Pretty much all the adoptive parents I know talk about Christmas with a mix of dread and weary experience as one of the most challenging times of the year. It is certainly that way for us. At times it has been absolutely horrendous. But on balance Christmas 2016 was the best of our Christmasses with the children so far. I’m revisiting this post from post-Christmas 2016 in order to apply what we learned to our preparations for this year: my Christmas survival plan.

Christmas survival

Spending Christmas Day on our own

Not travelling (other than church – see below) or having guests meant that we were better able to set the pace according to what the girls could manage. We didn’t have to worry about accommodating anyone else’s wishes or expectations. This was a massive improvement on previous years where we’ve tried to please the extended family.

We’re doing this again this year.

Kindles

Last year’s main Christmas presents to the girls were Kindles and I have no idea how we survived without them.

Being able to give the girls an hour’s Kindle time so we could all have a breather from each other was a massive sanity-saver. They even voluntarily did maths on them! I am a huge fan. (Need convincing? Read my post In Praise of Screen Time.)

This year I think giving them some new apps (as we do for long journeys) will be a huge help for all of us. Another hint to anyone considering buying Kindles for children is that the customer service is fantastic.

We’ve had Charlotte’s replaced for free, within 48 hours, with no hassle, three times.

Limiting presents

On Christmas Day we did stockings and four presents for the children. The stockings happened first thing, which for us is always a manageable 7.30am. They were pretty simple: chocolate, sweets, bath bombs, bracelets with times tables on, chewable bracelets, glue and sellotape, and whoopie cushions. Once opened, the contents were decanted into named ziplock freezer bags to avoid any ownership disputes. The stash lasted them until at least the end of the holidays.

For their main presents, we have previously had issues with them becoming overexcited and overwhelmed. Too many things to open tends to turn the whole thing into a consumerist frenzy where it was just about opening the next thing without appreciating anything along the way. So last year (our third Christmas with the girls) we applied a rule I’ve read about previously but felt was quite draconian: ‘something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read’.

My rule for reducing my children's Christmas present stress? Simplify. Something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read. Done. Click To Tweet

Surprise! It worked!

It turns out this is brilliantly liberating and much more manageable for all concerned. No massive gifts: we gave them each a book or two, a doctor’s set, a new school bag each, a scarf for Joanna/dress for Charlotte, and a doll (I hate dolls, but Joanna’s therapist was adamant they should have them, so there we are). And that was it. Of course they have other stuff from friends and family, but we spread those out between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day so it all calmed down a little bit. We could probably improve this further by specifying that they will be opening one or two presents each day after Christmas to stop some of the pestering about the things that are still under the tree.

We’re using the same principle this year. 

Colour-in tablecloth

These colour-in tablecloths have become a bit of a tradition for us – they come out on Christmas Eve and provide a bit of entertainment while they wait for Christmas dinner and any other lulls when they can’t decide which of their presents they want to play with and are ‘SO BORED’. They don’t get completely finished so could probably stay out for the whole holiday, though they do get a bit grotty if they stay on the table for meals for a week.

Pyjama days

On the 27th we all stayed in pyjamas all day. The girls were allowed to substitute lunch for chocolate and sweets from their stockings and have unlimited screen time. I finished reading a book and EVERYTHING. This day felt like we were edging closer to how we want Christmas to be. So we did it again on the 30th.

I’ve already scheduled a pyjama day in again for this year.

Learning from our mistakes

Those were the successes. But we’re learning from some failures too.

The things that follow were the most stressful bits of last Christmas. This year Pete and I have hatched plans to manage them better.

Church

Church is a part of our family’s life and last year we went to the 50-minute service on Christmas morning. The girls struggled with it and didn’t want to join in the singing. Pete struggled with their attitude. I struggled to be all things to all people: backing Pete up, quietly managing Joanna’s strop, and giving Charlotte the sensory input she needs (bouncing/patting/back-scratching) to be able to stay in the zone. This isn’t just a Christmas issue – most Sundays have an element of this. But it does make for a certain amount of tension.

This year, we need to all discuss our feelings, needs, and expectations to make this work better. The plan is to go to our parish church, which isn’t our usual church but is the one attached to the girls’ school. They’re familiar with it, it’s walkable, so no meltdowns in the car, and it’s a quick nip home to cook the Christmas dinner. 

Family visits

In 2016, Boxing Day was our day for the Christmas visit to the in-laws (an hour’s drive away) and was the worst day, both in terms of behaviour and general horrendousness. When Charlotte had screamed at me for half an hour and my mother-in-law was eager to get us all to the table despite seeing very clearly that we were in the middle of an incident, I just walked out, intending just to sit in the car for a bit, away from the screaming. But I could still hear the noise from the driveway, so I drove round the corner and had some time out there instead.

Last year I said we needed to rethink how we arrange our time with them – maybe visiting them before Christmas and asking my mother-in-law to reconsider putting her best crystal glasses and special crockery on the table and then us all stressing about whether they’ll get broken. This year we’ve said that instead of going for a Christmas dinner as usual, we’ll go in the afternoon and stay for tea. That should be a more relaxed, buffet-style arrangement – less stressful for all concerned.

The schedule

We are big fans of using schedules to help us all through school holidays. They are a particularly big deal in the summer, but they’re also helpful at other times of year. With all the upheaval caused by school nativity rehearsals and mufti days, we’ve decided to start the schedule this week so that the girls can write on stuff that’s happening at school too.

If you want to use my downloadable, editable holiday schedule template, you can grab it here.

~*~

If you’ve had any revelations of sanity-saving ideas, I’d love to hear those too. Please share them in the comments.

PS If you missed it, you might also like to read Five ways to help an adoptive family at Christmas. It’s a great post for sharing with the people you’ll be seeing over Christmas to help them prepare for adoptive children’s needs.

You can get a handy summary in printable PDF form by clicking below. (It’s free.)

 

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You know an adoptive family. Maybe they’re a part of your extended family. Perhaps they’re 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. With just a few adoption-friendly tweaks you can make to make your efforts even more appropriate for them. Here’s how to help an adoptive family at Christmas.

How to help an adoptive family at Christmas

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.

When you see an adoptive parent in January, better to cautiously ask ‘And how was your Christmas?’ than to launch in to ‘I bet you had a wonderful time with your children’ and make presumptions of yuletide jollity. Click To Tweet

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.

3. Lower your expectations of what they can manage

This is especially true 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. Click To Tweet

Adoptive parents are pretty much all constantly exhausted. (Here’s why.) 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.

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, see Advice for prospective adopters.)

 

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.

Remember that Christmas may well not be downtime for adoptive families. Click To Tweet

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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If you’re an adoptive parent and think your family and friends could use a few pointers along these lines, keep reading! You can get a handy summary in printable PDF form by clicking below.

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Today marks the halfway point of the summer holidays for us: it’s day 20 of 40. It feels like much longer. The words I’m seeing from other adopters are ‘relentless’ and ‘incessant’. These words are used all year round, of course, but the summer seems to amplify those feelings because culturally it is supposed to be a holiday. It isn’t. It’s six weeks of dysregulated children being given nice things and days out and not appreciating any of it and telling you what a horrible person you are. All. Day. Long.

halfway-day

There are those parents who look forward to the summer holidays as a time to frolic in the sun with their little cherubs, picnicking on home-grown houmous and organic mini-quiches, unfettered by the constraints of the school run. Good for them.

I am not one of these parents.

As I have mentioned ad infinitum, I have a schedule. This is what keeps us all on the right side of sanity. (Just.) Anything remotely unfettered causes meltdowns for them and more stress for me.

Screaming: a day in the life

This weekend we tried the frolicsome picnic thing – well, as near to frolicsome as we get. We took our picnic to a National Trust place with huge grounds, headed straight for a picnic bench and got started on lunch. Barely two bites into her artisanal organic roll pizza bread, Joanna started a strop, saying she wanted to live on her own in the woods (a favourite idea of hers when she is overwhelmed by the idea of family). We had no idea what had triggered it, so I put down my quinoa salad pork pie and took her aside for a chat.

She continued. Suicide threats. Wanting to see what children’s homes are like so she could think about living there instead. Hating her sister. Being extremely jealous of Charlotte’s new second-hand-from-eBay bed. (Joanna was given a brand new desk at the same time, something she has wanted for ages. This was not enough, obviously we love Charlotte more, etc.) I listened and let her get it all out of her system. I didn’t have anything much to say apart from a bit of PACE-esque wondering about why she thought she’d be better off without us and what she thought that would be like.

Once she’d finished, we rejoined the others, and the meal continued, with regular ‘sensory breaks’ – ie sending them to run around a tree, push against a tree, do press-ups, etc. That worked really well for Charlotte, who is unable to sit still for long. But not Joanna. She was determined to stay angry.

Stopping and listening

After the picnic – which was curtailed after another dose of insults from Joanna – we carried on. The plan had been to do a ‘Gruffalo trail’ which was set up all around the grounds. But following someone else’s route and activities was not to madam’s liking, so we abandoned that for a while to let them run off and make dens in the hedges while we had a sneaky cream tea. Hurrah.

Eventually we finished the trail and got them into the car, where Stephen Fry’s reading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone worked its magic on them again. This has been one of the successes of this holiday. I thoroughly recommend trying Audible if you haven’t given it a go yet.

The Harry Potter books are particularly good value via Audible because they’re so long – on a monthly subscription each credit is £7.99, so it works out much cheaper than buying them without a subscription (and you still get to keep your books even if you cancel). The first one is nearly nine hours. The second one, which I bought today, is more than ten hours. HELLO, calmer journeys and mealtimes. I am sold.

(Yes, this is an affiliate link. To – if you choose Harry Potter – at least NINE FREE HOURS of audiobook. You’re welcome.)

The schedule: does it help?

There are a few places where we’ve deviated from the schedule – mainly because of the weather, which has meant swapping some of the days around – but otherwise it is working well. My definition of ‘working well’ means that the activities are happening and at least one member of the family is deriving a modicum of pleasure from them. (See how my standards have fallen!) The girls are used to consulting it to see what’s happening, and if that saves just a handful of meldowns and ‘Muuuuuummmm’s then it’s worth the effort. So yes, it helps.

What’s next?

This week we have five days of childcare, one day scheduled for shoe and uniform-shopping, and one initial visit to Joanna’s new psychotherapist (more of that anon).

Next week is a hodgepodge of days out with grandparents, bribing incentivising the children to help clean the house, a sprinkling of sanity-saving activities, and packing. On the Friday we are Yorkshire-bound for our ‘holiday’.

For the last week of the holidays we will be based in the Dales, where I will be spending a couple of days at self-care camp (exciting!) and the rest of the time with Pete and the girls. They usually find being away from home hard, so I anticipate plenty of dysregulation and stress all round. There should just about be time on the Sunday to squeeze in a transition visit to school before they go back on the Monday. Aaaaand breathe.

How is your summer going? Can anyone report back from the new school year and tell us it’s going to be OK? 😉 Let me know in the comments.

Before you go…

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Now the summer holidays are well underway, are you running out of ideas to keep the children busy? Don’t panic! Here are 50 of my favourite sanity-saving holiday activities.

50-sanity-saving-summer-holiday-activities

  1. Visit the library.
  2. Build Lego models.
  3. Go hunting for new games in the charity shops.
  4. Make a den under the table/behind the sofa.
  5. Decorate the path/patio with chalk.
  6. Have scooter races.
  7. Write postcards to your family and friends.
  8. Make junk models from the contents of the recycling bin.
  9. Make pizza.
  10. Write Christmas wish-lists.
  11. Make a scrapbook of your summer with photos, tickets, and drawings.
  12. Design your own board game.
  13. Make Christmas cards.
  14. Make things out of holey socks.
  15. Design your own T-shirt.
  16. Go swimming.
  17. Do a garden treasure hunt.
  18. Blow bubbles.
  19. Make your own ice cream (whisked double cream + tin of condensed milk + extras).
  20. Fly a kite.
  21. Play musical statues.
  22. Have a board games tournament (play all the games you have and see who is Winner of Winners).
  23. Get brochures from the travel agent and plan a perfect holiday (cut out pictures of the nicest hotel, swimming pool, food, etc)
  24. Rearrange their bedroom furniture (if they will cope with the change).
  25. Home spa – nail varnishing, massage, give each other hairdos…
  26. Plant flowers.
  27. Use printable activity sheets (these Twinkl outdoor activity sheets are free to download).
  28. Make ice lollies.
  29. Play with Fuzzy Felt.
  30. Make people out of lolly sticks and washi tape.
  31. Go to the beach.
  32. Find a playground you haven’t visited before.
  33. Visit a pick-your-own farm.
  34. Make fairy cakes.
  35. Make models out of Plasticine or Fimo.
  36. Go blackberrying.
  37. Make your own animation (a friend gave this to Joanna and it is very fun).
  38. Visit a pet shop.
  39. Make a scene with gel art window decorations.
  40. Go litter-picking with grabbers.
  41. Earn a Blue Peter badge.
  42. Make an alarm to keep your annoying sister out of your bedroom.
  43. Make wax rubbings of coins, leaves, Lego bricks…
  44. Design a new pencil case for going back to school.
  45. Go birdwatching/tree-spotting/vehicle-spotting with an I-spy book.
  46. Create a mini-book about something you love.
  47. Put on an audiobook.
  48. Fill an in-car entertainment station.
  49. Create an animal footprint tray for your garden.
  50. Do a science experiment.

And if none of those will work today, my vote is for putting a new film on their Kindles and having a small doze on the sofa. How about you? Let me know in the comments.

Before you go…

  • If you found this post helpful or interesting, please vote for it. Thanks! 🙂
  • You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. I love to talk to fellow adopters.
  • You can also sign up here to receive my monthly newsletter. It contains my recent blog posts, my favourite adoption-related blog posts by others, and relevant resources from around the web.

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Clothes… suncream… weighted blanket? What are your essentials when taking anxious children away from home? As the school holidays get underway, here’s an updated post from the archives for those about to embark on holidays with adopted children.

10-things-pack-holidays-adopted-children

Here goes…

We’re off on holiday this weekend and the packing is underway. It’ll be our fifth holiday with the girls and I have a mental list of things we need to take to keep things as calm as possible.

1. Pictures of home

Though they’re prepared for seeing the holiday cottages we stay in and have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the area’s amenities well in advance of our arrival, the girls still tend to have pangs of homesickness (I think this is generally a good thing  in terms of feeling rooted in our home). So on the morning of departure, we go around the house saying goodbye and taking photos of them in all the rooms on my phone. Then I can whip out my phone when required, and show them it’s still there. This works a treat.

2. Postcards to colour

Any old postcards will do, but the colour-in ones provide an extra keep-them-occupied activity. These can then be sent to friends, family, and teachers. Teachers are especially important to Joanna and Charlotte because of the between-classes limboland that the summer holidays represent. If we send postcards there’s a chance it will remind the teachers to reciprocate, making the transition in September a bit easier. I like these ones and these ones. Another alternative is to use the Postsnap app to create postcards. (Use code 3D04BE to get £2.00 of free credit on the Postsnap app after you make your first purchase.)

Postcards to colour

3. Social story books

Being away can sometimes stir up transition anxiety relating to school, so we take the girls’ social story books with us in case we need to talk about how their day will be the same and how it will be different next term. The school produces these books for us each June (with a bit of a nudge from us) and they are helpful. (If you’re not familiar with this idea, it’s a photo-based book that talks them through the day: ‘I go in through this door, I hang my coat here, I say hello to Miss X, I sit here, etc’. More about writing social stories here.)

4. Favourite toys

10-things-pack-holiday-adopted-childrenMainly a teddy of their choice and a few portable games we play as a family at home – Uno, Dobble and Qwirkle. These help to provide a bit of normality.

I’m not sure what it is about these three games in particular that really engage our two – possibly that they are very visual and quite tactile, so there are things for them to hold, which helps to keep their attention as sensory-seekers. They are definite favourites though.

 

5. Kindles

I’ve already written about my love of the Kindle. In our family, they are a sanity-saver in the early mornings when the children are Very Awake at an hour when we wish to remain comatose. Providing access to their Kindles at 6am might help them manage not to start swinging from the curtains or mooning passers by from their bedroom window (yes these things have happened on holiday before). Worth a try.

6. A new DVD

Yes, more screen time. This year, we’re introducing them to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and I am possibly a bit overexcited about that. Joanna is desperate to see it, having read the book at school. I have also bought her the book of Chamber of Secrets. I think that’s the rest of the holiday sorted.

[Update: recent favourites in our house have included Sing and The Lego Batman Movie. Both are highly recommended, though as ever, check out the reviews at Adoption At the Movies to get an idea of what’s right for your particular child(ren).]

7. Lego

It’s a bit of a holiday tradition for us to have new Lego on holiday. Last year we had a campervan holiday and made a Lego campervan to match. I also made Lego boxes (lunchboxes full of Lego with the green Lego mats glued to the lid as a building surface) based on an idea I saw on Pinterest, and they were a hit.

  

8. Bubbles

Great for regulating breathing and therefore for calming down – we tend to use bubbles several times a week at home, so they will definitely be coming with us on holiday, where there are often plenty of ‘opportunities to calm down’ (a.k.a. meltdowns).

9. Medical kit

While a first-aid kit is probably a good plan, I pack a medical kit that is probably at least 50 percent placebo: plasters for putting on scratches that are imperceptible to the naked eye (cartoon ones for bonus points); E45 cream (our go-to placebo); hayfever medication (actually necessary some of the time, when we dispense it at bedtime to make full use of any drowsy-making side effects); and Calpol (ditto).Enchanted unicorn plasters

10. Sensory stuff

Because the new environment is endlessly fascinating/potentially overstimulating from a sensory perspective, with all kids of new textures in soft furnishings, different sounds,  different smells, etc, I try to anticipate this by being on high alert the second I step in to the place. Knick-knacks are moved out of harm’s way, windows are locked, things that are supposed to be fiddled with are put in their room(s) to try to divert them: fidget toys, chewy toys, a body sock… and my bag of transition toys comes into its own.

Other ideas

  • Pillowcases from home – for familiar smells to help them sleep
  • Portable blackout blind – to help with early rising
  • House rules – a reminder of consistency
  • Schedule for the holiday – to help with anxiety about unpredictability

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BEFORE YOU GO…

  • If you found this post helpful or interesting, please vote for it. Thanks! 🙂
  • You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. I love to talk to fellow adopters.
  • You can also sign up here to receive my monthly newsletter. It contains my recent blog posts, my favourite adoption-related blog posts by others, and relevant resources from around the web.
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