The holidays are filled with laughter, smiles, and special moments shared between friends and family. As parents we may be focusing on how to make this Christmas the most magical one yet for those we love. However, if you’re an adoptive parent the holidays are an extra important time to stay in-tune with how your child is doing.
All the festivities and joy brought on by holiday celebrations can be challenging for adopted children to cope with. They may be reminded of their own biological families who they won’t see anymore. The change in schedule and lack of structure can also be particularly hard on adopted children. All children thrive within a structured environment. When this structure is taken away it can leave children feeling out of control, anxious, and stressed.
Pediatrician Dr. Mollie Greves Grow of Seattle Children’s Hospital notes, “Structured routines, even during busy times like the holidays, help parents regulate the emotional and functional changes their children undergo as they develop. Routines help children know what to expect as they go through these changes.”
This statement applies even more so to newly adopted children who may just be getting inundated with the routines and structures of family life.
It’s important to be aware of and prepare ways to help their children cope during the holidays with the stress of an uprooted schedule and the grief that happy times can uncover.
Ways Adoptive Parents can Support Children During the Holidays
Give them space
Adopted children who act out during the holidays are likely struggling to completely understand what they’re feeling. Make space for them to talk about what they’re going through, but don’t expect them to open up right away (or at all).
If your child decides to not share with you or pulls away when you ask what’s wrong, respect their decision and give them space. Don’t force them into family activities and let them simply “be”.
Ditch your “perfect” holiday
As parents it’s our heart’s desire to give our children and family the most magical, most perfect, most uncomplicated holiday experience ever. But how many times does the “perfect” anything ever happen? Perfect doesn’t account for travel delays, it doesn’t account for bad weather, and it certainly doesn’t account for stressed, anxious children.
If your adopted child lashes out during the holidays it may feel like they’re trying to “sabotage” and undermine your plans by challenging you and disengaging. And maybe sometimes they are. However, how you react in these situations will be very telling to your child on how dedicated to them you are.
As children age they will naturally begin to push their limits. Be firm in what is and isn’t okay, but recognize that these outbursts often come from a place of deep hurt and pain. Sometimes children might not even realize they’re doing it continuously. Know that your holiday might not go as you envisioned it for one reason or another. And that’s okay. Be flexible and take things in stride.
Talk about expectations and holiday plans
Your child’s behavior could simply come down to a lack of understanding, an uprooted schedule, and the overwhelming sense of anticipation that the holidays can bring. To help ease your child’s anxiety, talk with them about what the holiday season will look like around the house and in terms of travel. Who is coming, where you’ll be going, customs, and traditions are all good starting blocks to begin this conversation.
Avoid surprises as they can be more stress-inducing than joy-sparking.
As you talk about what holidays with your family look like, make sure to ask about traditions that your child has had, too. Whether it’s baking cookies for Santa, watching a certain movie, reading a certain book or something else, incorporating their traditions can help them feel more integrated with the family.
Don’t forget about making new traditions together too. You and your adopted child are now a family; going forward it will be good to have traditions together that reinforce your family bond and that both of you can look forward to.
Get informed on trauma and the ways it manifests
Unfortunately, children who are adopted or come from foster care oftentimes have years of trauma and pain that they’ve had to bear alone. As an adoptive parent it’s vital that you educate yourself on trauma and the ways it can present. Children who are hyperactive, defiant or have difficulty managing their anger may be carrying significant past trauma that they haven’t had the time, resources, or ability to unpack. Be an advocate for your child. In many cases family therapy can be an effective way to address trauma and to unpack family dynamics.
Every family is different and each child may have different needs. By staying flexible, listening, and actively working to make your child feel loved and included you can be prepared for whatever happens this holiday season.