Traditions are big around here. We do up all of the traditional holidays like Christmas and Easter, but probably the next biggest holiday in this house is Valentine’s Day. To most of the world, Valentine’s Day is a day to shower your significant other with gifts and words of affirmation. A day filled with sweet treats, teddy bears, and romantic evenings with the one you love. That’s not how we do it here. Honestly, my husband and I have been married for 17 years and I don’t think I have ever given him a thing for Valentine’s Day. In our home, this is a day that we celebrate how much we love our children and how special each one of them are to us, whether they are permanent members or just here for a little while.
When I was younger, one of my favorite memories was Valentine’s Day. My mom used to decorate the kitchen table with balloons and little heart plates. Each of us would receive a few treats including the coveted box of conversation hearts and that little four piece chocolate candy heart box with the cartoon on the front. We would have breakfast together and enjoy our treats before going on with our day. I loved this day growing up because she went out of her way to make us feel special. In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day we would get more and more excited because we knew just what to expect, and she never ever let us down.
When our biological children were little, I knew that Valentine’s Day breakfast was something that I wanted to continue with my own family. At that time, money was pretty scarce but I still wanted to make the day special. We decided that we would make a personalized valentine for each of the kids to use as a placemat and give them a small treat during the family breakfast. The kids loved the treats and the time together, but what really stood out to them was the placemat valentine I had made for them.
Fast forward to a few years later and we are still celebrating the same way. Each kid gets a small gift and a few treats during our family breakfast. Just like when I was younger, they love knowing exactly what to expect as the day gets closer. As soon as the Christmas decorations are packed away and winter settles in with snowstorms and freezing temperatures, they start talking about Valentine’s Day.
They look forward to their treats and the fancy breakfast, but above all else, it’s the handmade placemat that they look forward too. As they got older, it became fun for them to challenge me to make more and more complex drawings for them based on what they were interested in at the time. They love trying to come up with something that will be too hard for me, while at the same time knowing that on Valentine’s Day, their placemat will be exactly what they asked for.
Many times the children that come into our home out of foster care haven’t had the luxury of traditions or predictability in their lives. These kids have lived their lives in survival mode, not knowing what to expect from one day to the next, let alone being able to anticipate how a day will go months before it even arrives.
Whenever a much-loved holiday is on the horizon, a family with foster children in their home can pretty much count on extra meltdowns and hard days. Extra people in the home and a break in the day to day routine can be hard for any kid to deal with, but especially for a kid who has experienced trauma. What seems like an exciting day to enjoy each other and have some treats can cause a lot of anxiety for a child who is new to your home and doesn’t know what to expect.
The tool I use most to help our newest family members deal with the holidays is managing expectations. I usually start about a week before the event, whatever it is and we talk about the day IN DETAIL. I try to think about anything our child might experience on that day and we talk it over.
- What time of day will it be?
- Will we be at home or somewhere new?
- Will there be gifts? If there are, what is the routine for opening them?
- How many people will be there? Will any of them be new to the child?
- How long will it take?
- Where can your child go to be alone for a few minutes if needed?
- Can they bring a comfort item like a stuffed animal or blanket with them?
- Will there be food and what kind?
Children who might experience even more anxiety, could need even more information. Maybe you can work with them to make a checklist to hold on to as they move through the big day. Another idea would be to show them pictures of the new people they will be meeting or take them to the event location ahead of time so they can get comfortable with the space. While some of these ideas could seem a little excessive, especially while you are already trying to plan a family holiday, the preparation will pay off in the end. With some planning and foresight both you and your children will have a much more enjoyable day.
These tips for planning ahead and coping are not just for foster kids or little people. There are just as many (if not more) teens and adults who suffer from anxiety. New experiences aren’t always something to be excited about and can be stressful. Having those questions answered ahead of time help to tamper the anxiety some and allow them to enjoy the festivities of the day.
If we can help the people we love and care for manage their expectations and stressors, the holidays will be so much more enjoyable and meaningful for everyone.