As we approach this holiday season as foster or adoptive parents, we need to imagine the holidays from our child’s perspective. Something we’re really looking forward to may feel really hard for them. Let’s take a moment to spell out a few of the things our kids might be feeling during the holidays:
Grief and loss from not being with their parents or siblings.
Sadness due to unfulfilled promises from their biological family.
Disappointment because your family celebrates differently.
Confusion because they’ve never actually celebrated before, so they don’t know what to expect.
Anxiety about the changes in schedule or routine.
Food insecurities around the upcoming family gatherings.
Overstimulation from so much excitement.
As we approach a holiday or special family celebration, we need to remind ourselves and the other members of our family about what the child in our home went through before she came to us. We need to understand that with her experience, comes many conflicting emotions and behaviors that may show themselves at any time.
As the celebration approaches, consider these proactive strategies to set your family up for success:
Prepare your family by talking about how your child might feel as you approach a holiday-Talk to your other children in a way that is age and developmentally appropriate and helps them to grow empathy for the child. That way, if there is a moment in which your struggling child is melting down or seemingly sabotaging 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 thegrace to work together to meet each member of your family where they are at. Likewise, this includes your extended family members who might need to be given the heads-up that this holiday season might need to look different. There may be things you won’t be participating in this year, things you won’t be staying as long for, or ways that you need them to interact differently with your child. Giving them the heads-up and having a conversation will hopefully help them manage their own expectations and be of support to you and your child.
Talk to your 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.
Recognize that with our kids, “sad often looks mad”-This means that her big feelings of sadness, grief, disappointment, and confusion might actually come out as anger, defiance, and 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. It is very helpful to remember that “all behavior is communication.” Learning to have this mindset and chasing the why behind the behaviors allows you to 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. (https://empoweredtoconnect.org/when-sad-looks-mad/).
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, especially around the holidays.
Anticipate triggers-It’s easy to prepare for a holiday and totally miss the possible triggers inherent in the celebration for our children. Let’s name a few:
Fourth of July fireworks to a child with sensory processing disorder or a strong startle response due to abuse.
Scary Halloween costumes to a child with a history of scary and abusive caregivers.
Large family gatherings or crowded places to a child with anxiety or indiscriminate attachment.
Family gatherings outside of your home to a child with food insecurities.
An overnight visit from the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, or Santa to a child coming from a home with frequent scary visitors at night.
As you approach a celebration, part of seeing it through your child’s eyes is taking note of these unique things that might be alerting to your child and either removing them or making a plan to support your child through them. It would be inappropriate for us to put a child in a situation that they cannot be successful in and then punish them when they are not. Instead, try to anticipate the challenges as much as possible and work with your child to help them be successful.
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? 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.
If you are a Restore Network family, don’t forget to log-in to our training module, Navigating the Holidays and Other Celebrations for more tips and ideas to consider.