Bad Behavior or Holiday Blues?

Did you know that there are 60,000 children in foster care in California this year? This is according to the Children’s Law Center of California. On any given day in the US, there are over 437,000 kids and teens in foster care.

While the holidays are here and the merriment is in full swing for many of us, if you look around you may notice this is a tough time of year for many people. For some, this is a reminder that they have lost loved ones, and loss can mean many things. This is especially true for children who have had a major upheaval in their life, like being placed in foster care. But it’s not just foster kids; a sense of melancholy may affect those who have otherwise lost a parent or have had parents separated or divorced over this past year.

Even children and teens who have lost a grandparent or other family member, have moved to a new town/school, or have lost a friend somehow could be struggling. Think about whom you may know that this applies to.

What about suicide? Contrary to popular belief, the rates of suicide do not increase in December. In an article on last November, the findings of the CDC were discussed as showing a lower rate of suicide in December but an increase in loneliness. It is reasonable that the feelings of the loneliness felt by a child or teen could incite some acting out behavior.

All Behavior is Communication

Kids and teens don’t always know how to express what they are feeling, but holidays bring up a lot of strong feelings and are packed with triggers. As an adoptive parent, former Therapeutic Foster Parent and former Forensic Interviewer trained in child development and child trauma, this type of awareness was an important aspect of dealing with children around the holidays. Adults and parents may not immediately pick up on the cues of kids and teens this time of year. As adults, we may be more stressed and feel pressured due to additional obligations, financial considerations, work deadlines to clear time for vacations, kids being on holiday breaks, traveling, hosting family, and so on. All these things can cause us to be more short-tempered and less patient.

Milestones Magnify What is Missing

Each time we celebrate a holiday or have a big milestone event in life, there are certain people we want to celebrate with us. This can be difficult for adults, yet for children and teens who may not have the emotional intelligence and coping skills that we gain over the years, it can be particularly devastating. The point is, when we experience milestone events, it’s a glaring reminder of who is not around that we wish were with us.

Kids who have had trauma in their lives are especially vulnerable to being triggered. Maybe traditions are less exciting, and they may suddenly become angry or frustrated, seemingly out of nowhere. Children with no memory of another family but who know they are adopted may even wonder about their biological family of origin and feel upset that they don’t anything about those family traditions.

Sometimes the child’s struggle may be misconstrued and labeled as “bad behavior” by adults. Remember that children will do their best when they can and that if a child is struggling it is because they do not have the necessary skills to do their best. Regarding young people as “having a hard time” rather than “trying to give you a hard time” is key here. This shift in perspective is the basis of the program Collaborative Problem Solving, among other similar practices that promote love and understanding over corporal punishment discipline.


Here are some proven strategies to support children:

  1. Make New Traditions

Sometimes old traditions may bring about memories that are sad. A new phase of life may call for new traditions to be created. As a parent, we may wish to hold onto traditions for our own sentimental reasons. When we think about this though, isn’t the purpose of traditions to encourage a sense of belonging? While the continuity of traditions is nice, the most important part is belonging and a sense of being loved that we want our children to feel. In this case, we can be flexible to find new ways to reach this goal. Allow children to help create the traditions for a positive experience and family bonding activity.

  1. Invite Them to Share Their Memories

Just because a child is missing someone or a different phase in life than where they are now, doesn’t mean they are ungrateful for those who are here with them today. Again, do not take it personally; we are modeling emotional maturity. Allow them space to express how they feel. Remember, do not become upset or reactive or take it personally. As the saying goes, “feelings are not wrong, feelings are just feelings.” Adults can be most helpful by being understanding, more patient, and using strategies to help children channel feelings in a more constructive way.

  1. Listen Without Judgement

One of the key strategies with kids who are hurting is to listen without reaction or judgment. Kids and teens are always waiting and watching for our reactions; it is a survival instinct for many children who have suffered abuse, emotional trauma, or neglect. If you can listen, ask open-ended questions, and just allow for whatever comes, you will usually get way more information than you expected. And the reason they give for feelings or behaviors will likely surprise you! 

  1. Journaling to Preserve Memories

They don’t have to worry about forgetting that person or phase of life they are missing if they write down their recollections and stories. You can offer to help younger children with writing and encourage them to draw pictures as well. Asking a child to draw something while telling you about it, even if their drawing isn’t clear, is a memory device that will allow them to have greater recall and more details in the memories they share. If possible, help them create a memory book with photographs that go along with their stories and cherished memories.


A final word about the holidays

Many children just in general can be sad after all the excitement of the season is over. Be prepared to turn their focus toward future positive experiences and show them how to build small simple joys into everyday life.

About Jessica Sheehan

Jessica Sheehan is a Columnist, and a freelance writer with bylines in everything from Top Talent Magazine to USA Today. She is a ghostwriter, and Managing Editor of bestselling books for Top Talent Publishing and for indie authors around the world.

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