Christine A Howard

When Family Traditions Need To Change

Last night my family spent the evening doing one of our most beloved holiday traditions – watching Disney Pixar’s latest Thanksgiving movie.  My kids were especially excited this time around, because this year the movie was basically a double feature.  It began with the Disney Short Film, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” and continued with the featured film, “Coco.”

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A scene from Olaf’s Frozen Adventure

Both films were wonderful and everything that we have come to love about Disney, but both films had me thinking about how family traditions can sometimes be painful, especially for kiddos living in non-traditional families.   Like most parents, I love nothing more than to share the traditions that mean the most to me, and as I do so, I rarely think about how my children feel about these traditions.  I sort of assume that because I love them, they will too.  For the most part, my thinking is correct, but not always.  And sometimes, I need a good reminder.  This year, I can thank Disney for reminding me that when it comes to family traditions, I may need to expand my festivities just a bit.

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A scene from Coco

For those of you who have yet to see this year’s Disney movies, I promise not to spoil it for you. “Coco” is about a young boy who is very sad, because he is being forced to follow his family’s tradition even though he would like to follow his own tradition.  In “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” Elsa and Anna realize that most families have holiday traditions, but due to their unique family situation, they don’t have any. Olaf, being the kind soul that he is, sets off on an adventure to find traditions that Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf can incorporate into their family for the holidays.

My boys enjoying the dream loungers at the movie theater.

This got me thinking about times when family traditions may need to be adjusted or expanded to ensure everyone has a happy holiday season.

The Foster or Adopted Child

We have three adopted children in our family.  One adopted from the US Foster Care System and two adopted internationally from Eastern Europe.  In all three cases, they were older when they were adopted, and so they have memories of life before being part of our family.

With our son being adopted through foster care, he came with memories of holidays spent with his birth family as well as his former foster care placements.  Some of these memories are painful, and unfortunately, none of his current holiday memories include his birth family.  We fully understand that this time of year can stir up very mixed emotions.


During the holidays it is very important to give our adopted/ foster children a little bit of space.  Let them be sad, angry or any other emotion that happens to creep up on them.  Talk to them about how they feel and let them know that it is okay to be unhappy during the holidays, and that you are ready to listen. Ask them about their family traditions and let them know you will try your best to include them.  And most importantly, don’t expect them to participate in your holiday traditions simply because you love them.

I am not saying they should be allowed to skip every holiday tradition, because integrating into your family means participating in family events.  Instead try compromising. Give them some “pass cards.”  These do not have to be literal cards, but let them know that they have a certain amount of holiday traditions they can simply opt out of.  After that, they participate.

For our daughters, there were no traditions, no presents, and no loving gestures.  The holidays were basically another day for them.  On some occasions, churches or other well meaning people would come into the institution where are girls were and try to spread joy, bringing holiday offerings and a day of cheer.  But to call this a tradition would be wrong.  So what we have done is to add Ukrainian dishes into our holiday meals, and add Ukrainian decorations into our home.  Since our older daughter loves stuffed cabbage rolls, and our younger daughter is too young in her mind to care, we make cabbage rolls at our holiday meals.

Our Ukrainian dishes.

If you too have added a treasure from another country, bringing in their culture to your family can be a great way to add traditions even if your child was too young to remember or was not given the opportunity to experience traditions in the past.  It is a great learning opportunity for your other children too!  What a great World Cultures lesson the holidays can be when you celebrate with traditions from all over the world.

The Child With Sensory Processing Issues

I have a child who has had sensory issues his whole life.  Going into Walmart would send him into sensory overload in seconds, so this mom had to adjust how we did holiday decorating when he was younger.  I love holiday decorations.  They give me warm feelings of joy, and so my early days of decorating definitely expressed this.  I had sparkle, lights and color in every inch of space we had in our home, and I truly loved it.  My son, on the other hand, loved it a bit less.  In fact, he would become overwhelmed by the sensory overload that was our house at the holidays.  I have to admit, my decorating was a little over the top and really needed to be downsized, so the changes really were for the best for everyone.

The Child With Global Delays

Our youngest daughter is almost 11 years old, but cognitively is still only a toddler.  As with most toddlers, two hour long movies aren’t her cup of tea.  So when we decided to include her in our Thanksgiving movie tradition, we had to make sure it would be good for her too.  We found that our local theater has a new type of seat called the “dream lounger.”

Our girls enjoying the dream loungers at the movie theater.

Basically it is like sitting in a reclining love seat at home, but set up in rows in the theater.  This made taking our daughter with to the movies something we could do.  We knew that she would only sit in her own seat for maybe thirty minutes, and then she would get bored and want to go play.  When this happened, we were able to sit her next to my husband and me just like we do each night at home.  It worked like a charm, and we loved being able to include her in our tradition.

The holidays can be a time to build wonderful family memories that will last with our kids forever.  They can also be painful reminders of the difficult things going on in the lives of our children, so we need to be careful as we foster those lasting family traditions.  Being aware of how our beloved traditions can affect our kids will help to make sure that the holidays are special for everyone.  What traditions does your family have this time of year?  We would love to hear from you!  Happy Holidays!

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