Planning for Christmas can be a wonderful time for the family to reflect and focus on what’s most important.

When you’ve recently adopted a child, Christmas can be a very special time for your child and the entire family. You want to do what you can to make this first Christmas memorable for your child as they begin their new life as part of your family. However, for some traumatised children, this can all be too much, leaving them feeling vulnerable, or even reminding them of difficult Christmases they may have experienced in the past.

Here are some ways to keep the festive season fun and stress free for you and for them.

Keep it low key and familiar

Especially for their first Christmas. It is important to be very careful and be wary of what experiences our children may have had before joining your family. For some children, Christmas is a time of terror, not joy. Seeing the Christmas tree go up or the clinking of glasses might cause triggers which will likely be demonstrated in their behaviour.

It is best to limit the surprises at first – you may be able to bring in small surprises in later years. Keeping Christmas low key and making sure the children do not feel threatened by it does not mean this time of year cannot be fun. Involve children in menu planning, giving them jobs to do and getting them to help with decorations can all be enjoyable parts of the holiday.

Explain what to expect

If your child is old enough to understand, it can be helpful to tell them what to expect in the days and weeks before Christmas. For example, if you are going to a party with family, you may want to explain to them how you expect the day to go. You can talk to them about how long you think it will take to travel to the party, how long you plan to be there. If you are in for a long ride or a long stay at someone else’s house, they might want to take a favourite toy or book in order to feel more comfortable. If you are hosting, you might benefit from advance notice if they are expected to share their toys with similar aged children who visit.

Again, it is important to remember this time of year can trigger many memories, which children may not be able to verbalise and therefore these may be demonstrated in their behaviour. If you begin to see changes in behaviour, it might be worth changing your plans and keeping things very low key.   

If your child has established traditions, celebrate them

An older child may come into your family with holiday traditions. Helping them continue to celebrate with these traditions can help them feel at home in your family. It is important to ask your child about the holiday traditions that are important to them and make them important to you too.

Structure and routine

Christmas can be a stressful time for all of us. However, heightened emotions and changes in routine can make it particularly challenging for adoptive families. Therefore, it is important to help create a sense of safety and predictability. Many children, but especially those with trauma histories, learn to manage life in the context of structure and stability; however, the holidays usually offer little of that. Therefore, it is important to prepare and support your child through these difficult times. Sit down as a family, discuss and make a plan together to help create structure. As the parent, you can give strong direction to the plan, but let them have a voice as well to ensure they feel valued and listened too.

Providing some daily constants will help your child feel safe. Where possible keep meal times and bed time at the same time. Put up a calendar on the wall to show the plan you made. Using visual timetables to plan each day in advance and to help the child to understand exactly what they will be doing and when, can take away the uncertainty of this period.

 Making sure, you all go out for some fresh air every day, whatever the weather is another good idea to help children burn off some of the extra energy or adrenaline they might have built up.  

Trauma leaves our children feeling like they do not have any control. An agreed-upon plan with visible expectations to which they themselves have contributed can reduce anxiety and stress.

Christmas Dinner

The extra people, multiple courses, the banging of crackers and excitement of lighting the Christmas pudding can all make the meal a daunting experience for children who have experienced trauma. Try to eat at normal meal times and to give children foods they know and like – if pizza and chips will make them more relaxed and enjoy the meal, then pizza and chips it is!

Spending Christmas day on your own

Limit travelling and guests means you are able to set the pace according to what your children can manage and not have to worry about accommodating anyone else’s wishes or expectations. Do not feel you need to please the extended family. Focus on your immediate family and their needs.

Try to limit big sensory inputs

Think carefully on how to reduce the bigness of Christmas. This may be more difficult to do this year due to most places being closed last year because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Families are feeling pressured into doing more and more this year with celebrations, outings and seeing family and friends. It is easy for children to be drawn in and unable to manage their emotions or actions very well. Many children do not yet have the ability to set limits or inhibit impulses, and the sensory inputs of the holidays confuse and overwhelm them even more. Therefore, it is important to take charge of Christmas by setting boundaries. This might include reducing the number of services and events you attend, limiting days that you have visitors in your home, placing price limits on gifts, or even rethinking the gift-opening tradition itself. Some children cannot handle the surprise of gifts or waiting for the day. For them, just quietly hand them their gift(s) at some other time, or shop with them and let them choose. You may want to forego gift giving all together.

Be careful with crackers for children who are sensitive to loud noises. Taking some of the strangeness out of day can go a long way towards helping children feel safe and making it a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

Take time to pay attention to each child

First and foremost, our children crave massive amounts of attentiveness, but what often happens during the holidays? Parents often get busy with other things like cooking, shopping, visiting family and friends, school performances, church, work commitments and the list goes on.

It is important to remember our children are hypersensitive and will become aware when their parents time and energy is not on them. This is especially true with children whose implicit memory banks consist of parental neglect. They feel it, react to it, and for the most part, cannot help themselves.

Therefore it is important to try to set aside uninterrupted time each day with each child. Even just 15 minutes a day can be enough. During this uninterrupted time, it is important to not respond to any phone calls, messages, emails, or any other distractions. Let your child direct this time with you and have fun with them. Let them really feel your complete attentiveness coming their way.

Look after yourself

Christmas is a time for getting together, spending time with family and having fun, but these can also mean that it can be an extremely stressful time of year. Making sure you do not take on all the organising can help – make sure each member of the family has a task to make them feel significant and to take some pressure off you.

Take some time out to do what you want to do, whether it is listening to music, reading a book for half an hour or going for a walk can make a big difference to your state of mind.

Exercise generates mood-enhancing hormones and can leave you feeling calmer, happier and feeling more in control. Going for a walk or a swim over the Christmas period could make a big difference.

Plan for downtime

It is normal to feel over scheduled over the Christmas holidays. Adopted children may feel especially tired if the holiday becomes too busy. It is important to include downtime into your schedule. Children need time to adjust and regulate, that means having time in-between events to relax.

Even though it can be tempting to try to schedule something for every day, your child also needs time to relax during their first Christmas with your family. Make sure they get enough sleep and they have a quiet safe place to go to. Do not be afraid to say “no” to your friends and family.

Remember you do not have to do it all

When you plan to make your first Christmas with an adopted child memorable, remember it is ok to take a deep breath and relax. Remember that what your child needs the most is you and your family. Your first Christmas will be memorable because you are all together.

In short, pay close attention to your child, try to limit overwhelming activities and situations, slow down and give your child a voice in what happens. Whether they say so or not your children need lots of you and your time rather than lots of presents!