4 Tips To Help Your Children This Holiday Season
The holidays are right around the corner. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years all happen in such quick succession. As soon as Thanksgiving is over, there’s a holiday event or party practically every weekend around here. Youth Group, swim team, gymnastics, school parties, church parties. It all turns into a huge blur for me. I’m a grown adult person (so they tell me) and I will be very honest with you right now: It all feels like too much. Already the department stores are playing rowdy Christmas music. There are lights and bright toy displays everywhere. Even stores that don’t usually sell toys are stocked with colorful, noisy, eye catching “must haves.” The thought of going to the store to buy groceries and shop for the thanksgiving meal makes me feel nauseated. Now, full disclosure, I am an introverted, anxious, sensory-processing, issue-having person. All of the things plus the crowds are enough to send me into a panic attack and make me want to hide under my covers until January.
I’m telling you all of this because I am an adult who has learned to identify my problems and am figuring out how to mitigate them. Because I have experience with holiday-related overwhelm, it is easier for me than some to help my kids limp their way to the finish line.
I am also aware that I sound like a grinch who does not enjoy the holiday season. That isn’t true. I love the traditions, the smells, and the chance to give and receive gifts. In fact, I love the holidays so much it took me a long time to figure out why I always felt so off from November to January. When I figured out what I didn’t like, it was easier to figure out how to enjoy the things I did like. Here are some ways I make that happen for myself and my kids.
Reduce the Clutter
For our family, this means minimal decorating. We decorate the door, string up some white lights, and decorate our Christmas tree. We might have some pumpkins on the front porch during Thanksgiving that are there from Halloween and haven’t rotted yet. Making our home a place of peace visually and auditorily goes a long way to reducing our overall stress. Fewer decorations mean fewer things in our way, fewer things to put away after Christmas, and help reduce the after-holiday sadness that comes with it suddenly not being Christmas time anymore. We also don’t add tons of new toys. We are big on books and experiences. We limit the number of gifts we give and let our children know ahead of time what to expect Christmas morning. We don’t do Santa (less for philosophical reasons and more because our oldest two were too big to introduce Santa when we met them and it just never became a thing with us.)
Avoid the Crowds
This probably makes me seem like a coward—and I’ll be honest, I am. My kids are adopted from foster care. They had a lot of unmet needs for several years of life, and now everything they want feels life or death to them. In their mind, they will actually literally die if I don’t buy them a shiny toy right now this second. Their trauma tells them that if I’m denying them something, it is probably something they need. It is convoluted thinking at its best but it is what it is. My kids aren’t spoiled brats. They have trauma that presents with sensory processing issues, attention issues, behavior issues, and a general sense of being overwhelmed all of the time. I am setting us all up for disaster if I take them into any store right now. If I can’t have it delivered to the door, I order things through pick-up services and pick gifts up while they are at school or otherwise occupied. I only take myself into a store during an hour that it is going to be much less crowded. I plan ahead, take a list, and wear earbuds so I can cancel out some of the noise around me.
If I absolutely must take a kid into a store because I have no other choice, we set up expectations before we go through the front door. I bring ear protection just in case the noise gets to be too much. I usually offer an incentive at the beginning of the trip to help us get through the store with minimal drama. For instance, I’ll let them pick out a pack of gum at the beginning of the trip. As long as they don’t go bonkers in the store, they’ll get that pack of gum at the end. This doesn’t always work, but it goes pretty far to get compliance at the beginning of the trip.
Keep it Simple
I know it is a sore point for many families to break tradition for any reason. However, adopted children, especially older adopted children who have lived through multiple traumas, cannot handle holidays. They may be afraid it won’t live up to expectations and turn to self-sabotage so they can prove themselves right. For one of my kids, this looks like her having envisioned a mountain of presents just for herself under the tree. This is unrealistic and impossible. When her expectations are not met (because of course, they aren’t) she flies off into a rage. It feels intentional. It feels like she is trying to ruin things. She isn’t. Or, at least, she isn’t aware that she is spoiling things until it is long after the fact.
This is a common problem that adopted children have. The way we get around it is setting firm boundaries at the beginning of the holiday season with family members. We tell our kids they will only be getting a certain number of gifts, we are only going to a certain number of parties, they can have a certain number of desserts, etc. We make sure our family members that we don’t see often know and understand the expectations, and then we police them. If we need to, we will leave. We have left parties hours before we intended to because people were violating our kids’ rules. Between the noise, the number of people, and the travel time we sometimes just don’t go to large family gatherings. It is too much for everyone and not worth it in the end. Yes, some family is offended/upset/angry, but we’ve decided our kids needs come first—not the adults who should know better.
Lower your Expectations
Pick the things that are really important to you that you’re willing to fight for. If it is very important to you that the whole family sits down and makes cookies together, you will have to let go of some other things to make that happen. Make a list of expectations. Then half it. Cross off some more. Lower that bar. I know it is absurd. I am aware that it feels like you should be able to do all of the things you want. I had all of these awesome family traditions I wanted to start when we had kids. We have three now. Family pictures are not on the list because they cost too much emotionally for everyone. Family baking is not on the list because the kids fight too much for it to be fun. Shopping together for gifts is off the list because of aforementioned sensory overwhelm.
If your adopted child struggles around the holidays and you just can’t figure out why, consider how much you are doing and how out-of-routine your life has gotten. There is a good chance you’ll understand if you sit back and take an objective view. Yes, it is difficult and it can feel like just one more loss in a string of losses to make your adoption “work.” Believe me, when I say, I understand. I think if you take some time to work through what is the most important for you during the holidays you can have an even happier holiday season.