our families has our own holiday celebrations but we also came together to create a new tradition we can look forward to each year.   

If the child is unable to have contact with the family member out of safety or simply a lack of opportunity, there are still ways for you to give her opportunities to express how she feels. Take your child shopping and let her pick out an item for her biological parent or sibling living in another home. Let her write a letter, draw a picture, create an art project. Giving our children something tangible to DO can be a great way for them to process their feelings. If you are unable to give these items to the family members directly, still go through the process of shopping or making something. You can always let the child give them to the case worker to pass along for her. Giving your child the opportunity to pour out her feelings into a present or project can be therapeutic, even if it never reaches the family member. 

Remember: the holidays may be YOUR favorite time of the year but for your new child, they represent a mix of emotions and triggers. Stay attuned to your child and how she’s feeling, remind your family members when needed, be willing to change things up, and don’t forget to acknowledge the other important people in your child’s life.   

Next week: Tip #2: Simplify 


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