Adoption and the Holidays

Adoption and the Holidays

While the upcoming holidays can be an exciting and joyful time for families, it can also trigger feelings within your adopted child and become a challenging time for families. Imagine being a foster child whose holidays of the past may have been spent with an abusive parent, a parent on drugs or alcohol, or without a parent or a family setting at all. For these children, the holiday season triggers feelings of sadness and loss over one particularly good holiday they may have experienced in the past. Or, it may trigger feelings of despair over holidays missed. Children who have experienced loss, abandonment, abuse or neglect often experience extreme sadness during the holiday season. They may be missing birth parents, foster parents, siblings or others who were meaningful in their lives. For many children, Christmas or Hanukkah may be remembered more as time of dealing with inadequate parents and the lack of resources needed for gifts and food. Many children who have come from family backgrounds in which their lives were extremely unpredictable dislike the element of surprise connected with these holidays, as well as with birthdays.

Click here to see an article dealing with Mother's Day.

Holidays that may be triggers for your child:
  • Your child's birthday
  • Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa
  • Mother's day/Father's day
  • Thanksgiving
  • Their biological siblings/family member's birthday
Adoption and the Holidays
Losses of many different kinds that can also be triggers for your child:
  • Transition from one school level to another
  • Medical crisis (of a parent, the child, or a sibling)
  • Change in your family composition (especially with immediate family membership)
  • Moving your place of residence
  • Death of a pet
  • Moving away from a friend
  • Breakup of a dating relationship
  • Graduation
  • Divorce of adoptive parents
  • Death of an adoptive parent

You may see a variety of grief reactions in your child if a trigger has recently occurred or is coming up. Supporting a child when he or she is grieving can be difficult, especially if your child's expression of grief comes in the form of challenging behaviors. Having a solid support system in place and searching out resources when needed can help you overcome any challenges that may arise during this already stressful time of year.

Here are some helpful tips to guide your family through this holiday season!

Maintaining and Creating Traditions:
  • If your child has a functional relationship with their birth family, it is important to nurture that relationship through the holidays.
  • Incorporate positive traditions from the child's past that are important to them or that they mention that they would like to continue

Start Some New Traditions:
  • Start a gift exchange tradition
  • Involve your child in the creating of a new family tradition, ask your child what holiday tradition they would like to create and continue with your family
  • Attend an annual winter holiday brunch at your child's favorite restaurant
  • Integrate their cultural traditions if they have some
  • Create a new holiday ornament together
  • Watch your favorite holiday movies together, have your child/children help create the snacks for the movie time

Ways to Help Your Child Through These Hard Times:
  • Be sensitive to the way your extended family treats your adopted child, sometimes lots of extended family can be overwhelming for a child, take family interactions at your child's pace
  • Make holiday plans clear to help with anxiety or hyper activeness
  • If possible, stick to regular daily activities and don't change plans last minute
  • Practice giving and receiving gifts, this may be something that your child has not experienced before so be patient and understanding if it does not go smoothly the first few times
  • Don't chase a perfect holiday, be realistic and keep a sense of humor

  1. Acknowledge the pain of your child's many losses over all holidays.
    Encourage your child to share his or her feelings about those they have lost as a way of reinforcing to your child that his or her emotions are perfectly normal. As Mother's Day approaches, discuss with your child's teacher the fact that your child has had more than one mother and may find it difficult to complete the usual assignments surrounding Mother's Day. The teacher needs to be well aware of your child's losses and should be encouraged to modify the assignment to fit the needs of children who are no longer living with their biological mothers. You could encourage your child to honor his or her birth mother and other mothers at home during a candle lighting ceremony or similar ritual to be celebrated before the special occasion. It is helpful to honor your child's previous mothers before Mother's Day, Christmas or Hanukkah, and your child's birthday. Even abusive birth mothers may be honored for giving birth to your child and providing whatever positive qualities your child may have inherited such as appearance, sports abilities, musical talent, and intelligence.

  2. You may talk with your child about his or her past holidays
    Gather specific information so that you can incorporate your child's previous positive memories into your current family's activities. Family get-togethers may be extremely difficult. Be honest with each other about your feelings. Sit down with your family and decide what you want to do for each specific holiday. Undertake only what each family member is able to handle comfortably.

  3. Remember there is no right or wrong way to handle special occasions.
    You may wish to follow family traditions or choose to change them. It may help to do things just a little differently. What you choose the first year, you don't have to do the next. Be careful of "shoulds". It is better to do what is most helpful for you and your family than to follow a prescribed regimen of activities. If a situation looks especially difficult for your child before it is to occur, set limitations. Realize that it isn't going to be easy, and do only the things, which are very special and important to you and your child. Once you have made the decision on how you and your family will handle the special occasion, let relatives and friends know. Ask them to be sensitive to your child's special needs and to honor them.

  4. Remember that your child's negative reactions to special occasions are based on his or her grief.
    Becoming angry with a child who is grieving accomplishes nothing. Understand and accept your child's feelings about the special occasion and about the people he or she has lost. Acknowledge those feelings, encourage your child to express them, and then move toward the special occasion with the intent of providing yet another opportunity for your child to heal.

Adoption and the Holidays

More Tips

  1. Emotions
    First, the gift of an emotionally regulated parent is paramount to a happy holiday.
  2. Planning
    A low-key, slow-paced, well-planned and simply structured holiday schedule will help keep harmony in your celebrations. Pick only a few highlights for your children to indulge in between November and January, then tie a bow on the holiday season and mark it done without all the stress.
  3. Patience
    Your patience nicely wrapped with curly ribbon during merriment, revelry and shenanigans will be a relief to all around you.
  4. Get out of jail free card
    Give your child a Get out of Jail Free card for adult parties, eight-hour shopping sprees, Black Friday insanity, sit-down white-linen family affairs at high-end restaurants and black-tie, evening weddings, Midnight Mass, attendance at holiday a cappella recitals or even a late night performance of The Nutcracker. Reserve your childcare workers now for later.
  5. Short gift lists
    Provide a short gift list to family members and friends, indicating that the things on the list are in the best interest of your child's attachment and healing. It is necessary for some families to manage things like electronics, offensive video games, guns, etc.
  6. Handmade
    Consider making gifts together — cookies, soup ingredients, food baskets, handmade decorations, written letters of appreciation, personally written poems and framed art.
  7. Exposure
    Finally, expose your children on multiple occasions to the gift of helping those who are less fortunate. Children from difficult beginnings understand and connect with giving. Help develop new neural pathways for the meaning and spirit of the season — gratitude, love and caring for others.
Here are some extra resources to learn more about holidays & how to face the upcoming challenges: How Holidays Hurt Adopted and Foster Children:

10 Ways to Help Foster and Adopted Kids Through the Holidays:

How Parents Can Help Adopted Children Navigate Birthdays:

On Demand Webinars:

Adopted Children and The Holidays: