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Wisdom Wednesdays: Home for the Holidays

Here we are again at the start of another wonderful holiday season.  Whenever I reflect on the holidays, my first thought is always to my favorite Christmas of all.  The year was 2004, and my husband and I were headed to China for our adoption journey. We returned home on Christmas Eve with our amazing daughter, Grace, just six days shy of her second birthday.

Christmastime at the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, China

The holidays are certainly a wonderfully exciting time of year, but they can be downright overwhelming for an adopted child spending his or her first holiday with their forever family.  Parties, large family gatherings, unfamiliar faces, disruption of routines, new toys, lights, music, and overstimulation are exactly the opposite of what most adopted children need when trying to adapt to a new family and a new home environment. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or other holidays, here are three suggestions to help you and your family enjoy this special first holiday season together.

1) Set Realistic Expectations. We all strive for the “perfect” holiday, even though we know this puts undue stress on ourselves and our families.  Be realistic in determining what you and your newly adopted child can handle during the holidays.  Consider your child’s level of attachment and adjustment before traveling away from home, attending large parties or family gatherings, or inviting guests to your home.  You may need to consider limiting the number of gatherings, gifts, and new people if this will help your child feel safe, calm, and in control of their new life.  For example, our daughter was terrified of unfamiliar people who came to our home.  You could almost see her thinking “Is this person going to take me away?” How was she to know that we were her parents forever and that no one could take her away?  We initially limited her visitors to only close family. Even then, we prepared her by showing her pictures of who she would be meeting and telling her, in Chinese, how these people were related to her.  Yes, some family and friends were disappointed that we wouldn’t be celebrating the holidays with them. But after we explained all the changes our daughter had endured and our need to limit her experiences for the short term, they understood why we wouldn’t be attending their holiday gathering or inviting them to our home. In the end what is important is making sure your child feels safe and secure during all the hubbub of the holiday season.  There will be other years for the big gatherings, parties, and holiday events.  Try to keep things simple and understated for this year.

2) Be Consistent and Predictable. Children thrive on predictability, routine, and structure.  This is especially true for a newly adopted child whose whole life has changed in such a short time.  During the holidays there will be frequent temptations to let children stay up late, skip their naps, and eat meals at varying times.  Try to be vigilant about maintaining your child’s sleep and meal schedules.  Routines and schedules provide predictability, which creates a sense of safety and calm for your child.  Good communication will also help to put your child at ease during the hectic, unpredictable holiday season.  Let’s face it — many of our children have had enough surprises to last a lifetime.  Explaining what will be happening, when, where, and for how long, will go a along way towards lowering their anxiety.  Since verbal communication may be difficult, a picture schedule is a wonderful tool to help communicate to your child what will be happening.  Starting the schedule with a picture of your family at home, and also ending the schedule with the same picture of your family at home, can help to reassure your child that you will end up back home together as a family.  In between, place pictures, in order, of the places you will be going, people you will be seeing. and things you will be doing.  Have your child follow pictures on the schedule so he or she can anticipate what will be happening next and in the near future.

3) Begin New Holiday Traditions. Holidays are a wonderful time to celebrate our uniqueness as individuals as well as families.  Begin new holiday traditions that help to support your new child and his or her culture and history.  While staying in Fuzhou during the adoption of our daughter, the hotel staff was decorating the lobby Christmas tree.  One of the workers kindly gave our daughter a little fuzzy bear ornament that she treasures to this day.  It is our tradition to hang this ornament on our tree on Christmas Eve and relive the story of coming home to our first Christmas together as a family.

Some children may feel sad during the holidays, thinking of foster families, birth families, siblings, or friends they left back in China.  Hanging a photo ornament on your tree, lighting a candle in remembrance, or decorating a shoebox as a holiday memory box can be ways to help children remember those important people who can’t be with them.  At our house, we have a picture ornament with a drawing my daughter did of her birthparents.  One holiday when my daughter was expressing sadness and disappointment over never having spent a holiday with her birth parents, she created the ornament, which she lovingly hangs on our tree each year.  Be creative and follow your child’s lead!  Get siblings and the entire family involved in creating new and fun ways to celebrate the holidays. There are no right or wrong traditions —  just ones that have significance and meaning to your family.

Best wishes to everyone for a happy and healthy holiday season. Enjoy the magic!

~Lisa Hoffman, Therapy Education Coordinator and True Children’s Healing Home Cleft Surgery Coordinator (and mom to Grace Meiqiong)

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