Tuesday Topic: Holidays with Kids from Hard Places

Our Tuesday Topic is from Kim, who writes a new favorite blog of mine, Like the Love.  She asks:

How do you handle the holidays with your kids from hard places?

We just (kind of) survived our first family holiday that included a three-day visit from my mother-in-law and an extended family dinner. Our youngest (age 7, home 7 months from Ethiopia) performed and acted happy for three straight days and then had some meltdowns at home when it was all over. Our oldest (age 9, home 7 months from Ethiopia) shut down and became aggressive and belligerent, exhibiting behaviors we hadn’t seen in over a month. We had an “at home” day when it was all over, and we heard several comments of “I’m not a good child,” “I’m not your son,” “You’re not my mother,” “You don’t love me,” etc. It feels like we regressed months in terms of attachment. The oldest again rejected my physical affection at bedtime, something he hasn’t done for months.

We tried to be proactive with an email to extended family about boundaries and the boys’ limitation, but that didn’t prevent boundaries from being crossed. I just feel like no matter how I set the experience up ahead of time, someone has unrealistic expectations. We also talked to the boys about telling us when they needed a break from the big crowd, and after reading the signals, we left the family dinner earlier than we had anticipated.

However, the entire holiday still felt pretty disastrous.

So now we’re a month out from the next big holiday, Christmas, and I’m wondering how the rest of you determine how much is too much for extended family gatherings during the holiday season.

In other words, how do we spread holiday cheer while maintaining sanity and intimate attachment?

It doesn’t get much more timely than this. Do you have thoughts, strategies, laminated flow charts? Share them with us – even if they seem rather humble.  I’ll tell you one of mine.  I am buying a Costco bag of pepperoni and giving Dimples unlimited access to it on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Simple – yes.  Helpful – definitely. I wrote a post about this in 2010 and just went back to read it again; I think I need to follow my own advice.

I hope you’ll take a moment to respond to today’s question with a comment.  Let’s prepare for the holidays with our kids from “hard places” in mind.

If you have a question you would like me to use as a Tuesday Topic, please email it to me at lisa@onethankfulmom.com and put Tuesday Topic in the subject line.

Encourage one another,


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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Luana
    December 11, 2012

    Everyone has given such awesome advice!!! It's comforting to see I'm not alone in my experiences.

    Kim, you're probably already doing this, but I like to prepare my ten year old daughter ahead of time with a verbal picture of what she can expect the day to look like AND how I expect her to act. I used to do this all the time with my bio kids (when toddlers) before enteing a store (i.e., "When we go into the store, you're going to fold your hands and follow Mamma. Look with your eyes, not with your hands." etc.)

    Maybe you could tell your boys who is going to be there, what everyone will be doing, what food you all will be eating etc.

    Also, if you're able, stay in a hotel/motel so you can get away when needed. I do that when I go to my mom's house and it's HUGE!!! I can take my time in the morning with breakfast, and at night with baths, and if there are meltdowns, I leave without ruining the event for everyone else.

    I say "no" a lot too.


  2. RussAnita Olson
    December 11, 2012

    I feel that pain – I can only suggest what we've done – and that is to say no. To a three day visit. To the big extended family event. Sometimes it's a yes to a one evening visit, or an hour at the dinner. And a firm hand when boundaries are violated. We also simplify presents. We also spend time talking about how the holiday are great, but also hard. That we know they miss their first family, and that all our 'stuff' feels weird and different. We also include one tradition that is familiar to them. Easy when you have one country and culture to include.
    And you are point on – someone is going to be disappointed. But I've decided that person won't be here dealing with the aftermath- so they don't get a vote anymore. We are kind about it, but firm. "We can stay till 2pm. We wish we could stay longer, but that is the amount of time the kids can do. Thank you for understanding, I'm sure as they get older we will be able to stay longer. But this year, we need to leave at 2pm." Then leave at 2. Go home and enjoy an evening with your kids, knowing that they aren't at their limit, and neither are you. I think it's really normal for the holidays to bring grief to the surface, and for kids to push away all the love and adoration heaped upon them this time of year. I think setting and keeping firm boundaries with our kids in mind shows we understand them, respect their abilities, and love them enough to sacrifice time with family, or have upset family members. It shows we are willing to sacrifice for them.

    1. Kim
      December 11, 2012

      I like your last statement here. "It shows we are willing to sacrifice for them." I think that is part of the aftermath we faced from Thanksgiving. We didn't fight for them as much as we should. I won't be making that mistake at Christmas. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. SleepyKnitter
    December 11, 2012

    It’s weird, but with all the heart-breaking problems that my kids have, they really seem to do okay with holidays. Taking a simple trip to the grocery store, on the other hand, can lead to all-evening meltdowns, last night being no exception. Why is that? But I’m really not anticipating problems with our “hard places” kids this holiday, even though we’re flying out of state to a big family reunion where I anticipate lots of chaos. I do anticipate that we’ll have daily meltdowns, just not anything more or worse than we would have had at home. I should add, though, that at home we tend to have very low-key holidays without a lot of build-up, and that we do our celebrating, whether it’s Christmas or a birthday or whatever, first thing in the morning before the kids have even had breakfast, so that they are free to be “normal” (whatever!) the rest of the day. We keep them busy the day before the event and don’t talk much at all about the next day’s event, so they know about it and are excited but don’t hear about it. I really liked your comments awhile back about Honey Bee’s birthday, letting her pick her present ahead of time, the menu, the guest list, etc., so that there wasn’t a lot of surprise involved. If our kids do show more difficulty with holidays and birthdays as they grow older, we will probably rely on those suggestions that you offered.

  4. aakatherinebe
    December 11, 2012

    I would make a list of your holiday obligations and then cut it in half and then cut it in half again. We, especially mothers, fall into this trap of perfection. We want to do every family holiday and show the world (especially extended family) how well we are doing. Sometimes we do that to the detriment of those we love most, our children.
    If you miss one holiday (or more) with grandparents, so be it. Make your day small and make your world small. Drop off cookies if it makes you feel better, but do not be guilted (even if it is in your head) into doing more than your children can handle.
    If you had just given birth, your extended family would be understanding of your reduced ability to make it to family functions. If your child was sick, again, everyone would understand. Both those things are true this year. You have just given birth to two new family members, even if they did not come from your body. Your children are not prepared to do stressful big gatherings because they are still healing from their trauma. That is okay and you are okay and I don't think anyone is going to freak out when your main priority is protecting and nurturing your family.
    In some ways, we were lucky with our last adoption (kids 7 and 8) because my son was very sick and we could not expose him to the germs in a crowd of people. It was easy to say no to holiday parties and family gatherings.
    Our second adoption was an entirely different story. I foolishly kept our plans to go to Hawaii with our five children under 5, one of whom had been home about two weeks. While it was great to see the extended family, I spent every dinner rocking my son in a bathroom because he was overwhelmed. I saw the beach once because our newly adopted son was afraid of the ocean. I still get eye twitches thinking about it. I wish I had followed my better judgement and delayed that trip for a year.
    If being at big family gatherings hurts your kids, don't do it. This stage of your life is temporary, and next year may be a different story.


  5. Bek
    December 11, 2012

    We just have one little guy and he is only 3 1/2, so I certainly don't have this figured out 🙂 But here are some things we are doing this year:
    1. Saying no to most holiday parties, or only one of us is going (so the other can stay home with our guy). He gets very dis-regulated if his sleep is messed up, so we rarely compromise if an event falls during bedtime. And since bedtime is around 7, we miss out on many evening events. But we've learned it is better for everyone that way!
    2. Limiting gifts/spreading them out. We don't do many gifts anyway, but the grandparents can get a little carried away :). Rather than overwhelm him with a pile of gifts on Christmas morning, we are going to spread them out over several days and/or limit them. He always just wants to play with whatever he opens right away, so we will just go with his flow and allow that to happen.
    3. Related to #2 — we are opening gifts at home with no extended family around. This is a hard one because both my family and my husband's family are all in the same town as us. We'll do Christmas Eve with one side of the fam and then spend Christmas Day (afternoon) with the other side. There is so much pressure to open gifts and respond in an expected way (act excited, etc.) and that is too much for our kiddo.
    4. Feed our guy before we go to any event or exciting outing. When he is excited/distracted he can't be bothered to eat. This leads to dis-regulation which makes the whole outing terrible. So, we eat even if it isn't meal time because we know we need to get some food in his system.
    5. "run through' events before going. If we are doing something new (this isn't just at the holiday season but it seems like there is more 'new' stuff than the rest of the year), we talk about the process. "We'll put hats and gloves on, get in the car, drive to the tree farm, search for a tree, cut one down, etc." He usually repeats it to us as we are doing it, so it seems to calm his anxiety of the unknown.

    Looks like I had more to say than I thought :). It helps me to write this out as a way to process our plan. So far, we have had a wonderful and relaxing holiday season. Let's hope it stays that way :).

  6. Traci
    December 11, 2012

    Go for a walk one-on-one. It's time to get away from the crowd, ask you some questions, talk about what's going on etc.

  7. Linda
    December 12, 2012

    We struggle with holidays too, even after ten years. Our kids are now 13 and 14 and have a hard time with crowds, noise, too much stimulation, and presents. No holiday has been smooth since we got the kids, but we have the family trained on how to handle it now. Some things help, and have already been mentioned above.
    1. Keep things simple and low key as much as possible.
    2. Christmas parties with loud music and conversation are avoided. This is also nice for my Aspie husband. When the kids are older, I'll have time to enjoy my parties, but not now.
    3. If we do travel, we spend at least a day doing nothing after arriving at our relatives' homes.
    4. We remind relatives that kids with FASD seem normal, but have a disability that may cause them to act odd or defiant if stressed. Visiting and holidays are stressful, so count on some kind of weird behavior.
    5. Open any gifts over a period of a few days, and not at once. Kids don't mind opening a present early and it takes the fear of not getting anything away. Kids from hard places hate surprises and prefer to know exactly what they are getting.
    6. Do not have unrealistic expectations yourself and your children. I expect my kids to be cheerful, eat with good manners, thank people for gifts, dinner etc. even if they don't like it, and to have a peaceful day showing love to others in the family. I also expect my children to think of others first. I expect to be able to have loving conversations, lots of hugs, send out Christmas cards to out of town friends and relatives, give everyone handmade gifts that they appreciate, and feed the family a healthy, yet festive meal. Guess how much this has happened in the last 10 years?
    7. Spend extra time practicing attachment. Play face to face games with the children. If they are young enough, feed them. If they aren't young enough make a game out of it. Have them feed you. Let them know you understand holidays are rough, but you'll help them through.
    8. Keep a normal schedule as much as possible. Wake up at the same time. Eat at the same time.
    9. Train the child to understand his feelings and how he can settle back down. This is a hard one for my kids, but they are slowly learning the differences between anxiety, hunger, thirst, etc. and how to calm themselves by going to a calm, quiet room for a few minutes. If you are somewhere else, show your child where he can settle down, even if it's spending a few minutes in the car.
    10. Enjoy the good times. Don't let an hour of dysregulation destroy your whole holiday. Focus on growth, on the bright side, and how God is helping your child to heal.

  8. Lisa
    December 14, 2012

    Our RAD children would do fine during events, normally showing their charming selves to extended family and strangers alike. There would be extreme grumpiness, meltdowns and rages for days before and afterward. Most of them have moved past these extreme behaviors for the most part. Several years of attachment work later, the holidays are much more enjoyable for all. We simply need to remind each of them frequently that they deserve to be loved, to enjoy life and to have fun and they put forth the extra effort to allow themselves to have fun and not feel guilty about it afterward. They have come a long way!


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