Holidays bring excitement, a desire to spend time with family and visit friends, and to add to the bank of treasured family memories. Such high expectations can be realized. But, in families whose children have a history of tough starts and trauma, often the holidays demand more than kids can give. The increased pressure amps anxiety and may evoke acting out or uncooperative behavior. This is almost always a sign that they feel overwhelmed.
This holiday, choose to be intentional about your plans. If large gatherings bring out the worst in your child, skip those events. Arrange to visit in small, intimate groups. Concentrate on spending time together, without the hype, hoopla, and fancy feasts. Spend time having fun instead of cooking and cleaning. Your child will thank you. (And you won’t miss the chaos or the breakdowns that this approach avoids.)
Be sensitive to the ambivalent feelings that complicate Christmas for kids with difficult histories. Perhaps their holiday memories overflow with recollections of disappointment, neglect, or violence. Your enthusiasm and excitement may not jibe with their past experiences. This disconnect can be uncomfortable at best and threatening at worst. (When kids feel threatened: primitive behaviors arise and everyone suffers the consequences.)
Be a detective and identify triggers that set off these difficult memories and help your child process the painful feelings. Perhaps it is the taste of a food, the smell of alcohol, or the sound of glass clinking in the trash. A song, decoration, or activity might dredge up a troubling or painful memory. Perhaps one of your friends or relatives may remind them of a dangerous person from their earlier life. Even if this connection isn’t conscious, it can still evoke a significant fear response. Be Sherlock Holmes as you work to identify what can ignite past pain.
If your child needs his solitude, respect this. Reassure him that he is always welcome to join the gathering—when he decides. Acknowledge his feelings with comfort, not anger. Together, design strategies that work for him. Once the celebrations begin, remember to support these strategies without resentment, irritation, or impatience. Resist trying to cajole your child into relinquishing or softening the agreed-upon strategies. Remind yourself that not only do these strategies help your child, they may also ensure that everyone enjoys the celebrations–including you. Praise your child for meeting his own needs. This is an important step in learning to define, establish, and hold his boundaries. and hold out the invitation that when he is ready, he will be welcomed to the festivities. (Be open and supportive, not pushy.)
Perhaps this Christmas may not be the fantasy family holiday of your dreams. And it can be the pivotal foundation of a future of holidays spent together enjoying each other and building an empathic, respectful family connection.
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