For most adopted children and those in foster care, the three most difficult days of the year are Mother’s Day, Christmas or Hanukkah, and the child’s birthday. These special days often bring about feelings of loneliness, sadness, and grief for a child who has been hurt. Children may be missing birth parents, foster parents, siblings or other important people in their lives.
The problem of one mom too many on Mother’s Day
When nine-year-old Anya was asked by her teacher to write an essay about her mother for Mother’s day, she wrote the following:
“Too Many Moms”
My birth parents died in a car accident and I went to live with my grandmother. She loved me very much but she couldn’t take care of me. Then I got adopted, but after five years my parents decided to give up on me and so I went to live with a new mom. That mom kept me for four months, but it did not work out with us and now I am in a different foster home. My new foster parents are helping me work on my life while I am waiting for a forever family. The most important thing I have learned is that we make a family by how we care for each other no matter where we came from. I have had lots of moms and I am hoping to meet my new forever mom soon.
When Anya’s teacher first gave this assignment, Anya began acting out at home and at school. This assignment was just one more reminder how different she was from her peers. Her foster mother was able to help her do the assignment by reframing it in a positive way.
Ten-year-old Michael dutifully made a Mother’s Day gift at school and took it to his foster home. He was in a quandary about whether to give the gift to his birth mother, whom he still visited, or to his foster mother. To solve his dilemma Michael simply destroyed the gift.
Holidays that hurt your child’s heart
Imagine being a foster child whose holidays of the past may have been spent with an abusive parent, a parent on drugs or alcohol, or without a parent or a family setting at all. For these children, the Christmas or Hanukkah holiday season triggers feelings of sadness and loss over one particularly good holiday. Or, it may trigger feelings of despair over holidays missed. Children who have experienced loss, abandonment, abuse or neglect may experience extreme sadness during the holiday season. They may be missing birth parents, foster parents, siblings or others who were meaningful in their lives. For many children, Christmas or Hanukkah may be remembered more as time of dealing with inadequate parents and the lack of resources needed for gifts and food. Many children who have come from family backgrounds in which their lives were extremely unpredictable hate the element of surprise connected with these holidays as well as with birthdays.
The pain on birthdays
For a child who has experienced loss, his or her birthday may especially painful. All children who have lost their birth families tend to think about their birth mothers on their own birthdays. For some children this may be the only day when they know for certain that they were with their birth mothers. Foster and adoptive parents are well acquainted with the fact that their children often act out before and during their own birthdays.
How to help your child through difficult days
In order to help your child with the pain of Mother’s Day, Christmas or Hanukah, and their birthdays, it is important to:
1. Acknowledge the pain of your child’s many losses
Encourage your child to share his or her feelings about those they have lost as a way of reinforcing for the child that his or her emotions are perfectly normal. As Mother’s Day approaches, discuss with your child’s teacher the fact that your child has had more than one mother and may find it difficult to complete the usual assignments surrounding Mother’s Day. The teacher needs to be well aware of your child’s losses and should be encouraged to modify the assignment to fit the needs of children who are no longer living with their biological mothers. You could encourage your child to honor his or her birth mother and other mothers at home during a candle lighting ceremony or similar ritual to be celebrated before the special occasion. It is helpful to honor your child’s previous mothers before Mother’s Day, Christmas or Hanukkah, and your child’s birthday. Even abusive birth mothers may be honored for giving birth to your child and providing whatever positive qualities your child may have inherited such as an attractive appearance, sports abilities, musical talent, and intelligence.
2. You may talk with your child about his or her past holidays
Gather specific information so that you can incorporate your child’s previous positive memories into your current family’s activities. Family get-togethers may be extremely difficult. Be honest with each other about your feelings. Sit down with your family and decide what you want to do for each specific holiday. Undertake only what each family member is able to handle comfortably.
3. Remember there is no right or wrong way to handle special occasions.
You may wish to follow family traditions or choose to change them. It may help to do things just a little differently. What you choose the first year, you don’t have to do the next. Be careful of “shoulds”. It is better to do what is most helpful for you and your family than to follow a prescribed regimen of activities. If a situation looks especially difficult for your child before it is to occur, set limitations. Realize that it isn’t going to be easy, and do only the things which are very special and important to you and your child. Once you have made the decision on how you and your family will handle the special occasion, let relatives and friends know. Ask them to be sensitive to your child’s special needs and to honor them.
4. Remember that your child’s negative reactions to special occasions are based on his or her grief. Becoming angry with a child who is grieving accomplishes nothing. Understand and accept your child’s feelings about the special occasion and about the people he or she has lost. Acknowledge those feelings, encourage your child to express them, and then move toward the special occasion with the intent of providing yet another opportunity for your child to heal.
About Connie Hornyak (author of blog)