Gift Ideas for Foster and Adopted Children

by | Parenting, Holidays and Celebrations

Holidays and special occasions (including birthdays) can be a lot of fun! They can also be VERY hard for families of traumatized or attachment disordered kids…especially when it comes to gifts.

This is a tough subject for many families of hurt kids.  I get quite a few questions about it every year…especially around Christmas, birthdays, and other gift-giving occasions. So, let’s talk about it!

Gift-giving can be tricky!

Gift-giving can be a tricky balance for sure. At least at my house, if I lean too far in any direction, we run the risk of everyone getting stuck in the middle of a chaos storm from hell rather than enjoying the magic and sparkle of the occasion that so many others get to enjoy.

I’m a big believer, however, that the joy and fun we once knew can be restored when we do things our way and do them in a way that works for our family, regardless of what anyone else says or thinks.

What doesn’t work

Before we get to what does work, let’s rule out what doesn’t (and why!) All those gifts that everyone seems to love to give usually don’t work very well for our kids.

Traditional Gifts

The “traditional” gifts of toys, games, electronics, and cash that so many kids think they want or need don’t usually work for us and frequently end in utter disaster rather than being something meaningful and good. Even though our sweeties want (and often demand) the latest and greatest of everything, they lack the developmental skills necessary to actually use the items. They also lack the responsibility and sense of gratitude needed to appreciate or properly caring for these items.

Many kids, especially those who have experienced broken or damaged attachments, are also highly triggered by “stuff”. Junk stuff, precious stuff, cheap stuff, expensive stuff, pretty stuff, ugly stuff, and even garbage is all the same to them. They struggle mightily to determine the actual value of any item, either monetarily or emotionally. For many kids, stuff is stuff and it’s all the same to them. They also have no idea what to do with any of it, especially after the novelty of the moment wears off.

Toys and Games

As a result, most games foster a very unhealthy level of competition rather than fun and the pieces are often scattered from here to next year the first time the kids are left to their own devices to play them. Most toys (including cars, trucks, baby dolls, and barbies) are either destroyed, traded, abused, or aren’t developmentally appropriate for my kids. This has created a lot of stress over the years, too. They also lose interest in most toys fairly quickly simply because they don’t know what to do with them. They were deprived of play in their early years and to this day still don’t know how to actually play, use a toy, or even how to properly care for what they receive.

Another big issue we’ve had especially with things like race tracks, pottery sets, and robotics kits is that they are too flimsy to work as advertised or expected. They are also too complicated and have too many tiny little pieces involved to be enjoyed by our special needs kids. More often than not, they look great in the package, but end up being a huge disappointment for everyone in the end! Furthermore, the kids are rarely ever able to assemble them without help and are even less likely to be able to reassemble them or use them correctly once things have been cleaned up and put away after the big day is over. Consequently, key pieces end up missing or broken or the item simply goes unused because it’s too frustrating for them to enjoy.


Electronics and cash get their own categories. I can’t say they’re a solid “no”, especially for older kids, but both do need careful consideration. Video games are fun, but they’re also quite stimulating and addictive, especially for brains and emotions that are still trying to heal. In today’s day and age, many of them also contain crude, rude, or graphically violent images, humor, and themes that many justify as “suitable” for kids, but are a disaster for mine.

Phones and tablets are always on the want list (especially if they’re the latest, greatest versions). If you say “yes” to these types of items, be prepared for kids to be careless with them, for them to never be “good enough”, and for your kids not to appreciate the very strong boundaries that must come with them. It is essential that any device that can connect to the internet or has messaging capabilities of any kind include VERY STRONG parental controls and filtering, usage limits, and shared passwords so parents get access to the actual device whenever requested.

Any device that is unfiltered, unmonitored, or unchecked (regardless of how old the kids are) is an open invitation for trouble! Many a child’s and family’s lives have been turned upside down and shattered simply by what the kids were able to access, consume, and weasel their way around when the big people weren’t paying attention.


Cash and sometimes even gift cards can awaken the entitlement dragon in a BIG way, especially if these things are given directly to the kids. The money will probably burn a hole in their pocket and they’ll demand that it’s spent NOW!  It can also trigger major deprivation issues when they realize what they have isn’t enough to purchase that “cooler” item sitting on the shelves next to what they can afford.

Unfortunately, more often not, money and gift cards just end up being wasted, squandered, randomly given away (sometimes in large quantities) or traded for things of much less value in order to “buy” friends…since many of our kids don’t know how to keep them in any other way.

So what does work?

Admittedly, we’ve had to get creative over the years when it comes to giving gifts to our highly traumatized, special needs kids. We’ve definitely had to learn to do things differently and think differently in order to make it work. You know what, though? I wouldn’t trade it! I like the way we do things now WAY better than I ever did when we were trying to march to everyone else’s beat.

By doing thing our own way, we have been able to reclaim some of the genuine fun and excitement of these celebrations, especially birthdays and Christmas! So, let’s talk about what we’ve found that does work.

Keep it Simple

Our kids don’t need a lot of “stuff”. Nor do they need things with all sorts of flashy bells and whistles. We’ve found that simple, meaningful, and old-school options are the best way to go and yield the best results. 

  • Legos
  • Lincoln Logs
  • Tinker Toys
  • Blocks
  • Puzzles
  • Jenga
  • Marble machines

None of these items have to be brand name. Many of the big box retailers offer store-branded options that are just as good (and often compatible with) but a lot less expensive than their brand name counterparts.


Keep it Inexpensive

Not everything has to be new! Especially if your kids are still struggling to control their big feelings and have a track record of not appreciating or being able to care for what they receive, consider purchasing 2nd hand, refurbished, or inexpensive items. If they break them or ruin them, oh well.

  • Second hand, refurbished, or inexpensive (but still descent quality) items often work well!

Keep it Practical

Not every gift has to be flashy or even fun. Practical is a great choice, especially if it’s something they need. In fact, when needs are met, the gifts are often better received, cared for, and appreciated.


  • New sheets
  • Blankets
  • Towels
  • Socks
  • Underwear
  • Clothing

Keep it Low-Key

Quantity matters…and less is almost always better than more!

At our house, we do 1-2 gifts for birthdays and only do a very small party if they can handle it…which for many, many years they couldn’t. We’ve also found that casually taking a couple of their friends to the buffet, out for pizza, or to the fun center and requesting no gifts has worked a LOT better than parties of any kind.

For Christmas, everyone gets 3 presents…something fun from “Santa” (even though the secret of the mythical fat guy was made known long ago, the magic of Christmas morning is still fun), something special from Mom & Dad, and something to wear.

We also learned many, many years ago that we all enjoy the season a lot more if we spend the lion’s share of our budget things for our entire family to enjoy or do together rather than individual people.

Therapeutic Gifts

Therapeutic items often make the very best girls for our struggling kids! These are items that meet an emotional need, a developmental need, or a psychological need. Again, as I’ve said previously, when NEEDS are met, the gifts tend to be better received, better cared-for, and much more appreciated than all the more traditional stuff that doesn’t match who they are or where they are in their lives.

Comfort Items

Regardless of chronological age, it is so important that we meet our kids where they are developmentally. Remember that many of our kids from hard places missed significant developmental steps during early childhood. They may also be stuck in a developmental age that is much younger than their chronological age. Regardless of how old they are, they need to go back and make up those steps in order to move forward.

Anything that helps fill these gaps and/or helps soothe the soul, increase feelings of security, and eases anxiety are all great choices.


  • Teddy bears
  • Fuzzy jammies and blankets
  • Soft hoodies and sweat pants
  • Baby dolls
  • Hard caramel candies to suck on

Sensory Items

Many kids who had a rough start in life have very real sensory needs. The more we can help them meet these needs (especially in ways that we can live with, too) the more peaceful life will be for everyone.

  • Bean bags
  • Balance boards
  • Sensory bins
  • Swings
  • Hammocks
  • Body wraps
  • Spinners
  • Fidget toys
  • Hula hoops
  • Yoga balls
  • Hoppity Horse
  • Mini trampoline 

“Moon sand” (aka kinetic sand) is also really fun.

To jazz things up a bit, why not try a mermaid tail blanket or mummy-style sleeping back for lounging around and watching TV? 

None of these things have to be store-bought. In fact, the pre-made purchased versions are often lower quality and more expensive than what you can easily make yourself. By far the best hula hoops are the ones you make yourself out of rolled sprinkler pipe!  Balance boards can be easily made from a piece of pre-cut plywood or an old skateboard and a piece of PVC. Pinterest is full of ideas for many, if not all of these items yourself on a shoestring budget.

Weighted Items

Anything weighted will likely be a huge hit for most special needs kids (and stressed-out adults, too!) Weighted items are very grounding and soothing. All my kids have multiple weighted items and absolutely love them. I have some of my own and I adore them too.


  • Weighted blankets
  • Weighted vests
  • Lap quilts
  • Stuffed animals
Once again, though there are plenty of places online where you can purchase ready-made versions of these items, they don’t have to break the bank. Many of them can easily be made from ordinary items that are simply repurposed. If you need ideas for how to do it, check out Pinterest

Blankets can be made from beach towels and velcro. Many of the big box craft stores have now started selling the blanket inserts with simple instructions for making a custom cover…or I’ve even seen finished ones available for very reasonable prices at some of the big club stores.

Weighted animals are super easy to make, too. Just find a cute with a lot of surface area. We really like “pillow pet” types that are supposed to convert to a pillow. All you have to do to make it weighted is to carefully split one of the side seams, slip in a bag full of weight, and sew it back up with a needle and thread.

A word of caution….

Make sure the weight you add is either removable or washable. While dry beans, popcorn, macaroni, or even small fish tank type gravel might seem like cheap options, consider what will happen the first time they’re peed on or have to go through the wash for some other reason!

The only weighted stuffing material that is truly washable is the little plastic pellets. You can find small bags of it sold as “weighted stuffing” in the craft stores or you can buy it in bulk as polypropylene pellets on eBay. That’s actually my favorite way to get it. If you’re using more than about 1 lb of it (which doesn’t go very far), it’s a lot less expensive to buy it in bulk.

If you’re not sewing your own little pockets out of very sturdy fabric, be sure to double or even triple bag it using top quality freezer-weight bags and seal it with waterproof duct tape. Even then it might not hold up to machine washing.

Emotional Regulation and Empowerment Tools

What better way to say “I love you” to a tough kid that to offer items that encourage and support healing, emotional regulation, empowerment, and connection? 

I promise that kids don’t have to be little to appreciate dressing up as Superman. Our very favorite, though, is “The Incredible Hulk”.  Seriously, click that link and check that one out. You’ll be glad you did…regardless of how old your kids are!


Puppets are essential tools for any therapeutic family! Make sure you get good quality ones that are clearly identifiable as a human or a specific animal and have moving mouths. Why? Because puppets will almost always say more than people do. It is amazing how much people of any age will open up and start talking about stuff, even really hard stuff, when a puppet starts the conversation.

Puppets are also fabulous for storytelling, teaching social skills, and problem-solving. When you get a good puppet or three or four or five in the mix, conversations and learning take on a whole different feel and they become really fun for everyone (including snarky teens and adults) to use.

Look for good quality puppets that are easily recognizable, large enough for adults to use, and have moving mouths. Our favorites are ones that look like stuffed animals and also the human ones with lots of floppy yarn hair.

Personal Development and Educational Items

Especially for older kids, if there is something they’re showing an interest in, support it and help them develop their talents and skills.

  • Books
  • Audio books
  • Science kits
  • School supplies
  • Journals
  • Fun pencils or gel pens
  • A non-fiction book of facts about a subject they’re interested in
  • Games that encourage things like hand-eye coordination
  • Sequencing, spelling, or math flashcards
  • Practice workbooks
  • Colored page overlays (especially if reading is difficult)
  • Sticker books.

If they love to read, get a whole series of novels for them.

A microscope, sewing machine, digital camera, dance lessons, a musical instrument, cookbooks, or art supplies can also help encourage positive growth and development.

Again, not all those items need to be new. A “new to them” camera or instrument where they can learn and practice their budding interest is often just as well received and are easier on the wallet (and the emotions) if they decide they don’t want to use it anymore.

Community classes can be found even in small towns, both through the school systems and through local stores.

Kitchen and grocery stores often teach cooking classes, home improvement stores teach building classes both for kids and adults, craft stores offer project classes.  All of these are fairly inexpensive, if not free!

Make it a project instead of a present!

This is something we’ve done a lot, especially over the past few years. We’ve done everything from finishing a bathroom to redecorating bedrooms to upgrading the family entertainment area.

Our motto has become “If you can’t make it fun, at least make it funny!” Some of our best memories have been born out of this. All it takes is a little creativity to turn really boring stuff like grout, paint, sandpaper, and even a new toilet into something everyone will remember for the rest of their lives.

Don’t believe me? Click on that link above and read about the most boring Christmas ever that we all still laugh about!  

With a little creativity, items needed to complete a project can be gift wrapped and become treasured memories!

Items Focused on Permanency, Connection, and Healing

This is my most favorite section! It is vital that our kids hear the message that they belong in our family forever.

My kids may not take care of anything else they are given, but these connection and healing type gifts have usually been a hit! They are the things that are properly cared for and cherished for many years, even if nothing else they own is.

  • Sentimental items such as photo books (especially the big hardcover ones from places like Mixbook, Snapfish, or even your local photo center)
  • Positive affirmation books
  • Personalized canvas wall photos of something they love or even of themselves to hang in their rooms are great! 
  •  Personalized key chains
  • Items inscribed with a message of love
  • Memory boxes
  • Time capsules
  • A can of new paint to repair all the damage they’ve done in their room 
  • Journal
  • A collection of soothing music
  • Essential oil diffusers
  • Pre-planned family activities instead of  “stuff” also go a very long way.

Keep important traditions alive

Traditions may seem silly or unimportant, especially in the face of crisis, but traditions are what foster connection and instill a sense of permanency for our kids. Be selective in which ones you keep, though! Even the good ones can be too much and add to the chaos if too much is just too much. We have let many “activity” type things go over the years, but have kept the ones that support connection and permanency.

Whether they need them or not, our kids always get a new pair of pajamas on Christmas Eve.  They’re not a surprise at all, but I still gift wrap them and put them under the tree. As soon as that package marked “Open Christmas Eve” appears, they all squeal with delight that “the jammies have arrived!” It makes me smile, especially since my kids aren’t little anymore.

We’re not into the matchy-matchy thing, but if you are, all the better! You can never take enough opportunities to foster connection! We have texture and temperature issues at our house. Some like smooth and cool. Others like fuzzy and warm, so we go with what feels good to that person.

One of our other favorite Christmas traditions is our “Story Tree”. All the decorations on our tree tell the story of our family. Each year each person picks out a new ornament for the tree that represents them or something they’ve been doing that year.

My kids look forward to this every year! They love picking out their own ornament, and they love hanging all of their ones from past years on the tree and remembering those good times in our family. We’ve been doing this for many years now and our tree is now very full. Part of the fun now is finding a spot to hang all those precious memories. We love it!

Traditions such as new pajamas for Christmas, ornaments on the tree or annual family activities that are truly fun for everyone and promote connection and permanency (but don’t stir up a lot of backlash) are important to keep alive!

Filling the Christmas Stockings

Not all traditions need to be serious or even conventional either. Sometimes they can be practical or just plain silly.  If you’re like me and aren’t quite ready to give up on the traditional Christmas stockings yet, but also dislike all the trinkets that typically go in them, fill them with highly practical and useful items (which are usually also large enough to fill much of the stocking.) 

  • Full-size bottles of shampoo, shower gel, and hand lotion
  • Gloves, ski hats, and scarves
  • Just for fun, how about a beautifully gift-wrapped package of new underwear

The underwear is actually one of our favorite things. We’ve been doing for many years. Just like the jammies, it’s never a surprise. In fact, one year one of our darling boys came in and woke us up by saying “Wake up! It’s Christmas morning!! Let’s go open our underwear!”

Detach yourself from the outcome!

Even with all these ideas, giving gifts to traumatized or attachment disordered kids can still be hard. One of the most important things you can do both to survive the experience and make it successful is to detach yourself from the outcome. In other words, once you give that gift, it is theirs to do with as they wish.

They may love it and take care of it. They may destroy it before the day is over. They may pitch a fit over it.  Regardless of what they do, it is 100% on them. It’s not about you!

The more you can remove your own emotions and expectations from the event and the gift, the more successful it will be. Furthermore, the more deeply you understand how very difficult holidays, celebrations, and receiving gifts of any kind really are for our kids, the more you can understand and empathize with where their big feelings are coming from and what they are really all about.

Once you give a gift, it is theirs to do with as they wish. The more you can remove your own emotions and expectations from the event and the gift, the more successful it will be.

What about gifts that come from other people?

Oh, boy. These types of gifts can be a real challenge to deal with! Grandparents, relatives, friends, and neighbors may mean well, but often have no idea what life is really like for our kids our or families. As such, most of those kind and generous things they want to do don’t  work for our kids or our family and can easily cause more problems than they solve. Those sweet and wonderful things they do are often way too much, too triggering, or simply not appropriate for our situation. So what do we do about it?

Set Limits!

If Grandma wants to do something for the kids, great. She can do one parent-approved gift.

If the neighbors feel the need to do something, you are still the parent and get to decide how to handle it. 

Regardless of the situation, it’s important to remember we still have choices and we still have options. We are also still the ones who get to decide how things like gift-giving play out.

Especially when our kids were younger, and even sometimes now when it comes to things like gift cards and cash, it worked MUCH better if we had the givers give the gifts to us as parents. We then gave them to the kids and let them know who they were from. If people chose not to accept or honor these boundaries, the kids weren’t allowed to keep whatever gift or treat was given to them simply because it caused problems in our home every single time!

Tips for managing cash and gift cards

With gift cards and cash, we usually have the kids give them right to us and hold onto them for them until it’s time to go to the store. We set a designated time and make a special trip for them to spend their money. We purposely also plan this trip for several weeks out.

Until then, the kids are welcome to look at options. We also have them make a list of things they might want that are under their budget and remind them that any overages, including sales tax, come out of their savings or allowance money. That makes the actual shopping trip a lot less painful and frustrating for everyone. The kids also appreciate their gifts a lot more because they’ve had time to think about whether they really want this item or not.

Keep track of cash and gift cards for your child rather than allowing them to do it. 

Set a designated time and make a special trip for them to spend their cash or gift cards that is several days or weeks out from when they received it. In the meantime, they can look at options and make a list of things they might want to spend it on.

Handling the random gifts that just show up

We still have choices and get to decide what happens when stuff is randomly gifted to us. If it is something that we like or might be useful to us later on, we can graciously accept it and/or save it for the future (and try not to forget about it like I usually do.) We can smile sweetly and then donate it to charity later on. Or, we can offer alternative ideas to these well-meaning people who love us and let them know what might be a better fit for our child or our family.

Or, we can simply say “No, thank you. We’ve got this and we’re good. We love you for thinking of us, but our kids really struggle with gifts and “stuff” and it’s best if we keep things very simple for the time being.”

Yes, we really, we can say stuff like that!

Offer suggestions!

If someone still really wants to do something for your family and they’re not willing to take no for an answer, consider yourself loved. Then speak up, thank them graciously for their thoughtfulness, and let them know what you really need.

Perhaps a date night for mom and dad (babysitting included) is more appropriate and appreciated than a toy for the child.

What about a gift card for appropriate family entertainment, or maid service, or some of those fancy pre-prepped meals that get delivered to your door?

In all that giving, don’t forget about yourself!

We moms are trained to be givers. We’re not always great receivers, though, and nor are we always great at taking care of ourselves. Yet one of the most powerful gifts you will ever give your kids, yourself, your spouse, or anyone else is the gift of healing for yourself. You don’t have to resign yourself to living a life of chaotic darkness. There really is a way out!

So, take a moment to think about what you need for yourself. What do you need in terms of emotional release, relaxation, support, and healing for yourself? Better yet, what do you need that validates and supports you as a person and a parent? None of us get nearly enough of that!

How about a massage…or better yet, a monthly service plan to keep that gift alive?

How about a gift certificate for some parent coaching, the opportunity to attend a women’s retreat, or admission a parenting conference you’ve been wanting to go to?

These are all fantastic gifts that will keep on giving to you and your entire family for years to come. They are also all things you can let your spouse, friends, and family know you need. No, pre-paid parent coaching might not be as flashy as a new iPad, but imagine the tears of gratitude and joy that would be shed if that gift offered by your spouse or other supportive family members and friends!

Now it’s your turn

What works for you and your family? Leave a comment and us know! I love sharing ideas!! After all, there’s always birthdays and next Christmas to plan for once we get through this one!

Latest posts by Diana (see all)

Yes! I'm ready to restore peace and reclaim my life!

You're almost there! Enter your name and email address below to get instant access.

You will also receive other valuable information related to parenting tough kids who struggle with intense emotional and behavior issues. Unsubscribe anytime.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Yes! I need help calming chaos and diffusing drama!

Enter your name and email address below and we'll send the Therapeutic Responses right out.

You will also receive other valuable information related to parenting tough kids who struggle with intense emotional and behavior issues. Unsubscribe anytime.

You have Successfully Subscribed!