Holidays can potentially be a very difficult time for a newly adoptive or foster child. This is especially true if this newly adopted or foster child is older. Holidays can be a very difficult time for anybody who has endured any sort of trauma. Holidays tend to remind people of hard times they have experienced or the people they may be missing in their life. This may be especially true for children who are adopted at an older age or who current foster children. They may have traditions that you likely do not know about or may have had experiences on Thanksgiving that they would prefer not to relive or rehash.
Whatever their experience, it is important that you maintain open communication with your child. This will be important in any adoptive or foster care situation. As the holiday season comes around, always take this time to respect their privacy but also create an open dialogue so that they can experience the holidays with you and not just through you. You can work together to create new traditions while listening to one another about traditions you have each practiced in holidays past. Spend time creating a new Thanksgiving together and develop new traditions as a family.
It is vital to understand that the holidays may not be easy and may be something in which your adoptive or foster child is not quite ready to participate. Let this be okay as much as you can. Understand that your joy for the holiday may not be enough for your child to muster up their own sense of joy. Holidays are a huge trigger for trauma, especially familial trauma. If your adopted or foster child is new to your home, try to let them take the lead as much as possible. Try to gauge what is comfortable for them and what is not. This doesn’t mean not having them participate at all. However, take the time to listen and to try to understand where they are and what their comfort level is regarding holiday festivities.
For foster children or a newly adopted child, being around their new family or extended foster family can initially be incredibly uncomfortable. It may be wise to spend this first Thanksgiving in your own home with only your immediate family. This is not mandatory, but may be important for your child’s well-being and also for easing them into the family. Give them a chance to experience new traditions in a safe and comfortable space. It may be a lot easier for your child to understand and be comfortable with Thanksgiving traditions when they have had a chance to do Thanksgiving with your family solo. Use this first holiday as sort of a tutorial on how holidays typically unfold. Use it as a bonding experience for your family and your new child.
As my children are getting older, one thing that my husband and I are sure to do is to have at least one holiday meal at home. We often go to other family member’s homes for Thanksgiving. However, the week before actual Thanksgiving we have what we call a “Unicorn Thanksgiving.” We call it that because it’s like Thanksgiving in every way, just not on Thanksgiving. Therefore, it’s like a unicorn because it is normal but fake and magical. We have a huge meal, turkey and all, and do all the things you would normally do on Thanksgiving but with just our immediate family. We do this to allow for creating a tradition with our children as they grow.
Chances are we won’t always go to our parents’ houses when our children are older. Establish a new tradition of having Thanksgiving memories in your own home. It is wonderful to gift our children great memories of each holiday in our home while creating a bond between our immediate family for all holidays. For your foster children or adopted children, it is important that the create traditions with your immediate family as well as extended family. However, the memories that you create with your immediate family will be much more important in the earlier days of your foster care or adoption experience. These experiences will only further the sense of safety and comfort for your child.
When it comes to establishing traditions for Thanksgiving with your child, the best place to start might be to ask your foster or adoptive child what traditions they enjoy about Thanksgiving. Do they have any traditions that they used to do with their family but they would like to carry on? You can simply ask what traditions they had in the past. This would open up the floor for them to tell you both positive and negative stories surrounding family holidays. It will also help you to find out what to embrace and what to avoid.
We all have little things about the holidays that are must-haves or our go-tos. There are things about Thanksgiving that I could not imagine going without. My family has Thanksgiving breakfast while others wait until the actual dinner to eat. However, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and having a light homemade breakfast is one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving. Think about a memory that means the most to you in regards to Thanksgiving. Your child likely has their own favorite memory if they are older and have had good experience with holidays. They may also have a memory that triggers something negative for them that you might want to avoid. Open up that dialogue and see what you can discover about your child.
One very simple tradition that you can have as a part of your Thanksgiving, whether you have a foster child or adoptive child, is to start a thankful pumpkin. My family has done some sort of this tradition for years and the kids always love it. You can find many different ideas for a thankful pumpkin or tree or some other medium on websites such as Pinterest. To summarize, you simply buy a pumpkin, big or small and get a few sharpie markers. Each day, you can add to the pumpkin with the marker something for which you are thankful. You can do this as a family or you can have each person do this individually. Not only is this a very easy tradition to continue, but it opens up participation for everyone. It also opens up a dialogue about the holidays and general feelings. It is fun to read what each person is thankful for and you may read an answer you did not expect. It also helps your child to feel like they’re participating without creating a huge commitment. It could also mean a lot to your child to see their name on your list of things for which you are thankful!
One of the huge parts of Thanksgiving for my family is football. This is not because I like football. In fact, I don’t think that there is a possibility that I could care any less about football. However, football was huge for my husband as he grew up. For him, even though he barely watches the game, having a Thanksgiving without football wouldn’t really feel like true Thanksgiving. With football being a huge part of his life, I try to honor that tradition for him by having football on most of the day. He tolerates waking up early to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for me, so the least I can do is let football be on TV. Is your child huge into sports? Would that have been one of their traditions? Is there something that they might like to do that is not what you would ordinarily do? Try to honor traditions that they have had in the past.
Your child may have had amazing holidays in the past, be very young, or there is a chance that your foster child or adoptive child may be coming from an experience of not really knowing how holidays are generally celebrated. Your children might be very young or they may have been within a family that did not celebrate Thanksgiving. With this, make sure that you take the time to explain what Thanksgiving is all about and invite them to participate. If you have the opportunity, invite your child to help you cook the meal. Ask them if there’s anything that they might want to add to the menu. Have a cookie baking contest or make cookie dough for the upcoming Christmas season.
Another idea for a Thanksgiving tradition is to celebrate Thanksgiving the night before Thanksgiving. My kids and I always watch Thanksgiving movies and stay up a little bit late prepping for the day after. This gets the kids excited about what will come tomorrow. This can be even more important for a child who has been recently adopted or is a foster child. Prepping your child the day before can help them to know what to expect but also get them excited for what’s to come on the actual holiday. Preparation is key when introducing your child to new experiences.
If it is allowed per your foster care agency, or if you are a part of an open adoption, you may consider allowing for some sort of contact between your child and their birth family on Thanksgiving. it might mean the world to your child to be able to speak with their family or to see their family on the actual holiday. You could also host a Thanksgiving dinner on a day other than Thanksgiving so that your child feels they did not miss out. This could be a wonderful new tradition!
If you are comfortable, depending on your situation, you may invite your child’s birth parents to Thanksgiving dinner. Much of this will depend on what type of situation you are in and the comfort level and safety for all. However, if you are in an open adoption situation or a foster care situation that allows for a visit, considering contact might be just what your child needs and a great tradition to begin.
Another great Thanksgiving tradition that you may institute in your family is to provide for those who do not have the funds for a Thanksgiving meal. This can be done in a lot of ways. Whether you go to a soup kitchen to serve a meal or whether you donate to your favorite cause, this generosity will be a great example to your children.
For my family, we create a Thanksgiving basket each year that we donate to any family we feel might need it or provide this meal to a person or ministry who knows a family in need. We buy a turkey and all of the sides to go into the basket. You may have a foster child or newly adopted child who has experienced not having the funds for a meal on Thanksgiving and this gesture could mean a lot. Even if your child has had wonderful Thanksgivings before, this generous act will help show the heart that you have for other people and be a great example of moving forward.
Whatever you do, create some new traditions or add to some traditions your child already has. Whether you have had traditions for the past 20 years, the addition of your new child will change things a bit. Be open to that change. Be open to new traditions. Be open to the fact that it may take some time for your new child to integrate into your new and old traditions.
If your adoptive child or foster child is young, the traditions that you create now will mean great memories moving forward. Even if your foster child leaves your home, they will hold these memories dear and maybe even carry them back into their home. The traditions that you create with your newly adopted child will likely be traditions that they carry on as they grow and will make them feel more bonded into your family.
Lita Jordan is a master of all things “home.” A work-from-home, stay-at-home, homeschooling mother of five. She has a BA in Youth Ministry from Spring Arbor University. She is married to the “other Michael Jordan” and lives on coffee and its unrealistic promises of productivity. Lita enjoys playing guitar and long trips to Target. Follow her on www.facebook.com/halfemptymom/.