A very happy Thanksgiving to all my readers! As we enter the holiday season, I want to offer a few tips for parents of adopted children at what can sometimes be a difficult time. The holidays are, almost by definition, a time for family, and that can make them a confusing and emotional time for adoptees. Depending on the child’s age, you might notice him acting out, withdrawing, or maybe just asking more questions about his birth family and where he came from. Below are a few tips for supporting your child during this time.
Accept and acknowledge your child’s feelings. Parents, who are often going through their own stresses at the holidays, are sometimes tempted to deny their children’s sad feelings. “Christmas is a happy time!” they might admonish. This sends kids the message that their feelings are not okay and should be hidden. Instead, try to recognize your child’s feelings. This may require a little bit of guesswork if your child is not old enough to express what she is feeling. You might begin with a question. “Are you thinking about your birth mom? I’m thinking about her today, too.” Although it can be hard to get over your own insecurity and hurt feelings when your child is feeling sad about his birth family, it is essential to show the child that he can trust you with his real thoughts and feelings. Try re-stating your child’s feelings in neutral terms (“It’s hard not having your birth family here, isn’t it?” or “sometimes you wish you could spend Christmas with your birth mom.”). One great book about communicating with kids is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Another good resource for adoptive families is Helping Children Cope With Separation and Loss by Claudia Jewett Jarrett.
If possible, include birth family in holiday celebrations. If not, create rituals. One of the wonderful things about open adoption is that it expands the circle of family, which is an especially beautiful thing at the holidays. If possible, include birth parents, grandparents, etc. for part of your holiday celebrations. If this is not possible, it can be helpful to create a ritual to do together to acknowledge the birth family. Some families light a candle during holiday meals or at times when the child is thinking about her birth mother. Others get out an album of photos of the child’s birth family and look through it together. Whatever you choose, pick a specific time (say, Christmas Eve before bed) and do the ritual every year, but also be flexible and let your child choose to do the ritual when she is feeling sad about her birth family.
If your child is from another culture, include traditions from that culture in your celebrations. The holidays are an easy and beautiful time to include your child’s birth culture in your family life. Traditional native foods, music, clothing, crafts, decorations, and traditions are all fun to learn about together, and greatly enrich your holiday traditions.
Avoid overstimulation. Especially for newly-adopted children, the holidays can be too overwhelming to handle. Traveling, having guests in the house, disruption of routines, new toys, and bright lights are exactly the opposite of what children need when they are adapting to a new environment. Children who are adopted from institutional settings, especially, are often unaccustomed to a lot of attention or even to playing with toys. Even children who have been in their homes for a while can get overstimulated by holiday celebrations. Try to keep celebrations low-key at first, and to maintain eating an nap schedules as much as possible. Be an advocate for your child by explaining to family members that your child can get overwhelmed easily, so they should give him some time and space and limit gifts to a number that doesn’t overwhelm him.
“Being good” doesn’t always mean feeling good. Remember that adopted children hear messages about “being good” differently than their not-adopted peers do. Some children interpret the “you’d better not pout, you’d better not cry” messages of Christmas to mean that they will be rejected or sent away if they aren’t “good.” The holidays are an especially good time to emphasize that you love your child unconditionally.
Be aware of what’s going on at school. If you haven’t done so yet, the holidays can be a good time to talk to your child’s teachers about adoption. For example, if your child is newly adopted, you may want to explain that she might have trouble answering questions like “how does your family celebrate the holidays?” Encourage teachers to learn about different types of families and to use inclusive language, especially for open adoptions and LGBT adoptions, where there could be more than one “mommy” and “daddy” involved. One thing that sometimes comes up at the holidays is that schools “adopt a family” by donating gifts and food to families in need. Explain that using adoption language for charitable activities can be confusing for adopted children.
Remember that the holidays don’t have to be perfect. This is advice that most families could stand to hear, not just adoptive families! While some families feel pressure to have a picture-perfect holiday that is 100% happy and drama-free, this is a tall order when human beings are involved. The only holiday that is really “perfect” is one where everyone is warmly loved and unconditionally accepted — and knows it. In that spirit, I wish you and your family the most “perfect” of holiday seasons.
What works in your family at the holidays? Send your suggestions in the Comments section, or by email to me at evaughan (at) vaughanfirm (dot) com.
Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.