The holidays are intended to be a very exciting time of year. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas there are two months of family gatherings, feasting, gift giving, and family traditions. This is also the time of year when it can be very fun to be a parent. We are excited to share with our children the joy of the season and to capture a little bit of the magic that is childhood. As foster parents, we often times come in with even a little more gusto! We can’t wait to share the joy of the holidays with these precious kids. Who is not more deserving of joy than children such as these?
However, we must be careful. Good intentions, especially when it comes to traumatized or neglected children, have a tendency to blow up in our faces. If you want to keep the “Merry” in your Merry Christmas, it is important to approach the holidays with a plan. Here are five easy steps toward achieving just that…
- Expect a change in behavior
A time of year intended to bring happiness and joy can be extremely uncomfortable for a child who has experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse. Often times, childhood trauma leads to a negative self-image. Healing takes time. LOTS of time! Despite prayer, counseling, and love, your precious children might still have a feeling that they are not good and do not deserve good things. When we introduce them to happy situations like Thanksgiving or Christmas, expect that your child might unconsciously need to restore their equilibrium. They will do this by soliciting negative behavior. Don’t be shocked. Take it as a reminder that your child is still healing and will need to be introduced to positive experiences slowly and with care.
Holidays also trigger past memories. The season will provide them with plenty of reminders that their life is not traditional and the reality is not Hallmark. Even if your child is in safer, happier, more loving situation, there is still room for sadness and grief. Grief expresses itself in behaviors. Expect a change in your child’s behavior and be prepared to meet the needs they are expressing.
- Make a family plan
Holidays mean a change in routine. Children need routine. Plan the season with your children, prepare a calendar so they can visually see places you plan to go and activities you plan to participate in. Let them participate in the planning. Is there a family tradition they want to share with you? Is there a special food they would like to help cook? Mold the season together, do not just plan the holidays and throw your child into the mix. This needs to be a family experience, and as a newer member of this family, let them provide input and help create new traditions. Giving your child a voice will give them a sense of control. Control will help calm their nerves and ease behaviors.
Also be aware of sensory overload. During this season our senses are assaulted on all fronts. The sights, smells, and sounds of Christmas might bring us joy, but are a nightmare for a child who has trouble processing their environment. Bringing a child with limited sensory processing to a crowded shopping area or a loud party is a recipe for disaster. Pay attention to your child’s triggers and adapt your schedule as needed. Understand that they may be more easily triggered because they are already over stimulated and “on edge”.
- Lower Expectations
This can be difficult. We enter this time of year with so much hope and anticipation. We want to provide the very best for our foster children, that’s partly why we’re here! But save yourself the grief and lower those expectations. Provide the very best, but expect less. This is a hard time of year for many children. There will be behaviors. There will be ungratefulness. There will be tears or screaming or fighting. There will be these things because there will be feelings. And where there are feelings, there are behaviors. You can help with your child’s stress by lowering your expectations and meeting their true needs. They need to feel safe. They need to feel secure. They need to feel loved. And love doesn’t mean you show up with the coolest bike on Christmas morning. Love means when they are raging on Christmas Eve, you’re right there with them. And you could care less that you are missing the family party. Remind yourself in those moments that love is allowing that child to express their feelings, and love is letting them know they are in a safe place to do so.
- Help foster connections
Make sure to honor your child’s connections throughout the season. Do they get to see their biological family? Help them make gifts and cards. If safe and approved, invite them to holiday events like the church’s Christmas play or a tree lighting ceremony.
Make sure your child has opportunities to give back. Many people want to give to our children this time of year. While this is kind, it can also be hurtful. We don’t want our children to see themselves as needy or as takers. Help foster connections by making them givers! Help them make cards and presents for the important people in their lives, whether that is their biological mom or a teacher at their school. Everyone has connections. Help your child stay connected to theirs.
- Share, teach, and demonstrate the true meaning of Christmas
This is the most important step. The meaning of Christmas gets lost. Somewhere in the smell of sugar cookies, the mountain of presents, and the lights on our tree is the true reality of this holiday. The reality that our savior was born in a stable and placed in a trough. The reality that the king of this universe was born so that he could one day die on a cross. But why death? So that there could be life. That is a powerful truth. That is reality. Don’t let it get lost.
Isaiah 9:6 tells us, “For us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Is that not everything our children need? Is it not everything we need? Our counselor, our mighty God, an everlasting father, and the Prince of Peace! It is so powerful, so healing, and so true. Keep this truth at the center of the holiday season and you will surely keep the Merry in your Merry Christmas.
John 16:33 “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”