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Happy/Sad Holidays: Understanding Conflicting Emotions of Adoptive and Foster Youth During the Holiday Season

By Sara Buckheit, Post-Adoption Program Manager

Lights on trees, favorite meals, spending time with loved ones…these may be the cherished moments we look forward to at the holidays. For children and teens adopted from or still in foster care, emotions around the holidays are often much more complicated. What may seem to be a new beginning in a safe, loving family is often filled with intrusive thoughts of holidays past and family members who are no longer in their lives. Many adoptive parents seek to develop new traditions and celebrate their new family and are often confused and disappointed when their children do not share their enthusiasm. While celebrations with their new family may be something they desperately want to enjoy, children who have experienced trauma also frequently experience a sense of guilt about their new situation.

An adoptive family recently shared with me that their son ran away from the dinner table at Thanksgiving. They found him in his room…in tears. When his parents asked what was wrong he said he never knew holidays could be like this. He remembered his previous Thanksgivings as days with little food, and frequent arguments. While surrounded by mountains of homemade food in his adoptive family, he couldn’t help but think about being cold and hungry during this very same holiday. “I didn’t know it could be like this…and I’m so angry for the way things were before.”

Knowing that the holidays may share both happy and sad moments here are some thoughts for foster and adoptive parents alike who are trying to plan a happy and supportive environment for their children.

  • No pressure! Ease up on any forced moments of cheer, allow children to participate or choose to opt out of any traditions based on their comfort level without punishment or guilt. Also, your child or teen may struggle to understand ‘why’ you want to buy them gifts or might have a hard time expressing gratitude. You can give gentle reminders but understand this is a part of the lack of trust they developed through their trauma, so be patient and don’t expect too much.
  • Add new traditions. There may be special foods, music, or traditions your child carries with them that make their holidays feel more like home, so invite them to share any positive traditions they have and try to incorporate those into your family’s celebrations. Or, there may have been something your child always wished was a part of their holiday, asking open ended questions that allow them to explore their own feelings can help them feel included in the activities.
  • Ask about anyone they want to be connected to, and help them reach out. It is important to help your foster or adoptive child remain connected with their supportive community prior to entering your home. With approval from DSS or a therapist, explore safe people your child might want to maintain or rekindle a connection with and help them re-connect or add them to your holiday card list!

Understanding the happy/sad state that the holidays can bring can help you be a support during an unusually stressful time for our adoptive and foster children. Be open, don’t be afraid to ask if your child is acting different, and let them participate at their own comfort level.