How can we prepare for what we aren’t aware of?
Published: October 31, 2019
By: Stephanie Rodda
For many, perhaps most, the holidays bring about lots of joy for the present season as well as fond memories of seasons long ago. Often people declare that you’ve never truly experienced the holidays until you’ve done so through the eyes of your child. Parents can hope, dream and pray for many years to have that special opportunity. As my husband and I struggled for more than a decade with infertility, I could only imagine the delight that must surely accompany the holidays with children.
Our first Christmas as parents we were foster parents to a house full of assorted ages of children. I wanted everything to be perfect and idyllic for multiple reasons. First of all, I wanted the children in our care to experience it “right” when their young lives had seen far too much of how it could be done “wrong.” We had six foster children, the capacity by law, and had been fostering for six months. Our youngest was a newborn preemie and our oldest was a teen.
My husband’s brother was in from Tennessee to see their parents and after the kids were all in bed on Christmas Eve, he came to our house in full Santa costume with ho-hos and pictures while they each sat upon his knee. I was thrilled. It was just as wonderful as I had expected it to be.
What I didn’t expect was the fallout from all the festivities.
Just days before, one of our foster children had run away. We went on to foster for 15 years and never again would a child run away from us, but this one had and right before Christmas. Although we found the child safe within hours, he had insisted that he would run again at his first opportunity unless we promised to return him to DHR the next business day. We did promise and we kept that promise. It was a sad situation. He was a troubled child. Many people didn’t understand our decision and I wasn’t even sure that we understood it ourselves. I just knew we could not force him to stay.
And so, our story continued as did his, but we were to travel different paths. Determined to make the best of it, I pressed on, carefully choosing each gift, making sure they would all be pleased with what we had gathered. Our church and DHR helped with the gifts. I orchestrated it all and that was quite the achievement, let me tell you.
And so, we had arrived at this magical moment and the children who were old enough to understand what was happening, had reactions that were unexpected. One teen girl, as the big event ended, paused on her way back to bed and asked me, “Is this it?” Her question stunned me. I had anticipated giddy excitement and much thankfulness. Not so. If I had understood then what I understand now, I wouldn’t have felt so disappointed myself.
The holidays are without a doubt full of heightened emotions. Anyone who has faced loss, anyone who is grieving, anyone in the midst of a family or health crisis can attest to the fact that it is harder to face during the holidays. After all, the holidays revolve around family gatherings, plenty of gifts and an abundance of food. When any of these things are missing, it is so much more apparent during the holidays than any other time.
I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the impact of the holidays with other adoptive moms and there was a common theme among us all: Set aside your expectations of how the children will respond so that you don’t have your own disappointment to deal with as well.
One mom shared how when one of her adoptive daughters got everything on her small list of requested gifts, she burst into tears and claimed it was because they hadn’t given her a trash can for her room. I remember my own first Christmas with our adoptive daughters. I had searched far and wide for just the right dolls. They tossed them down without hardly a second glance. Another mom told me how one of her adoptive daughters was very distressed when expected to wear the pretty Christmas dress they had bought her. She had never worn a dress.
In each of these situations and many others that could be listed, the children, due to their past experiences, reacted in unexpected ways. Of course, any child can react unexpectedly, but in the case of adoptive children, especially older-child adoptions, there may be unknown factors that lead to trauma triggers during the holidays.
So, how can we prepare for what we aren’t aware of?
- Ask social workers, former foster parents, anyone who may know of important dates and details that could hold painful memories for the children.
- Don’t expect non-adoptive parents or family members to understand your child’s behavior nor your method of addressing it.
- Have a plan in place for when an intervention is called for. It could be as simple as a five-minute walk, some deep breaths or a secret cue between the two of you.
- Don’t allow other people to dictate your schedule, and don’t hesitate to scale back your activities and commitments.
- Resist the temptation to overdo and make up for missed years of being together. Start small and keep it simple.
- Embrace existing family traditions that will work for your new family dynamics, but don’t hesitate to make changes and create new traditions.
One of the greatest challenges that many foster or adoptive parents face during the holidays is equity of gifts between the children. Some may have extended family or even former foster parents that are still a part of their lives who may give gifts to them while other children in the home may feel even more rejected because they have no such connections. No matter how we wish we could instantly convince them that they are valued, loved and accepted, they may struggle for years with feelings of rejection.
Stephanie Bass, the mother of two international older children adoptees and a biological child, expressed the importance of finding a good support system for parents. “Find a group of adoptive moms/families with whom you can share these feelings… they are more likely to listen and offer support from a place of ‘I’ve been there.’”
Don’t expect the day, yourself or your children to be perfect. Apply grace liberally and keep in mind a favorite beatitude that I wrote for myself long ago. “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not break.”
Stephanie Rodda lives in the Birmingham area with her family. She is an author, inspirational speaker, blogger and freelance writer who aspires to inform and inspire others concerning adoption.