Over the years many adoptive and foster parents have shared with me that they’ve observed an increase in their child’s behavioral difficulties when the end-of-year holidays roll around. Whether it be acting out (tantrums, irritability and oppositional behavior) or “acting in” (withdrawal and crying), there appears to be a direct connection. Naturally, the excitement and sensory overload of the season are contributing factors. But another factor can be overlooked—the residual effects of unresolved loss.
For anyone who has suffered a major loss, certain holidays can heighten the sadness and/or loss. For many years, Mother’s Day was incredibly difficult for my daughter (whom we adopted from India when she was four years old) since she has no recollection of her birth mother. Her loss--which can is called ambiguous loss-- is the type of loss where one’s grief has no closure due to the adoptees’ unanswered questions and/or unresolved relationship issues with his or her birth parents. Many adoptees—especially international adoptees—experience this type of loss. Foster children may also experience this loss when their birth parents’ rights are terminated and the child is no longer allowed to have contact with those parents.
How can we help our child who experiences grief over ambiguous loss? Here are some things to be aware of along with some helpful hints:
It all begins with awareness—be aware that “holidays = happiness” may not be part of your child’s thought and emotional processes during the holidays.
If your child is willing, simply encourage her to talk about what she (or he) is feeling. Verbalizing feelings can have a therapeutic and healing effect. Don’t try to force this, however.
Don’t’ go overboard on the holiday hoopla. You can keep things low-key and still have a meaningful Christmas.
If your child is acting out in anger or tantrums, wait until things calm down and wait for a “teachable moment” (possibly the next day) when you can talk with them about how they felt when they were angry.
Some kids—especially adolescents—feel guilty over the holidays because they feel they should be happy. Sometimes they will verbalize his. Talk this through with them and normalize their feelings—“How you feel is how you feel, and that’s okay.”
Find out if there were any Christmas traditions in your child’s country of origin. If there were, ask your child if he would like to observe them. Doing so may help him connect with his feelings of loss in a positive way.