We adults often lament how quickly the holiday season arrives and how fast it flies by us. We feel as if we’ve hardly had time to sit down and enjoy a moment of peace to soak in the memories we are making. However, for many of our adopted, foster, or kinship kids, the holidays might feel like a never-ending assault on their senses and emotions. It’s no wonder. With all the changes in sights, sounds, diet, and schedule, our kids can feel vulnerable and overwhelmed from Halloween through the new year. How is a family supposed to survive, let alone thrive, during the holiday season?

Be Proactive When Planning Your Holidays

If your family has experienced previous holidays full of stress, overwhelm, and anxiety, plan to tackle the season differently this year. If your family has endured a stressful year leading up to this holiday season, think about how you can set yourselves up together for an enjoyable holiday experience.

1. Host a family meeting.

At your meeting, ask what things your kids enjoy or look forward to the most during the holidays. Brainstorm a list of the things you all love – and why each person loves that activity. Be sure to include everyone, so they feel heard. You want to set a tone for collaboration and respect for each person’s experiences and feelings.

Then, get input from each person to craft a “Top 5” or your family’s “Holiday Bucket List.” Be prepared to whittle down and combine experiences to get to a workable list. Be patient as you try to include everyone’s favorites. Once you have a plan, get it on the calendar, and don’t cancel on yourselves!

The practical application:

One child might love the process of decorating cookies. Mom enjoys all the cheesy holiday music on repeat. Another child wants a family movie night with that one movie he always asks to watch. Create a plan for a Friday afternoon of cookie-making with music in the background till you finish the cookies. Order pizza, so no one needs to worry about dinner plans. Then you can wrap the night up with the holiday movie your child loves.

2. Play detective.

It’s common for our younger kids to go along with the events and activities that we plan, even when they struggle. They often don’t have the language to tell us that the bright lights, loud noises, or irregular schedules are obstacles that frustrate them. However, their behaviors send us messages if we are open to receiving them.

Start now to look for clues that signal overwhelm or over-stimulation in your kids. Ask yourself a few questions leading into each activity or celebration that usually ends in a meltdown or tantrum.

  • Is my child well-rested?
  • Is my child fueled and hydrated?
  • Is our family calendar too full?
  • Are there external stimuli that tip him over the edge?
  • How can I manage those stimuli in advance?

Use the answers to craft a plan you and your partner can implement to help your kids manage their big feelings during and after the events. As your kids get older, include them in the questions you ask and let them help you plan how to handle the triggers.

The practical application:

Family dinner at Grandma’s is non-negotiable for the last night of Hanukkah. You know all the fun with the cousins is over-stimulating. And the late-night makes the next day painful for everyone. Before going to Grandma’s, ensure your kids get a nap or quiet reading time in their rooms. Be sure to pack a small snack in case your child gets hungry outside the dinner schedule. Watch for escalating behaviors or emotions during game time with the cousins. Excuse yourselves for a quick walk around the block or out in the yard. Practice deep breathing together. Leave the party as early as you can graciously make your exit.

Make sure your calendar is free of unnecessary activities the next day. Build in time to recharge and rest after the fun and chaos of your big family night. Maybe even take a “jammy day” where you all snuggle up and read, watch movies, or intentionally slow that holiday roll together.

Be Flexible, but Hold on to the Routine During the Holidays

The holiday season, with school parties, concerts, and family traditions, can mean a lot of irregular bedtimes, meals on the go, and sugar overload. However, we can still create pockets of consistency and routine within the unusual calendar events.

1. Schedule holiday extras sparingly during the week.

Your kids need routine and structure to set them up for success at school. As often as possible, keep special events limited during the school week. When you cannot avoid that special weeknight event, go back to proactive, detective mode. Figure out what you can manage in advance and how to resume your routine quickly. Keep your family’s schedule firmly in place when you do not have special holiday events.

The practical application:

The annual holiday concert at school means a rushed dinner and late night, right? Prep ahead for an easy meal that everyone loves. Set out concert clothes the night before, ensuring everything fits and no tags or seams will instigate a meltdown. Before you leave for the concert, set out a small snack. After eating, get them to bed quickly and peacefully, even if you condense their bedtime routine.

2. Talk about your “WHY.”

Our kids need to know why we celebrate the way we do and why we engage in family traditions and community activities. When we intentionally pass down our faith practices or long-treasured family traditions, we give them continuity and anchor them to something bigger than themselves. The predictability of those traditions is comforting and buffers our kids from the noisy, chaotic world outside of our homes.

Check your family’s Top 5 or Holiday Bucket List from that family meeting. Which activities are also treasured parts of your family culture or faith? Do your kids know why you do them? Take the next holiday event on your calendar and discuss the “why.” Here’s the catch: don’t just tell them why you do it and why they should love it! Tell stories of your favorite memories of the event. Ask them what parts of the tradition they value most and why. Listening to their responses will help you find ways to connect them to your “why.”

The practical application:

Every year, your family attends the tree-lighting carol-sing in your town. Your kids have begun to grumble and complain about going. Do they know that your great-grandfather started the tradition with friends who attended the different churches across your town to unite the community? In the weeks leading up to the night, tell them the stories. Ask them how they would like to continue participating in the tradition. Would they like to invite their friends of other faiths to join your family at the ceremony? Would they like to set up a free hot cocoa stand for attendees?

3. Consider how to include new children in your holiday season.

It’s easy when you are a busy adoptive, foster, or kinship parent to wrap your newest child into the festivities without thinking about how he feels. All the “newness” can be intimidating no matter what time of year he comes to you. If this is his first holiday season with your family, consider how to offer extra compassion and support to help him feel included. Please make a point to give him space to share his feelings about these changes and what he left behind. You could also inquire about his traditions or memories from his first family or previous placements and incorporate some of them into your holiday plans.

The practical application:

Your new foster teen has a favorite meal that his Abuela always made for Christmas Eve. Reach out to Abuela for the recipe – or ask your caseworker for help. Invite him to shop with you for the ingredients. You could prepare it together for your family dinner if he is willing. Maybe you could go further and consider inviting his Abuela to join. This act of welcome and your openness fits right into the “why” of the whole holiday season! It might not be easy to figure out how to flex your holiday plans to include his traditions, but it will build his trust in your care.

Celebrating the Holidays in Foster Care: a guest post

Preparing well is half the battle.

Surviving and thriving during the holiday season can feel like a daunting task ahead of you. You have won half the battle if you can prepare to capture the “most important” parts of the season while being alert to triggers and overstimulation. Managing the irregular activities by holding your routine loosely but lovingly will give you the other half – and it might not even feel like a battle anymore.

How have you struggled with holidays in the past? What tips here might help you change that struggle? Tell us in the comments!

Image Credits: August de Richelieu; Yan Krukov; cottonbro