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Adoptees and the Holidays

Samantha Brady, LCSW
Program Supervisor, Adoption Support and Preservation

The holidays are “supposed to” be a fun time for everyone, filled with family, friends, lots of food, presents and joy. A lot of families created through adoption experience something completely different. This is a time parents may dread. They experience increased tantrums, aggression and report that their kids try to intentionally ruin family parties and together time. This can be a very isolating time for parents, when they experience extra embarrassment and judgment from family and strangers alike.

Below, read about a few reasons for these behaviors, as well as tools parents and caregivers can use to make the holidays less stressful.

Possible reasons for increases in aggressive behaviors:

Holidays are seen as a time to be with family. Adoptees have two families; their adoptive family and their birth family.

  • Even if they have never met their birth family, it is a time adoptees think about them. Adoptees have talked about thinking about what their birth family is doing, or wondering why their birth family would “give them up.”
  • If adoptees know their birth family, it brings up feelings of the trauma they experienced, and sometimes makes them feel bad they have so much now, while their birth families have so little.
  • Some adoptees can verbalize this, if adoption and birth families are an open topic within your home; but some, even if it is open, cannot verbalize what they are feeling.

How can I help my kids through this time?

First, set low expectations. If you expect this time to be difficult for your child, you might not be as angry when it is.

Stay regulated. Use all the tools you have and make time for self-care to take care of yourself. This is not only important for yourself, but you are also modeling regulation and self-care for your child.

Punishment may reinforce their negative behavior, which then may strengthen their brain connections to past trauma. This will, in turn, make holidays increasingly more challenging year by year. Even if they do not remember their trauma, their body does. Read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. for more on how the body holds trauma.

Prepare family members. If you plan on attending socially distanced family parties, give your family members a heads up that this is a difficult time for your kids. Tell them how you plan on handling difficult situations so they can support you and your child.

Take two cars. If your partner and other children are going to the holiday party as well, take two cars. This is so one parent can leave with the dysregulated child if necessary and you do not need to be upset with them for ruining everyone’s holiday. This can also be relieving for the child to know they have a way out if they are not doing well or need a break. This should not be seen as a punishment, but rather as a healthy coping strategy.

Have a separate space for your child within your home or at the parties. Sometimes we all just need a minute when we are overstimulated to be alone and for our kids to be with one parent to regulate. This can be used for something as small as decorating your tree, family meal prep time or even opening presents. This can also be used for parties, religious services or other events you attend. Then they can rejoin when ready or spend the rest of the event alone. Give them a chance to have a voice and tell you what they need. Try to not get upset if they want to be alone. If they choose to be alone, check in on them from time to time so they do not feel forgotten.

Be available for processing with them. This is a tough one if you are the one hosting or in the middle of a holiday tradition. Unfortunately, they do not tend to ask more than once for your help and then it quickly turns into negative attention seeking. They tend to get your attention one way or another. It could make things smoother if it’s for processing instead of regulating and then processing. If you have previously set up processing times or check ins, this could be something where you give them your undivided attention (on their level, with eye contact) and then say to them: “Those are feelings I’d love to talk to you more about. Can we do that during our check in time tonight?” Make sure you go back and do not forget. Set a reminder in your phone if necessary.

Wonder out loud. If your child does not have words to talk about why they have regressed or are more regularly dysregulated, help by giving them words. “I wonder if you are missing your birth family?” “I wonder if you are remembering some of the hard times you had during the holidays before you were adopted?” “Do you ever think about what your holidays would have been like with your birth family?” They might not be able to answer right then, or even deny those feelings, but it might open up their ability to place where their feelings are coming from. Do not give them the answer or tell them how they are feeling. Accept their response; they might surprise you later with opening up and asking for help.

Write letters to birth families or send presents to birth siblings. This could be a way for them to feel connected to their birth family. They can even write a letter and not send it if that feels better to them.

Above all be PLAYFUL!  Play disarms fear. It helps parents as well as kids to stay calm and regulated. It is also allows your kids to have an increased sense of felt-safety which will help them come to you with feelings instead of feeling the need to display behaviors to show you their feelings.

Holidays are filled with together time, which can be more enjoyable when we have not been in our homes with our kids for the last several months, and potentially not had a break in a while. Give yourself grace, give your child grace, and work together to find ways you can make things a little more enjoyable this year – and maybe next year, the holidays will go smoother. It is a journey, not a destination.