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When It May Matter Most

Does it seem that your child could care less about family traditions? Take another Marybeth Lambe, M.D.

In this hectic world, family members go off in so many directions that we may become cherished strangers in our own home. Older kids have many activities that pull them from family life. As our children enter adolescence, we (and they) may think they've outgrown family traditions, but nothing is further from the truth. Even if our kids act nonchalant about holiday rituals, this is the time to maintain them.

Research shows that children involved in strong family rituals are at less risk from peer pressure and the lure of sex, drugs, and gangs. The immersion in rituals strengthens their family connection, offering a sense of identity and an anchor in confusing times. In addition, these kids transition more easily into adulthood.

Traditions ensure that family unity, strength, and support persist. Family rituals give a child a sense of belonging. They are a conduit for connecting to and affirming a family's mutual past, while accommodating its growth and change. Equally important, customs convey the life lessons parents wish to teach.

The Adoption Challenge

Preteens and teens may question their place in the family, especially their extended family. Traditions that are uniquely ethnic may be challenging for the adoptee who does not share her family's heritage. For example, non-Jewish children adopted into Jewish families may wonder whether their own religious identity is legitimate. Being adopted means having a dual identity, the legacy of the birth family and the heritage of the adoptive family. Children have the right to the customs of both.

Holidays are often idealized as times of blissful celebration. But during these times, our children can be struck by sorrow or anxiety. Those adopted at an older age sometimes have recollections of birth-family traditions that aren't observed in their adoptive homes. Some have idealistic hopes that they will hear from biological relatives; some have distressing memories of holidays with their birth family.

In addition, some families find holidays taxing because it is arduous to arrange to spend time with all the grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Open adoptions add more layers, with more relationships to negotiate and more expectations to gratify. But don't give up on rituals.

They imbue our children with a lifelong ability to adjust to changes. Our kids move from a self-centered perspective to appreciating other people—a gradual process, not mastered in a single year. This season, remind your child that there's joy in giving and delight in sharing. Though she may be embarrassed to admit it, holiday traditions are important in her life. Such rituals are a family's spirit distilled into symbolic acts, an affirmation that life together is sacred and that celebration does not stop at childhood's end.

Dr. Marybeth Lambe is the mother of nine children.

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