For many of us, thoughts of the holidays stir feelings of nostalgia and new possibilities that can best be summed up as a combination of those ho ho ho-so merry and bright (and quite possibly over the top) Hallmark Christmas movies balanced with the yang of chaotic reality of the hectic weeks of holiday prep hair pulling, paved with to-do checklists, leading up to planned and unplanned festivities at school, church pageants, community activities, and of course, sitting by the hearth (or in our family’s case, the undecorated, cramped, and slightly sticky kitchen where most of our guests tend to congregate and graze) with family and friends!
The holidays, of course, are about family and friends coming together to celebrate through religious or secular avenues a handful of important days that tend to be the exclamation point on-the-year that was for some and the beginning of a brand new year of rebirth and hope for others. But for many children who don’t have a family for whatever reason or are in between families living in an orphanage or in foster care situation, you can imagine the holidays may not feel so merry and bright. In fact, for these kids, the focus on the holidays may stir up feelings of anxiety and depression during an already traumatic time in their lives.
For families in the process of adopting, the holidays may feel a bit empty while hopeful new parents watch other families preparing to hang stockings and spread pretty packages underneath glowing Christmas trees for eager little children who won’t be able to sleep due to all the sugar-plum dancing, etc.
Still, there are other families, too, bound together through the foster care system either the result of a short-notice emergency or an uncertain long-term plan who also aren’t just navigating through happy to-do lists but dealing with heavy uncertainties and unknowns.
Not to be a downer, but it’s important to recognize that the holidays aren’t the most wonderful time of the year for many of our neighbors both near and far.
It’s difficult to imagine that for some children, Christmas has never been anything other than another day of the year–with no hope of the sparkly magic so many others take for granted. But with more than 400,000 children in foster care on any given day, according to Children’s Rights.org, you can bet that many of these kids caught in the system or in the process of entering the system view the holidays as something they see other people celebrate on television.
So what can you do as a foster parent, an adoptive parent, a family member, a friend, or a neighbor? Here are some basic ideas that just might help a child or a family to enjoy the holidays or at least survive them knowing they are loved and cared for during a tough stretch in their lives.
Probably the easiest and least taxing or expensive thing any of us can do to help foster and adoptive families around the holidays (or any time for that matter) is to be kind! The very best way to do this is to learn about foster care and adoption to better understand the ways that you can help to ease the burden for these families no matter what time of year if not choose to begin the process of becoming a family for a waiting child yourself!
If you don’t know of any foster or adoptive families personally, you can consider reaching out to your local social services organization, church, or local schools to see what needs they may have or that you may be able to fill for a foster family this year–be it clothing, toys, school supplies, gift cards, or monetary donations. In many cases, especially when there are multiple foster children involved, foster parents have a hard time affording gifts. While material things aren’t everything, you can imagine what many kids must feel returning to school after the New Year to hear their peers talk about and show off their new apparel, gadgets, and toys.
If you do know a family who has recently taken in foster children or completed an adoption, you can safely assume that they are tight on funds! Without making a big deal of things, there’s no harm in presenting them with a few extra items such as stocking stuffers or gift cards if you’re not sure what to buy, especially for older kids and teens. Mom and dad will probably never admit to it, but they could probably (most definitely) benefit from an offer of a visit to spend time with the kids to watch a holiday movie or make a craft for an hour or two of babysitting to allow them to take care of work, chores, or holiday prep, or gift cards to the grocery store or coffee shop!
No two foster or adoption situations are alike, but both situations stem from the loss of birth family (be it temporary or permanent). Take this into consideration when spending time with foster and adoptive families. While there may be an abundance of joy and love in their new home, they may be far from healed from the home they have lost or been removed from. No matter what the situation or the circumstances, these kids may have fond memories of holidays past with family who they may be missing more than any gift under a tree. For children who have come from abusive or neglectful homes, the holidays may have felt more like a nightmare they wish to forget–having to plaster on a pretty outfit and a smile and pretend to enjoy themselves in the school play or at their new home may feel like something along the lines of torture.
Do not be surprised if kids act up or act out, especially if you don’t know their history. Do not be surprised if you don’t receive a big hug or a thank you for your best-intentioned gift; they may never have received a present before in their lifetime and may not know what to think about it.
The Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition blog “The Holidays in Foster Care: Why Things Might Get Rough” Offers these Top 5 Tips for managing the holidays in foster care:
- Prepare the foster youth in your care for the holidays in your home
- Help them to make sure their loved ones are okay
- Understand and encourage your youth’s own traditions and beliefs
- Assist in purchasing or making holiday gifts or in sending cards to their family and friends
- Understand if they pull away
And so far as prospective adoptive families and hopeful parents waiting for a referral, match, or to be united with a waiting child, be understanding if they decline an invitation to a Christmas gathering where they will be surrounded by families with children or if they make a quick appearance and bow out early for “another obligation.” Wondering if and when you may have a child or if you’re in the process of being united with a child can be an isolating and painful experience, especially at a time of year where happiness and good cheer is the expectation.
To fully consider the feelings of a foster child or adopted child, you need to understand the lifelong effects of trauma in childhood and how trauma associated with adoption can begin as early as infancy, oftentimes going unnoticed until it’s impossible to miss. The following blogs offer advice to families dealing with trauma through the holidays:
The holidays are a time for loudness–loud clothes and ugly sweaters, loud decorations of red and green just about everywhere you turn, glammed up trees tucked into corners and bulging into tight hallways, Aunt Debbie who just can’t seem to stop singing her favorite Christmas carol in her best Mariah Carrey volume, and Uncle Stan who walks around laughing and threatening all the kiddies within earshot about finding coal in their stockings if they aren’t good little girls and boys. There are carolers in malls and Christmas parades packed with loud fire trucks. Most schools put on winter concerts and shows.
The holidays can feel larger than life and for a child who is not used to an over-the-top production, all of the above can feel scary and threatening. In the article, “Dealing With Emotions Surrounding Adoption Around the Holidays,” Jennifer Mellon says, “The holidays can also bring about emotions unique to those individuals and families who have been touched by adoption or foster care.” She offers advice concerning feelings of loss, acknowledging you or your children’s feelings, including birth family members in your family’s traditions, and accepting the truth that “there is no such thing as perfection!”
Keep this in mind if your hosting a party or if you’re a foster/adoptive family heading to a party–what may seem jolly and bright to everyone else may be the trigger to send a child into a crying fit or tantrum.
One idea for foster parents, adoptive parents, and family and friends is to ease your child into the holidays by offering rather than forcing your traditions on them. Rather than throwing them into the pool, let them stick their toe in and see what they think.
It’s Christmas morning, and you’re ready to deck the halls with your family and friends, but to a foster child who may barely know you, much less your family and friends or any of your traditions, his or her bedroom may feel like a safe space to hide away from the festivities.
If you’re not certain what your child has experienced in the past, make sure to talk to her leading up to the holidays (if you can) to get a feel for what she is used to and what may be appropriate for her. You can have some presents on the ready, but don’t be disappointed if she opens them and you don’t receive the reaction you expect. For children who may join your family last minute, you may want to have some generic gifts “at the ready” ahead of the holidays (not just Christmas, but other gift-giving/surprise giving celebrations like birthdays, etc.).
Some children may feel anything but grateful on Christmas morning due to feeling loyal to their birth family who they may miss or worry about–or be angry with. You can’t and shouldn’t take their negative behavior for anything other than what it is: working through feelings they don’t understand or know how to process.
Be Open to Change
Many children in foster care and/or newly adopted children are more than excited to celebrate the holidays with you! As with any child, be ready for a change in behavior leading up to the big day or days and be open to changing your overall routine if need be. That doesn’t mean throw caution to the wind and marathon watch every Christmas and holiday special or trade out nutritious meals for Christmas cookies, fruit bread, and candy canes, but it may mean reconsidering some of your traditions and adding to the mix, especially if your foster or adopted children come from another ethnic or cultural background. The article 5 Ways To Incorporate Your Adopted Child’s Heritage During the Holidays offers suggestions for families spanning everything from holiday food to music to checking out local celebrations.
Acknowledge Birth Parents
Often lost or understated in the equation are birth families who have been separated from their children temporarily or permanently. No matter the reason, birth parents, too, experience loss and grief. While other parents are enjoying the hustle and bustle of the season with their youngest loved ones in tow, birth parents whose children may have been removed to foster care are often feeling angry, betrayed and scared at the thought of never being united with their children again.
Meanwhile, birth families who have placed a child for adoption also will feel the loss of their child at this time of year that is so focused on families and especially children.
If you are fostering children and they have contact with their birth relatives, honor this relationship, keeping in mind the goal of foster care (when possible) is reunification. No matter what may have occurred to this point, foster families should remember to focus on what is in the best interest of the child and their birth family.
If you know a birth parent who may be feeling depressed around the holidays, don’t be afraid to acknowledge their loss with them. Suffering alone is an awful place to be.
What Can I Do to Help?
In addition to the suggestions mentioned above, taking the time to be an advocate for foster and adoptive families year-round is a way everyone can help to learn about and spread the word about the importance of becoming a foster parent or adoptive parent to the nearly half a million children in the foster care system, which includes more than 125,000 children eligible and waiting for forever families. Check out your local foster and adoption support groups, church groups, foster care programs, and schools for opportunities to donate and volunteer in your community!
Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.