Have you ever experienced a sight, sound, or smell that instantly brought on a memory of past experience? For example, the smell of a cooking ham or turkey can instantly bring back memories of a past family meal during the holidays. What you experience might even go beyond a mere memory; you might actually find yourself experiencing some intense emotions that are associated with that memory. This particular phenomenon is known as a trigger and, with all of the dazzling sights, sounds, smells, and activities associated with the holiday season, this time of year is filled with them.
For many people, the holiday season is filled with sensory triggers that will evoke positive memories of family and togetherness. However, for a child who has been separated from her family of origin, either through foster care or adoption, the holidays may trigger traumatic memories and negative emotions. Families who are caring for these children might feel confused about why the child in their care is showing signs of depression, defiance, or even angry outbursts during a normally happy time of year.
When a child enters foster care, or joins a family through adoption, she has already experienced a series of losses, and the holidays can be a difficult reminder of these losses. She might be thinking of former foster families or brothers and sisters, birth parents, or other birth relatives with whom she celebrated the holidays before. In addition, she might also be feeling the loss of particular holiday traditions and rituals that were important to her family of origin. A part of her may even feel that she is betraying her birth family by participating in your family’s celebrations. The holiday season may also remind her of past trauma, and the circumstances that led her to your family. All of these swirling emotions and conflicting feelings may look like outbursts, tantrums, and depression in children.
If you are noticing some changes in the behavior of the children in your care, please keep in mind how the holiday atmosphere may be triggering the complex emotions and feelings described above. Take time to talk with the child about how she is feeling. It might also be helpful to look at your family’s traditions and see how you might incorporate some elements that hold a special meaning for the child you are caring for. Many foster and adoptive parents see this time of year as an opportunity to extend invitations to members of the child’s birth family, including them in the season’s celebration through exchanging gifts, cards, and photos. These are just a few ideas that may make the transition trough the holiday season a smoother one for children who have experienced similar losses and trauma.
The holiday season can be a joyous time, but also a stressful one for many families. This is particularly true for the child in your life who may be reminded of the various losses and traumatic memories associated with the foster care and adoption experience. By understanding the role triggers play in a child’s mood and behavior, families and caregivers can work to make sure this holiday season is a bright success. Please remember that all of us at the Coalition are here to support you in your foster and adoptive journey.