Holiday Celebrations that Build Connection

December 1, 2021

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Given that the name of our coaching firm is Growing Intentional Families Together, we obviously believe in the value of intentionality. We define our particular "flavor" of intentionality as "Adoption Attunement. "We know parenting with intention is essential during the holiday season. Pressures, expectations, emotions, and fears all operate at an intensified level at this time of year. This is what makes being attuned to our children all the more vital We must also consciously and honestly acknowledge our own needs, expectations, and desires. These influence our thoughts, feelings, and actions so it is beneficial to bring them to conscious awareness and evaluation.

How can we use intentionality as a compass point during the holidays? First, carefully decide with whom we will share them, which activities to include, and which to decline. Acknowledge our desire to recreate treasured family memories and spend time with family and visit friends. Attune to ourselves, and admit that our "inner child"  wants all the magic and traditions of our past, then pull up our Big girl (or big boy) panties and deal with the more reasonable realities. Some of our expectations can be realized but may need to be modified or reduced.

Review and clarify, redefine, and discuss boundaries to help avert meltdowns and overwhelm. Most of our families include children with a history of tough starts and trauma. Attuning to their needs takes planning and focus. For some children, the holidays demand more than they can give. The increased pressure, breaks in routine, and treat-filled menus amplify anxiety and agitation. Coping with the stress challenges us and is even more difficult for our kids. This may evoke acting out or uncooperative behavior from both children and adults!  Hidden triggers can catch kids and parents short as painful memories are reawakened and anticipated pleasures collapse under the weight of trauma-connected "stuff."

How can we avoid collapse and conflict? For starters be both proactive and flexible. If large gatherings bring out the worst in your child, skip them. Arrange to visit in small, intimate groups. Concentrate on spending time together, without the hype, hoopla, and fancy feasts. Spend time having fun instead of spending days engaged in cooking and cleaning. Our children will thank us. (And we won’t miss the chaos, exhaustion, or breakdowns that this approach helps avoid.) The most valuable gift we can provide our children may prove to be our understanding and empathy.

Be sensitive to the ambivalent feelings that complicate Christmas for kids with difficult histories. Perhaps their holiday memories were filled with disappointment, neglect, or violence. We can't erase the difficult parts of their history; we can be mindful of it. An over-the-top holiday may make them feel worse, not better. Your enthusiasm and excitement may not jibe with their past experiences. This disconnect can be uncomfortable at best, threatening at worst. (Remember, when kids feel threatened: primitive behaviors arise and everyone suffers the consequences.)

Instead of guessing what might make the holiday challenging for our kids, ask them directly about their fears and concerns. The simple act of asking may help them become conscious of “stuff” that lies just below the surface, like a boobytrap easily triggered. Resist pushing them if they are unable or unwilling to identify factors. The seed of awareness will still be planted in their minds and ours. If these conversations don’t bear fruit, become a detective. Review previous holidays and gatherings. Determine where and when things went well and where they fell apart. Glean the learning and then act accordingly.

Once we identify triggers that set off these difficult memories, we can help kids process the painful feelings. Perhaps it is the taste of a food, or the smell of alcohol, the sound of glass clinking in the trash. A song, decoration, or activity might dredge up a troubling memory or awaken deep longing and feelings of grief. A relative or family friend may remind them of a dangerous person from their earlier life. We must be Sherlock Holmes as we work to identify what can ignite past pain.

Create an "escape plan" that provides them with a prearranged way to escape from the trigger. Agree that when they flash the "signal" alerting us that a meltdown is imminent, we will follow the prearranged action plan and move from the scene to a "safe" space. Without fanfare or comment. Be invested in the support this offers our children. Detach from any disappointment that could arise from canceled plans. Our sensitivity and attunement to our children’s needs may prove to be their most treasured holiday present.

If our child needs his solitude, respect this. Don’t pout or appear visibly disappointed or frustrated. Resist the inclination to minimize their distress or to cajole them into hanging in there.  The results will most likely not be pleasant for anybody. Abide by your prearranged signal. Take the planned Time Out and allow the strategy to take effect. Pat ourselves on the back for being proactive and intentional!

Reassure them that they are always welcome to join the group—when they decide they are ready. Acknowledge their feelings and support the strategies that work for them. Praise them for meeting their own needs. (Self-care is an essential life skill!) Remind them that when they are ready, they will be welcomed to the festivities without fanfare or comment from us. Then ensure that other guests also follow suit and respect this boundary.

This Christmas may not be the fantasy family holiday of your dreams but it can be the foundation of a future of holidays spent together enjoying each other and building an empathic, respectful family connection.

Physical touch We must also remember not to expect or press them into giving or accepting gestures of affection and intimacy with which they are uncomfortable. Respect their need for personal boundaries and insist that extended family respect them as well. Do not tolerate teasing or pressure regarding their reluctance to accept or give unwanted demonstrations of affection.

Hard realities We must be unflinchingly honest. Open our eyes and notice if relatives treat our children differently from the children who are biologically related to them. Do not make excuses for the boorish and offensive behavior of relatives. Be assertive if or when boundaries are ignored. We can do it with grace and without anger but we cannot ignore these interactions. Our children will interpret our silence as accepting and condoning these hurts. They will infer that our loyalties lie not with them but with our relatives. Our highest priority is to ensure our children's felt safety.

“No room at the inn” During the holiday season, we will often hear the phrase  We judge the failure of the innkeeper who delivered that message to Mary and Joseph. We like to believe that we would choose better if given the opportunity. As adoptive families, we also have a choice to make. Will we exemplify welcome and openness in our families and embrace both/and in a profoundly significant way? Or, will we slam the door shut? For the sake of our children, we must make space for their birth families. (In cases where adoptions are not open or physical contact cannot occur, we can at least hold open the emotional and psychological space.)

At this time of year, most adoptees spend time thinking about their birth families. Many also struggle with feelings of guilt about his thoughts. Others say these thoughts make them feel disloyal to their adoptive parents. Imagine the relief they might feel if we open conversations that both acknowledge the likelihood they have such thoughts and that we are neither threatened nor angry. Imagine the powerful reassurance we can offer them when we assert that their thoughts and feelings are normal, understandable, and appropriate. Imagine the peace of mind our children might feel knowing we love them enough to make space for all their important relationships--whether they originate in biology or adoption. This is how we can live the Christmas message of peace, grace, and Room at the Inn.

As Intentional Parents, we have the opportunity to be deliberate about which holidays to observe as well as how we will celebrate them. Whether we follow traditional routines or invent our own personalized versions, family traditions and celebrations help to weave a cohesive family identity. They are powerful factors in creating connection, creating and sharing fun, and opportunities to define who we are collectively as a family. Traditions can reflect both cultural practices as well as rituals unique to a specific family. What fun activities from your childhood might you want to continue within your own family? What new ones might you create? What traditions from our children's heritage and birth families will be included?

Amid the hectic activity of the holidays remember to take time to celebrate the most important blessings: time spent with family, and friends. The days pass in a blur, melting into years, leaving only memories. Create warm fuzzies that you will remember and treasure in the years to come. Be intentional about the history you are building as a family. Long after the excitement of gift-giving fades, what is remembered are the feelings that are shared. Make time to have fun.

Happy Holidays from the coaches at Growing Intentional Families together. We invite you to share your family traditions with us and we’ll post them for others to sample.

Learn how the coaches at GIFT Family Services can help you and your family navigate your adoption journey. We've faced our share of family challenges and crises, ridden the metaphorical rollercoaster, and our families have not only survived; they have thrived. We offer experience, neutrality, and understanding. GIFT coaches are available to present workshops online.  Contact us : 1-800-653-9445

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