Holidays can be a difficult time, especially for foster or stepchildren. No matter how wonderful we are, their world is out of joint. They feel, whether consciously or not, that if the world worked the way it should, they would be with their biological family and would not know us. They may have gotten used to having us in their lives, or they may only have gotten used to hiding their feelings.  Either way, their world is not what they want it to be.

As their foster parents or stepparents, we have to respect those feelings. It’s not easy. Our impulse is to make the holidays grand and glorious for them, and to somehow use the occasion to compensate for their trauma. We have to recognize that we can’t do that. The best thing we can do is give them space and walk beside them as they work through their feelings.

Be Prepared for Sadness

Prepare both yourself and your kids for sad feelings. Find ways to talk to them ahead of time and let them know that being sad during the holidays is normal and acceptable. Kids don’t always have the vocabulary to understand what they are feeling. It will be up to you to give them those words and help them understand why they are sad during what is supposed to be a time of happiness and joy.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you let them know that you are OK with their being sad. Sometimes we are so anxious to give our kids a happy time that we inadvertently put pressure on them to be happy. Our kids end up trying to look happy for our sakes because they don’t want to let us down. We all end up doing a lot of pretending that, although well-intended, is simply not healthy. We need to give our kids permission to feel what they feel.

Give Them Space to Grieve

Sometimes our kids need time to grieve for their lost dreams.  Adults who divorce usually have to finish grieving for their lost “happily ever after” before they can move forward.  Our kids are no different. They have to adjust to their lost dreams of a Norman Rockwell-type family. There’s nothing we can do to speed that process along. All we can do is not get in the way.  

Expect Behavior Problems

Kids may express their sadness and grief in all sorts of ways, including withdrawing, having temper tantrums, complaining (more than usual), or pushing boundaries (more than usual). Kids who have experienced trauma tend to act younger than their years anyway.  During the holidays, you may see even younger behavior.

Try to give them some space for this behavior, but don’t excuse too much. Our kids need the structure and reassurance of strong boundaries, and we need to be consistent. Be patient when their sadness and grief takes them outside appropriate boundaries, and compassionately bring them back.

Don’t Take Their Behavior Personally

When our kids withdraw or push back, we shouldn’t take it personally. I know that it feels personal, especially if they tell us that it’s all our fault. But we have to remember that the situation is not about us. It’s just that, from the kids’ perspective, we are the only people they have to blame. They can’t blame their parents or themselves, and they lack the maturity to understand that sometimes the world just doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. As hard as it is, we just have to absorb their grief and anger until they find ways to resolve it.

This holiday season, recognize that your children may not be capable of experiencing the happiness that you want for them.  If and when they get there, it will be on their own timetable. In the meantime, you can only love and care for them while they make the journey."


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.