Holiday Lights in SPACE

November 21st, 2017

by Billy Kaplan, LCSW, President & Clinical Director

As the daylight fades and the nights grow longer, many of us are preparing to bring light into the darkening world. Some of us light our Christmas Trees, some our Hanuka Menorahs, some our Kwanza Kinaras, and some our backyard bonfires.

However we bring light to these long nights, we often gather with family and friends in joyous celebration.

Yet for some of our kids, especially those who have been adopted, those celebrations can be less than joyous because they remind our kids of the families they’ve left behind – their first families. Even when they feel a strong and powerful connection to the forever families who care for them now and provide loving comfort on a daily basis, holiday gatherings are often a reminder of the people they have lost.

And many of our kids have BIG feelings about those losses. Some of them feel guilty for loving their adoptive families. They think that experiencing that love means they are rejecting their birth families and being disloyal to the people who brought them into this world. They feel torn between the two families.

And while we may be enjoying each other—singing holiday songs, sharing gifts, and relishing traditional holiday foods–some of our kids feel adrift. Neither fully a part of their forever family nor an active member of their birth family, they experience a sense of different-ness and disconnected-ness. The traditions of and people in their first families have been replaced.

It is no wonder, then, that some of us experience our kids as “ungrateful” this time of year. Their negative behaviors dim our celebrations with a darkness deeper than the winter night sky.

So what are we to do?

First and foremost, we can keep in mind this idea of the holidays as a reminder of things lost.

Then, if we anticipate that the holidays may be difficult, we can plan ways to help our kids through them. One way of helping our kids is though SPACE: Structure, Supervision, Support, Safety, Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy.

• Structure:

  • We can develop an “escape” plan for our kids—a way to get to a calming place so that, if they are feeling overwhelmed or we believe they are ramping up, they have somewhere safe to go. Some families have developed a code word or phrase that the kid or caregiver can say which means: “let’s go to our calming space.” And we can prepare that calming place with things that help: music (with or without headphones), Theraputty, card games, sensory objects, soft lighting, coloring, etc.
  • We can help our kids not to become overwhelmed, especially if our kids have more recently joined our families, if we limit the number of gifts they receive. While it makes sense that we may we want to make up for the neglect we know they may have experienced, too many presents can just be too much. If other family members REALLY want to give presents, we can have them give the presents to us for later distribution. Remember: getting new things throughout winter break and the long winter months keeps things fresh! By limiting the number of gifts our kids receive, we send them the message they are cared about and special without drowning them in a pool of love.

• Supervision

  • Overall, we’ll help our kids have a good time if we know that someone is always with, or at least keeping a responsible “eye” on them. While the kids’ table may be the traditional place for our kids to sit during a meal, if we sit them between their caregivers instead, we know that two knowledgeable people will be able to help monitor and guide them through the meal (including making mind- and mood-healthy food choices).
  • And when we make sure that SOMEONE is “on duty” at all times—being with and guiding our kid—and if that person clearly and directly passes that responsibility to the next person when they go “off duty,” we will have a much greater chance of averting emotional and behavioral problems. Each person doesn’t have to be responsible for calming our kid, just for recognizing the signs that our child is escalating and needs to be connected to us, her/his caregivers.

• Support:

  • While caregivers know them best, aunts, uncles, and cousins can help supervise our kids IF they are truly well informed. Having them watch this DVD beforehand may help prepare those who want to truly be helpful (it makes a great stocking stuffer, too!). But if someone really doesn’t “get” our kids, I think we’re better off not asking or allowing them to help – that could be recipe for disaster!
  • And while we would like our kids to show appreciation for what they receive, and all the special holiday experiences, and we may even have them practice showing appreciation beforehand, it may be wise of us to be prepared for them not to be able to do it. We may have to express that appreciation for them so that they can see how it is done. And then “they’ll” have the experience themselves, albeit through us.

• Safety

  • Yes: food, glasses, and cutlery can all become weapons of chaos at the dinner table. So, if you’ll forgive me for repeating this: when our kids are sitting between their caregivers at a meal, the chances for those “weapons” being utilized are reduced, and the possibility of maintaining a peaceful meal is increased.
    And since some of our kids have issues with food due to prior experiences with not having enough, I thought I’d mention that some families skip the sit-down meal for an all-day buffet. Of course, we’ll have to monitor our kids with that; yet it can eliminate some issues.

• Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity & Empathy (PACE – Daniel Hughes, Ph.D.)

  • If (or is it when?) our kids feel overwhelmed at a gathering, and we help them get to the calming place, or are working to get them there, each of the elements of PACE can be extremely helpful.
  • We can playfully distract them from what was causing their overwhelmed feelings with simple games, drawing, or dancing!!!
  • We can accept their feelings. “Hey, sweetie, it seems like you’re feeling kind of overwhelmed/stressed out/nervous/anxious right now. I can understand! So many people and so much noise! Can you say it to me: mom, this is too much!!!”
  • We can be curious about what they’re experiencing “Hey, darling, I wonder what’s going on that you wanted to come up here to our calming place?” Or: “Hey, kiddo, I suppose you wonder why I asked you to come up here to our calming place?” “I wonder if you’re having some big feelings because we’re with our family, and, maybe, you’re thinking about your birth family?”
  • We can be empathic about their experience. “Gee, this is HARD, isn’t it? So many people. And so many people you’ve loved who aren’t here! Oh my, this is SO hard.”

We all want our kids to feel the magic of the holidays we may have experienced when we were kids. I can understand if having to think about all of what it might take to keep our kids regulated can steal away some of that magic for us.

But I think that when we give our kids emotional and behavioral regulation for the holidays we are giving them the greatest gift—the gift of the light of peace sparkling in their hearts and minds. And perhaps there is no more precious gift they can receive.