Getting ready for the holidays: the adoption edition.
It’s October, which means holidays are right around the corner. The march from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas is an often-anticipated season for many. After all, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? While holidays are “supposed” to be joyful, family-oriented seasons, they simply so often are not for families touched by adoption. From unrealistic expectations to extended family insensitivities to loss, the holiday season is one that adoptive parents and adoptees often regret. Here’s how to traverse the holidays with wisdom and grace and find joy despite the difficulties.
See It Their Way
The most important thing you can do to make the holidays successful for your entire family is to lead with grace and try to see each part of the season through the eyes of your child. Ask yourself what they may be feeling with each event or experience and put yourself in their shoes and see with their eyes. Holidays are overwhelming for many people, but extra overwhelming when you add emotions like cultural confusion, grief, fear, etc. Lead with compassion and understanding and you’ll be in a much better place to roll with whatever emotions or reactions come.
Connect to Their Loss
I’ll never forget the Christmas of 2008 when, after 3 months of failed court attempts in Ethiopia we realized we would not be celebrating Christmas with our son. At that time, we weren’t sure if he would ever come home. To this day I hate the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” as it reminds me of the pain of that holiday season. Our son eventually did come home to us in April of the following year, but the pain of the holidays without him remain etched on my heart. And, this is a gift because this pain has, in a very small way, connected me to the pain my children feel at each holiday without their birth parents and country of origin. Connecting to the grief your child may feel is key to helping them process their feelings and can help you make decisions about what is realistic and what could be damaging.
Focus on the Family
Holidays are about family togetherness. Inevitably during the season, your child will come into contact with those not in your typical day to day circle. This can be both exciting and anxiety-producing for, well, everyone! Prepare your child by discussing who they’ll be seeing and interacting with and discuss how those people make them feel. Set boundaries that ensure your child always feels safe. And, this goes without saying but we still need to say it, never discuss details about your child’s adoption with family unless they bring it up and are a part of the discussion. Adoption stories don’t belong to anyone but the adoptee, so quickly shut down conversations that are inappropriate and don’t protect your child.
Lower Your Expectations
Traditions are the hallmark of the holiday season. During the holidays we make memories often by doing the same things year after year. Baking cookies, decorating, going to special events, family gatherings, etc. are all part of what makes the holidays special. But this also sets expectations that can be difficult for kids from hard places to manage. Not only will there be cultural differences in holidays if your child is internationally adopted and grief for the birth family and/or nation they are missing, but the expectations can also trigger anxiety, anger, and many other emotions in your adopted child.
The best way to manage this is to expect the unexpected and lower your own expectations. Talk with your child before the season about what they want to experience and what makes them feel anxious or unsafe. Allow them to participate in what they want and give them space and grace when they don’t want to be included. You may need to make the holidays much smaller and less important than you’re used to, and that’s ok! Better to have a few good memories than a season of stress and unmet expectations. Always, always prize your child’s safety and comfort above your own expectations.
We hope your holiday season is filled with joy and fun memories but also want to recognize the struggles that may come with it. Blessings often come hand in hand with struggles, and that is no more apparent than in adoption. Reach out for support, stay focused on your child’s needs, and do what works for your family to have a more peaceful holiday season.