It is as inevitable as the tides rolling in. It is as undeniable as the sunrise. One trip into the grocery store lets you know it. Despite back to school having just been 2 seconds ago The Holiday Season is upon us. For some of us it is “The Most Wonderful Time of The Year,” and for some of us, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” I used to be as excitable as Buddy the Elf at Christmas time. I could not wait to hang lights, decorate the tree, and make Christmas cookies. Thanksgiving made me full of thanks and pumpkin pie, and then—BOOM: it was on. Santa Clause was coming to town and I was all the way there for it. And then, as with most things, having children changed everything.
Yes, I was delighted to hear Christmas carols, decorate the tree, and buy gifts for my (then) foster children. The thought of having kids in the house that would enjoy unwrapping presents and eating Christmas cookies sent me over the moon with excitement. And then . . . well, I was smacked in the forehead with reality.
Don’t get it twisted. My kids deserve every joy that I can bring to them. It’s not that. It’s just that I’m a little bit more cautious now heading into the holiday season. Why? Let’s look at the season of joy for a kid who has been in foster care or in an abusive, neglectful, or stress-filled home most of their lives. Every trip to the grocery store is another reminder that they will probably get nothing under the tree. Schools ask for moms and dads to sign up for the holiday parties and these kids sigh knowing their parents cannot or will not be bothered to come.
Add in sensory processing issues to the chaotic, loud, full, and visually overwhelming stores, and it is a perfect storm for a normally sweet and obedient child to lay down on the floor and scream themselves purple. A kid who has fewer inhibitions than that? If you choose to go to the store with them, you might need riot gear and hearing protection to make it out alive.
Obviously, I’m kidding . . . a little. But this is based on a true story. The first holiday season my kids were home with us, I made the mistake of taking hungry, sensory-overwhelmed, previously neglected, and unaccustomed-to-even-going-out-into-public 8- and 9-year-old with me. The store was busy, and the 8-year-old wanted something. I legitimately don’t know what it was. But he was overwhelmed the second we walked in the door. When I said “no” to the thing he thought he needed and would literally die without, it sent him over the edge. He laid down in the middle of the aisle and refused to move. He was a very small 8-year-old, but somehow he made himself boneless and 10 times his usual weight. It would have been embarrassing, but I was so worried about the kid I didn’t have time to feel it. I had to leave my husband with the 9-year-old and baby in the store while I took the 8-year-old out to calm down in the car.
Not a week later, I made a similar mistake and had a repeat of the boneless-, weighty-8-year-old routine. I learned after that. I try to not go to the store with the kids at all from October to January. For that matter, I wear my noise cancelling headphones and listen to an audiobook if I have to physically step foot into a store this time of year. The assault on my senses is too much and I am a grown adult person who can say what is wrong. My kids don’t always know how to communicate what it is that is bothering them.
Another reason adopted kids may struggle around the holiday season is that they are feeling a deep sense of loss while being expected to show gratitude. Think about a time you were supposed to feel happy, but it made you sad instead: the first holiday or birthday after a loved one died, a reminder of something that didn’t go the way you wanted, you got a gift you really don’t like but it would be rude to say so. Now imagine that everyone around you asked “Aren’t you so happy? Aren’t you so grateful? You should be grateful to the family you are staying with you know. Be grateful, be happy.”
Kids who have been adopted from foster care have often come from situations where the holidays were not happy times. Maybe Christmas or Hanukkah was the only time they saw family that would show them love. That makes the separation from family all the harder.
I am an adult and the holiday season can fill me with dread if I allow myself to wallow. I feel overwhelmed by expectations and desperate to make it good for my kids. It is no wonder that my kids are super dysregulated. Instead of being a happy, holly-jolly time, it is a constant reminder of loss, a constant reminder of unmet expectations, a constant barrage of things that you’re supposed to want that will make you happy. It’s a lot.
So, the next time you are scratching your head wondering about why your kiddo is going nuts in the grocery store aisle, take a look around. There is a chance that you’ll have to make some accommodations.
Not only are the stores a mess, but the actual holiday events are also a veritable minefield of emotional bombs waiting to go off. It looks like little Sally is screaming because she got the wrong doll. She is probably screaming because she is missing her birth family, is dysregulated, is overwhelmed by family she only sees once or twice a year, or someone said something inconsiderate. Maybe all of the above.
Take a little time to prep your adopted kids before going into events or stores. Prepare yourself with ear protection, headphones with music they like, fidget toys, comfy clothes, and people who understand that you might need to bow out quickly if your little person starts to feel overwhelmed. A little prep can go a long way.