When Trauma Triggers Spoil Holiday Plans

December 16, 2014

little asian girl sits next to christmas tree

This week we revisit a popular post from last year's holiday season.

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. Hidden triggers catch kids and parents short as painful memories are reawakened and anticipated pleasures collapse under the weight of trauma-connected "stuff/"

This holiday choose to be intentional about your plans. If large gatherings bring out the worst in your child, skip them. 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.) Your understanding and empathy may prove the most valuable gift you can  provide your children.

Be sensitive to the ambivalent feelings that complicate Christmas for kids with difficult histories. Perhaps their holiday memories were filled with disappointment, neglect, or violence. Your enthusiasm and excitement may not jibe with their past experiences. This disconnect can be uncomfortable at best, 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, or the smell of alcohol, the sound of glass clinking in the trash. A song, decoration, or activity might dredge up a troubling memory. One of your friends or relatives may remind them of a dangerous person from their earlier life. Be Sherlock Holmes as you work to identify what can ignite past pain. Create an prearranged "signal" that your kids can flash to you so they can easily alert you to the presence of a "trigger." Have a plan that provides them  way to n escape from the trigger. In the moment be invested in the support this offers your child and detach from any disappointment that could arise from cancelled plans.

If your child needs his solitude, respect this. Reassure him that he is always welcome to join the group—when he decides. Acknowledge his feelings and support the strategies that work for him. Praise him for meeting his own needs and hold out the invitation that when he is ready, he will be welcomed to the festivities. (Be open and supportive, not pushy.)

This Christmas may not be the fantasy family holiday of your dreams but 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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