For many, the holidays are something to look forward to all year long. This season gives us an opportunity to celebrate with loved ones, take part in cherished family traditions and make lasting childhood memories. And, if it’s your first holiday season with your newly adopted child, you might be especially excited to include them in the fun.
But these wonderful moments are also exactly what can make the holidays complicated for many people — including children who were adopted at an older age. Whether it’s your child’s first Christmas in your home or you’ve celebrated several holidays together, this time of year can bring up some conflicting feelings. It’s important for any parent to be mindful of that and to take steps to make sure their child is comfortable.
Here are five things you can do to help make your child’s first holiday in your home as merry and bright as possible:
1. Don’t overcommit
Between community events, volunteer opportunities and celebrations with friends and family, it can be easy to over-schedule yourself during the holiday season. This can be overwhelming for anyone, but especially for a child who is new to your family and traditions.
Consider scaling back on the number of events you attend this year, and make sure to leave plenty of room in your schedule for downtime. Also remember that your child may be overwhelmed meeting lots of extended relatives right away; if you are still in the “cocooning” phase, it may be wise to limit the number of people you celebrate with this year to your closest friends and family.
In addition, you might offer to host the festivities at your home this year. Your child’s daily routines are already being disrupted by new people and new holiday traditions — being in a familiar environment can make these changes a little easier to handle. Plus, it can give them an “out” if they start to feel overwhelmed and need to spend some time alone in their room, for example.
2. Prepare your child ahead of time
By now, your holiday traditions are likely well-established. Eating a special breakfast, attending a religious service or going to Grandma’s house for Christmas dinner may be so natural to you, you don’t think to explain these customs to your new child. But preparing your child for what to expect can go a long way in making them feel comfortable and included in the festivities.
Before hosting or attending any celebrations, talk to your child about how you expect the day to go. Explain where you’re going, how you’ll get there, who you’ll see, how long you’ll stay and what you’ll do while you’re there. This conversation will help alleviate some of the anxiety your child might have about participating in unfamiliar traditions or fitting in with the rest of the family.
And, speaking of preparations — it’s also a good idea to prepare your loved ones for what to expect from your child. Let your friends and family members know ahead of time about any dietary restrictions, cultural or religious differences, behavioral challenges, specific concerns or other needs your child may have.
3. Incorporate your child’s traditions
When an older child joins your family, they may have their own established beliefs and traditions that differ from yours. Talk to your child about how they’ve celebrated the holidays in the past, and incorporate those traditions into your family’s festivities. If your child has a different religious or cultural background from yours, take the time to learn about those holiday customs. Blending those beliefs and practices with your own can help you create new traditions and make your child feel like a valued member of the family.
4. Reach out to loved ones, if possible
When you adopt a child internationally or from foster care, open adoption may not always be possible. However, when it is safe and healthy to do so, helping your child to maintain relationships with their loved ones can be very beneficial. Depending on the situation, you may consider arranging a time to celebrate with your child’s siblings, birth parents or even prior foster families. Alternatively, if you have up-to-date addresses, you can assist your child in sending small gifts, cards or care packages.
If direct contact with your child’s birth family isn’t possible, there are other things you can do to help your child feel connected to them during the holidays. You might include them in family prayers, donate to charities that support struggling families in your community, hang a special ornament in their honor, or help your child write a letter or create a special gift for them, even if it won’t be delivered right away.
This is an emotional time of year, and your child may be anxious about whether their loved ones are doing okay. If possible, reach out to former caseworkers to see if they have any updates about your child’s birth family. At a minimum, knowing that their relatives are safe, warm and cared for can ease your child’s worries.
5. Acknowledge difficult feelings
Let go of the expectation that your child is nothing but joyful, grateful and excited during the holidays. The grief and loss adoptees feel is very real — and those feelings may be especially pronounced during this time of year. It’s important for parents to understand that and be aware of the emotions their child might be wrestling with.
Keep in mind that grief can be expressed in many ways; your child may withdraw, rebel, have temper tantrums, become withdrawn, revert back to younger behaviors, etc. Do your best to be patient during this time, and try to identify the feelings behind those behaviors. Acknowledge and validate those difficult feelings, and make sure your child knows you are always there to talk and to listen when they need you.
Navigating the holidays with a newly adopted child may require a little preparation, sensitivity and flexibility — but it is always worth taking the extra time and care to ensure your first holiday season as a family is a positive and memorable one. If your child is having a particularly hard time this holiday season, or if you just need more guidance and suggestions, don’t be afraid to reach out to your caseworker or a licensed counselor.