Christmas meltdowns, Hanukah sabotaging, New Year tantrums… Browsing around the blogosphere today, I saw so many adoptive and foster parents struggling with Big Day Syndrome. You may have experienced this phenomenon. Your children seem like their regular ol’ selves until a holiday, birthday or other big day rolls around. And then before you know it, your children are throwing themselves on the floor wailing and kicking. Or perhaps they are sniping, complaining, and jumping up and down on everyone’s feelings. Suddenly, the holidays have lost their sparkle. Get it back with the help below. Oh, and please know that this is normal (though highly aggravating) behavior for adopted and foster kids.
What’s a parent to do? Here’s a few tips to make holidays less stressful for adopted and fostered kids:
Exercise, Exercise, Exorcise those Holiday Blues
Anxiety, anger, fear, sadness and even “good” feelings like excitement and anticipation get stored in our bodies. For kids struggling with big feelings, releasing their energy helps them release all those overwhelming feelings and thoughts. So before a big event, a bunch of blood pumping activities beforehand can help ensure a more even-keeled “main event” later. Try a snow ball fight, making a snow man or snow angels. Tag, hide and go seek, and sardines are great, too. Try singing Christmas carols at the top of your lungs (i.e. who can sing the loudest) as yelling can be great exercise if done right. Find a pillow and take turns with a “Holiday punch,” where you say something about the upcoming holiday, shout bam, and then punch the pillow (kind of like making a wish with emphasis). Running them hard until they are exhausted will help get out those big feelings and the endorphins can help them enjoy the actual big day.
Boss Time to Subdue Holiday Chaos
We used Boss Time frequently in the past. It’s fabulous for kids who feel a need to control their environment, have problems trusting adults, and anxious kids who worry about everything. “Typical” kids love it, too. You let your child be the boss for a set period of time with the caveat that there is no hurting people, animals or things and that their rules will disappear at the end of their Boss Time. For example, I would give my daughter 15 minutes to be Boss, she would tell me to do her chores and I would, or she would tell me to sing a silly song and I would, or she would decide to eat ice cream and that was fine. But if she asked me to call her brother names – no, that’s hurting a person. Why does it work? Well, too often kids feel vulnerable, so many difficult things have happened to them that they didn’t get a say in. They had no choice about foster care, adoption, abuse, etc. So giving them power for a short period of time helps them take a break from that feeling of being helpless. When this was first suggested to me, I didn’t think it would work, but it worked beautifully for both kiddos.
Arm’s Length is Just Right
Holidays are full of excitement, which to an adopted or foster kid can feel like chaos. Life seems to be spinning out of control. There are Christmas wishlists to make, big meals to sit through, huge family gatherings filled with too many people. Holiday movies showcase abandonment (think Home Alone or Elf). Kids will be bouncing off the wall, running away in the grocery store or mall. Putting them on Arm’s Length will help you shop, wrap presents, bake cookies, etc. while helping your children feel secure. Simply put, they must stay in arm’s length of you. You can test this by reaching out your arm and they reach out their arm. If your fingers can touch, you’re fine. If not, they must move closer until they can touch. You stay calm while they wander, twirl in circles, etc. This is not a punishment – don’t use your presence as punishment! Rather it’s a way to affirm that being together is a way to feel calm and regulate one’s emotions. And “being bad” doesn’t result in being shunned and being sent away (abandoned) again – which invokes the loss of the birth family. I didn’t believe in this one either until I tried it at the grocery store for my son. It really helped him regulate.
Bumps are Part of the Journey
On Black Friday (day after Thanksgiving), we talk about the upcoming holidays. One thing we plan to have are bumps. We throw out ideas of some trying times we may have. Maybe we will not get the presents we wanted. Maybe we will not have a white Christmas with snow on the ground. Maybe we will get overwhelmed and lose our tempers. We play act what the situation may look like and different ways to respond (good and less than helpful responses). Letting kids know that it is normal to feel a bit stressed during Big Days gives them permission to feel they way they feel. And there’s no pressure to be good enough to “deserve” presents or fun. When the bumps happen, we can say, hey we were right, we did have a bump. This helps the kids feel in control. Yeah, they predicted this. And they have some options already in their pockets for how to respond. Example, we predict we may miss some family members who aren’t present and feel sad. We act this out, heaving great big sighs, staring out the window. We then act out some responses, like doing nothing, like slamming doors, writing in a journal, or petting the family dog. We then discuss which responses might help us get over the bump. Later in real life, someone invariably misses their birth mom, past friends, etc. and then chooses one of the four “brainstormed” responses or another one. We realize the emotion, process it, and then move on.
Black Friday Agreement
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, we have a family gathering and each person has a chance to say what they really want out of the holiday. Expectations are put on the table and examined. Each person talks about what we should do this year – get a real tree? make a gingerbread house? buy presents? make a special meal? We put people in charge of different aspects. They get to have fun being the boss of an activity (mom or dad can help out as appropriate). And they get what they want while helping others get what they want. That’s a true holiday spirit, baby!
Staycation on Steroids
When my co-workers or friends learn that I’ve taken two weeks off this year for the holidays, they invariably ask if we are traveling somewhere or doing something special. Just hanging with the family, I respond. They say sounds great, though I can tell many feel bad that we don’t have money, friends/family, or the holiday spirit – because who would choose to do nothing??? Well, hanging with the family is a big something and a wonderful present to give yourself, your spouse, and kids. No pressure. Play video games or board games. Enjoy being relaxed. Go for long walks. Take a bubble bath. Make healthy meals from scratch. Being with family is enough. We don’t need more than that, Santa!
Other Good Resources
Check out JenHatmaker’s blog on what Big Day Syndrome looks like and more parenting tips on surviving a holiday with a kiddo who sabotages it. I was a Foster Kid provides a foster alum’s perspective on why holidays are so hard for foster kids.