Five ways to help an adoptive family at Christmas

You know an adoptive family. Maybe they’re a part of your extended family, or your friends, or neighbours. You want to help, but you’re worried about doing the wrong thing and putting your foot in it. But unless the adoptive family in question is quite unusual, they are likely to be delighted with any expression of desire to help out. So go for it.

Or maybe you haven’t given it much thought, but you are keen to treat adopted children exactly the same as all the other children in your life because you don’t want to discriminate or make them feel different. That’s great, and there will often be a few adoption-friendly tweaks you can make to make your efforts even more helpful for this particular family.

1. Simplify. Keep things as straightforward as possible so as not to overwhelm the children. One present, not five. One small family gathering, not a tour of the country. Predictability, not surprises. Many adoptive families have enough internal stress without adding any external pressures. Keep things relaxed and low-key. Think chilled-out gathering at home, not formal restaurant where impeccable table manners are required.

2. Give experiences, not stuff. Many adopted children break things exceptionally quickly. Mine have been known to break Christmas presents before they were even out of the wrapping paper. They are just not very good at being careful with things. Sometimes they don’t feel worthy of nice things and so they break them to restore them to their idea of normal. Others (including our girls again) feel enormously overwhelmed by presents from all and sundry, and opening a huge pile of things sends them into a cycle of extreme highs and hyperactivity followed by a big crash into a meltdown. So it’s helpful to give them an experience instead: a homemade voucher for a trip to the cinema/theatre/zoo/planetarium provides an opportunity for you to give attention to the child and almost certainly helps out the adoptive parents at the same time. (Hint: all the adoptive parents I know would love this.) If you’re too far away to offer this, then you could get creative. Vouchers for things they can download to a tablet, perhaps, or cinema vouchers if you can’t take them yourself.

When thinking of gifts for adoptive parents, remember that they can probably buy their own alcohol and chocolates, welcome as these things are! It’s a cliché, but your time and friendship are priceless. Give them a list of dates when you’re free to take them out for coffee and listen to them/look after the kids so they can have some respite/be available to do DIY where the children have broken things. Or give vouchers for ironing/lawnmowing/dinner-delivery/whatever you can offer. You get the idea.

Adoptive parents are pretty much all constantly exhausted. Be gentle.

3. Lower your expectations of what they can manage, especially in terms of gatherings and parties. The children may not be able to sit still for very long, regardless of their age (children don’t ‘grow out of’ being neglected and abused and may be emotionally and/or developmentally ‘stuck’ at a lower age). They may be extremely attention-seeking and oblivious to the usual rules of social interaction. The family may not be able to arrive on time (because of meltdowns when getting ready, and/or leaving the house, and/or during the journey). They may need to leave early because they can see before you can the signs that a child is heading for a meltdown, which could be due to a new environment/too many people/Uncle Mike’s aftershave/being asked questions/something being not as they expected. Understand this and don’t take it personally. Assume they are all doing their best and don’t pressure them. Adoptive parents are pretty much all constantly exhausted. Be gentle. Don’t ask them to bring anything that requires hours of baking to the bring-and-share lunch. Do ask if there are things that will make it easier for the children to manage, such as specific foods they will eat happily, somewhere quiet for them to decompress, someone they feel safe with who can take them to the park for half an hour to burn off some nervous energy, etc.

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4. Think laterally. Give books about adoption and/or the child’s specific needs to other family members or mutual friends you know to be supportive. Ask the family for recommendations, or try some of my favourites:

No Matter What
The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting
Building the Bonds of Attachment
Why Can’t My Child Behave?
and for teachers, What About Me?

(For a more extensive list, just Google ‘adoption reading list’ and you’ll see lots to choose from. My advice would be to choose something down-to-earth and practical rather than an adoption memoir.)

Gone are the days of lying of the sofa for a week with a stack of all the books we got for Christmas, only moving to replenish our plates of mince pies.

5. Remember that Christmas may well not be downtime for adoptive families. When children thrive on the regular routines of school and predictable daily life, they can find school holidays hard to cope with. When you add it all the extra expectations and emotions that surround Christmas, it’s no surprise that they find themselves confused, overwhelmed, and stressed. Therapeutically parenting children in this state of dysregulation is very hard work, even if adoptive parents sometimes manage to make it look easy.

Gone are the days of lying of the sofa for a week with a stack of all the books we got for Christmas, only moving to replenish our plates of mince pies. Downtime only comes when the children are asleep, by which time we can barely keep our eyes open enough to watch the Doctor Who special. When you see an adoptive parent in January, better to ask ‘And how was your Christmas?’ in a cautious tone of voice than to launch in to ‘I bet you had a wonderful time with your children’ and make presumptions of yuletide jollity which may not be accurate. I believe it is possible to have an enjoyable Christmas with adopted children, it’s just that we are still waiting for it to happen here.


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6 Comments

  1. 20 December 2016 / 8:28 pm

    Hi Hannah, I am delighted to have found your blog, thank you for this post!! I am Mum to two birth children and one adopted daughter. “Adoptive parents are pretty much all constantly exhausted” describes me!!
    Your advice is very helpful and was shared with me a
    By a fellow Christian adopter, thank you xx
    Love Jane
    https://anunexpectedjourneytoadoption.wordpress.com

    • Michelle
      23 December 2016 / 12:52 am

      Lovely. True. Exactly. My Life.

  2. Rachael
    21 December 2016 / 8:38 am

    This is so true, my husband and I feel we live a secret life that is hidden with therapeutic parenting that others don’t see, happy Facebook posts and fake smiles hiding the stress. This post says it all!!

  3. 21 December 2016 / 8:54 am

    What a fantastic piece. I think you might want to add to you reading literature Therepeutic Parenting in a Nutshell by Sarah Naish. She also has a facebook group http://www.facebook.com/groups/therapeuticparents

    It is a handy resource and a very supportive group. Thank you for highlighting for the people that don’t know. H x

    • 22 December 2016 / 3:17 pm

      Hi Helen – thanks for the recommendations. Sarah’s book is on my ‘to read’ list! 🙂

  4. 22 December 2016 / 11:25 pm

    YES! This. For a long time, our family members were concerned about treating our adopted children differently.

    But the truth is, all of our children do better with holidays done simply and our family values experiences over stuff.

    We’re all healthier when our children who are adopted get what they most need.

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