Merry Christmas, or is it?


For many of us the Christmas season generates excitement which can include everything from planning special meals and gifts, attending seasonal programs with Christmas music, and time with family. For a child from foster care, the memories of Christmas may not be so merry! For many of our adopted children, they may be experiencing the Christmas season for the first time and can be overwhelmed. We hope the following will help you and your child navigate the season with success and eliminate as many “bah-humbugs” as possible.

CHRISTMAS PAST: This can be a time of grief and loss for our children. For children in foster care it may bring feelings of loneliness and reminders that they are not with their family. It can generate fear that their brothers, sisters, and even parents are not experiencing the same good food, receiving gifts, or even in a place of safety. Past holidays may have been a time of stress that brought abuse and neglect so the child may shift into a hyper-alert state with the expectation of receiving similar experiences in their current home. They may even wonder if Santa will know where they are this year. Communication is key to understanding and helping a child navigate the holiday season. Know what concerns might be weighing heavily on their heart and mind. Make Christmas cards and purchase gifts for the family members they are missing. Advocate for the child to have an opportunity for visits with their family during the season, this might be the best gift you can give to them. Ask your child what memories from past Christmases they treasure. Include some of their traditions into your holiday season whether it be food or a special activity. This is a great time to appreciate different cultures in your home. For the adopted child who may have never experienced an American Christmas, they may have no cultural reference to the season and what to expect. The lights, sounds, excess of food and gifts along with a schedule that seems to change daily can all be overwhelming. Be mindful of your own family traditions and how they will impact your newly adopted child. If their brothers and sisters all have special ornaments from years’ past and they have nothing to put on the tree, this can be hurtful. Consider taking time to shop with them and purchase some special ornaments for them from years’ past to fill in those missing years. This can be a great time of bonding and connecting emotionally as you talk about the kinds of ornaments they would have received if they had been with your family in year one, year two, etc…

CHRISTMAS PRESENT: Whether you are parenting through foster care or adoption your child will have some unique needs to consider as you help them navigate the Christmas season. Don’t assume that your child understands all of the traditions your family has experienced. Over-communicate everything about the season. Even if they have been living in the United States, your child may not know the story of Christ’s birth. Treasure the opportunity to share this miracle with your children. (Go to Lifeline’s Website for Advent Cards to assist you in sharing the story). Create an environment where your child will feel safe and be able to enjoy the season. Keep their routine and schedule as predictable as possible and over-communicate any changes as early as possible with lots of review. Consider limiting the extra programs and parties to just a few this year. Prepare your child for what to expect and who they will meet at each event. Your child may never have experienced a candlelight service and the lights being out could trigger fear and an unwanted meltdown. It is wise to take two cars to events so that if your child does become overwhelmed, one parent can leave with the child and the whole family doesn’t have to miss the event. Having a plan A and plan B can keep everyone in a good holiday spirit. Loud and crowded family events can make our children in foster care feel lonely and overwhelmed. Monitor their emotions. Check in with them regularly during the day. Provide some one-on-one quiet time with a walk around the block or playing a quiet game together. Let them know you know the day is hard for them. Develop a special signal your child can use throughout the holiday season to alert you when they might be feeling sad or overwhelmed. There may be an electric candle they can light or an ornament on their door they could hang to signal they need some help navigating the day. At gatherings, there could be a special word or phrase.

Remember your child’s physical needs. Have a good protein snack available, lots of hydration, and movement every two hours. Don’t be tempted to skip lunch, and rest during that shopping trip or on the ride to relatives. Consider your child’s sensory needs and watch for sensory overload. The lights and sounds of the season can be quite overstimulating for any of us. A child with sensory issues may not enjoy getting gooey icing on their hands as they decorate a ginger bread house. Plan alternative activities that meet this child’s needs.

Prepare your family and friends for upcoming visits. If you have to modify any extended family traditions let them know the reason for the change and that this may just be for this year. Educate or remind them of appropriate foster care and adoption language. Let them know that you are glad to support a child’s contact with birth family and that each child’s story is private and off limits for public discussion. Help your family members know the best ways to connect with your child will be with high fives and handshakes. A child can easily be overwhelmed with hugs and kisses from strangers and it can impede the process of attachment for our adopted children. Let family know what your expectations are in regards to giving and receiving gifts for your children in foster care and adoption. Hopefully everyone will be treated equally, but if that is not possible then consider drawing names so that no one feels left out. It is your job as the parent to be the protector of your child in every way, including emotionally.

CHRISTMAS FUTURE: There are many activities throughout the season that will provide you with times of building connection and attachment with your child. You can create good memories for the next Christmas season. Time in the kitchen baking provides fun and closeness, and it allows for creativity and appeals to most of our senses. Being together around the table as you address and label Christmas cards, buying and wrapping Christmas gifts for one another, and decorating the tree can build positive connections with your child. Make the most of time away from work and school allowing for playtime with one another. But most importantly, the season provides an opportunity to let your child know about the Savior that came to earth to save us all. He came through humble means, so maybe your child will relate to the Savior who according to the hymn, “had no crib for a bed.” May this season be the time that your child knows and feels the love of this Savior. As you capitalize on these moments may you and your child be able to look back and remember with fondness this year’s Christmas season and realize that it was a Merry Christmas after all!

Collaborative work of Lifeline staff

Lynn Beckett

Program Manager, Parent Coaching