Like many other children, when December comes around our children enjoy carefully writing out “Wish Lists” to send to Santa. They excitedly think about presents and consider what special items they might write down. This year our nine-year-old son Jameson patiently helped our five-year-old daughter Jubilee put together a lengthy list of her favorite things. At our dining room table sat a little guy we are fostering. At six years old he has already lived in a few different houses and spent the holidays with a few different families. On this particular Thursday night, he was writing a special letter to Santa and he wanted to put on his list a certain toy he once had at his mom’s house, but he couldn’t remember what it was called. And then I think he just got to feeling so sad about it. Big alligator tears were sliding down his little-freckled cheeks. I tried to help him find it by having him describe it and looking at pictures online, but we just couldn’t figure it out together.
Around the holidays, I see many others struggle with family dynamics, financial burdens and worry over holiday stress. I just keep thinking about the heartache of this six-year-old boy away from his mom, in his third foster home, longing for a home and a toy that’s probably long gone. The good news is, there are many ways that foster and adoptive parents can reduce stress and anxiety for children over the holidays. Here are my top three best bets for a smoother holiday season.
Number one: Honor every family member’s traditions.
We have a family habit of making a list on our chalkboard of all the things we would like to do over the holiday season. Sometimes they are simple items such as reading a Christmas book, drinking hot cocoa, or watching a favorite movie together. Making a family to-do list together builds trust and empowers children to have the opportunity to choose things that they would like to do. I ask them if there are certain foods that they would like to include in our holiday meals. We always plan time for the children to buy small gifts for their parents to take to visitation as well.
Number two: Prediction. Prediction. Prediction.
I can’t stress this enough. Let your children know what’s coming next. If your schedule is going to be different over the holidays, consider making a visual schedule somewhere accessible for them. We have done this in a few different ways. Our son Jayvon has a white-board in his room with different small pictures that let him know what’s coming next. Last year our son Jameson had a calendar in his room that marked the days we were visiting people as well as his school holiday concert. Christmas was marked with a big sticker. We also use our chalkboard for this on nights when our kids are especially worked up. Visual aids can be extremely soothing for children who have lived in chaotic environments.
Number three: Adjust your expectations for yourself and your child.
Especially if you have children who have been newly placed within your home or are sensitive to changes in environment. If on a typical Christmas day, you have a flurry of opening presents, followed by celebrations in three different relatives’ homes in different cities, adjust the expectations for new children. It may be very overwhelming to meet that many new people at one time. Consider if they may do best with having some planned downtime, or time to do a sensory-friendly activity that can help center them over the busy days. Try to be in tune with what your children need if they are feeling sad or anxious. Plan ahead for potential meltdowns! This year it might be best not to stretch yourself too thin. It’s okay to say no to some activities and invitations.
We remind each other at our house that everything doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. Children can love spending the holidays with your family, and be deeply missing their own family as well. It can take a lot of grace, patience and mercy to get through the holiday season. Give yourself some space to enjoy the holidays without so much pressure.