For many parents, the holidays are always stressful. The heightened expectations, financial stress and packed schedules that most parents experience around the holidays can make this time of year as difficult as it is wonderful. Now consider the impact this additional stress is likely having on your adopted child, who is probably experiencing loss and grief, reliving vivid memories or asking hard-to-answer questions. The holidays with an adopted child can be full of hurdles. As a parent of an adopted child, you must learn to help your child and help yourself through this very stressful time.
Managing Troubling Behaviors
This time of year is emotionally charged, and your child is probably experiencing a slew of hard feelings. Guilt, anxiety, despair, anger, loss. Old memories may be coming to the surface, triggered by the smells, sounds and tastes of the holidays. Take the time to understand what your child is going through. All adopted children experience the holidays differently. Children who spent many years with their birth family and many years in foster care may have happy or sad memories of birth families and old traditions left behind. Internationally adopted children are likely to feel disconnected from their cultural roots, and may have many questions about their birth culture. Those children from open adoptions can experience stress and conflicting feelings about their birth parents and adopted parents. And finally, children who know little or nothing about their birth parents may spend more time reflecting on the birth families they have no memories of. Be observant during this time. Take notice of mood swings, subtle expressions and body language.
Try to understand what your child is going through by initiating discussions. Say things like, “you seem sad,” or “you seem frustrated,” and invite your child to discuss the problem openly. Point out your observations in a non-judgemental way. This will help validate your child’s feelings. If your child is having a hard time grappling with these emotions, make or purchase a blank book where your child can record intense feelings in a way that is private and non-destructive. If your child has a Life Book, take it down off the shelf and look it over together. Talk about the memories, and explore the undesirable thoughts that have been coming to the surface.
To keep the both of you from going crazy, give yourself permission to let the little things slide. Don’t try to discipline every single wrong behavior that comes up; only tackle the big things. Forgive your child, and forgive yourself at the end of every day.
Maintaining and Creating Traditions
If your child is the product of an open adoption and you have a functional relationship with your child’s birth parents, it is important to nurture this relationship at the holidays. Maybe you’ll start a gift-exchange tradition, or an annual winter holiday brunch at your child’s favorite restaurant. This will help your child feel like he or she is a part of a stable, healthy family unit. Never subvert the relationship between your child and his or her biological family. When a schedule is made for a visit, stick to it. Avoid any stressful situations by keeping the lines of communication with your child’s birth parents open.
For an internationally adopted child, learn the practices of his or her cultural origins. Integrate these cultural traditions into your family traditions, because these cultural roots are now connected to your own family and this should be acknowledged. Make traditional foods, celebrate special holidays and talk about the origins of these holidays with members of your family. Similar advice could be given to families of adopted foster children. Former foster children may have strong personal memories of old times with their birth family, or previous foster families. These roots should not be lost or forgotten but rather brought into the open, and celebrated when possible. Your adopted children should be taught that their memories of the holidays are okay to have.
To strengthen your personal bond with your child, develop some new family traditions together. This will help your child dismiss feelings of being an outsider in a family where traditions may already have been established long ago. For example, create a new holiday ornament, as a family, every year. Light a candle for the joys and sadnesses you and your child may be feeling at the holidays, and discuss both openly. Watch your favorite holiday movies together in a “holiday movie night,” and make popcorn balls and cookies for the occasion.
Be sensitive to the way your extended family treats your adopted child at family functions. This is especially important in blended families with biological and adopted children. No one wants to think that their extended family treats their adopted children differently, but watch out for behaviors from extended family that may make your adopted child feel isolated from your biological children. If you notice problems, address the issues with your child and with your extended family members. If your child says something to you acknowledging the problem, explain that not all people respond to adoption in the same way. This may be hard for your child to hear, and harder for you to say, but covering or denying the issue won’t make it go away. By acknowledging the problem, you show your child that you understand their feelings and that you can face the problem together. Talk to your extended family about these problems. Be firm and stand up for the rights of your child. It helps if you can build up to the holidays gradually. Start talking about holiday plans and traditions early to avoid unexpected problems. Make your holiday plans clear, so that your child knows what to expect. If you can avoid it, stick to your regular daily routines, and don’t change plans at the last minute. This is especially important if your child struggles with hyperactivity or anxiety. For a child who is new in your family, practice giving and receiving gifts. This is important because expectations may have been different in your child’s previous homes. This way you can avoid embarrassing or aggravating situations, and your child will know what to expect.
Finally, don’t chase the perfect holiday. Keep a sense of humor and be realistic. The holidays with an adopted child can be an enriching experience that ultimately strengthens your family bond, but you must remember to keep a level head and dismiss unrealistic expectations. Remind yourself every day that you and your child can find happiness, even as you experience bumps along the way.