Along with the joys of family celebrations, parties and, charitable efforts, the holiday crush creates stress and pressure. Expectations soar into the stratosphere. Parents seek to create magical moments with our kids by buying their dream gift. We want to make our family and friends happy. We yearn to feel that warm thrum of pleasure when our gift brings joy to them.
(Feel a tinge of pressure in your gut?)
We want to show them that we care and know enough about them to pick the perfect gift for them. I suspect that as adoptive parents, there is often a subtle yet potent pressure to “prove” ourselves to our kids, perhaps an unconscious sense that we must make their childhoods glorious to compensate for any adoption-connected loss and grief.
(Feeling more pressure?)
We know we must balance finances with our desire to buy the perfect gift. Often this pushes us to stretch the budget. Perhaps even to the point where it bursts and we create real financial pain for ourselves. Before buying an item, ask three questions: Can we afford it? Is this gift purchase about me feeling good or about the recipient? In six months will this still be valued?
(Feeling the burn now?)
How do we walk back expectations, defuse the stress and make healthier choices?
Let’s step back from the ingrained pattern and consider something our hearts all know: the best presents are not “stuff.” This is not to deny the hardcore realities of our culture. Yes kids dream of the “in” toy of the season or, the trendy clothing that will help them fit in with their chosen social group. They’ll get some pleasure from having their Christmas wish list fulfilled. But they don’t need everything they want. Help kids learn this life lesson.
As intentional parents, we also have an opportunity to open our children’s eyes to “gifts” they might never request: the gift of time, attention, respect and, most importantly, of validation.
Time and attention
By spending less time shopping, we can spend more time with our children and our partners. Make an opportunity to connect with each of them individually as well as collectively as a family. Be sure it is focused, undivided and connected. It does not have to be lengthy. Concentrate on truly being with one another. Here are just a few ideas.
One of the greatest gifts we can provide our children is validation. For adoptees the holidays can be complicated. Along with the excitement and anticipation which all kids feel, they can experience conflicting and distressing emotions. They can feel great longing and curiosity about their birth parents—even children adopted as infants. Validate that. Create a family tradition like burning a candle in honor of their birth parents or a special mention in the holiday blessings. (If the adoption is open, share an activity with the birth parents, perhaps replicating a tradition from the birth family. Keep it private without other family or friends. )
Ensure that you’ve created a space for children to be honest about their feelings. Be sure they know they can find support from you to help them cope, that you won’t be angry or hurt.
Reassure adoptees that there’s room for everyone at the emotional hearth. This is the time to remind them that the family is committed to Both/And; they do not need to choose between their adoptive and birth families.
For children adopted through foster care, memories of other Christmases will be on their mind. At best it will increase their grief and loss issues; at worst it will remind them of painful memories, abuse and neglect, and a tangle of mixed emotions. Sadness, longing, regret, anger and, love will all swirl in their minds. Do not wait for kids to raise the subject themselves. Open the space for talking about these hard things. Let them know that it is okay to have mixed feelings about the holidays, Reassure them that you understand if they are missing their first families. Identify a signal for when they are feeling overwhelmed and need an exit. Try to learn the triggers that might distress them, for example, songs, foods, smells, activities, sounds, even locations. Do not force them to participate in large, extended family gathering where they may feel out of place. This only reinforces feelings of not belonging. Give them the time and space they need. You and they will feel better in the long run.
Family dynamics are complicated, often unpredictable and highly charged. As intentional parents we recognize that the emotional health of our nuclear family must be at the center of any celebrations. Sometimes the emotional needs of our children will require us to skip the chaotic extended family gathering because it is too much for them to handle. Our guts can sense this. Listen to them. Being the safety net for our children is the best gift we can give them.
Acceptance is a two-way street. We must also give ourselves the grace we need. Admit when it is too much pressure, then maybe just do a minimal holiday --something that could be added to each year. Have no expectations, and if you feel you are heading for breakdown, take the cues from your child, and slow down the festivities to what can be tolerated--for them and you. Default to the lowest level of excitement--the one at which everyone can cope. Stay present and focus on what your intuition senses your family needs.
Blessings and peace.