A point by point explanation of why the holiday season is so tough for your child who has been exposed to trauma.
Index: Looking for tips on how to guide your child through the holidays? Wondering why your child has been acting out more than usual? You are not alone! Holiday season comes with highs and lows for everyone but it can be particularly difficult for some children. Check out this blog for practical ways to help your child (and yourself) actually enjoy the season!
What is trauma and has my child experienced it
Why our children might act out during holiday season
What we can do to help
Adverse childhood experiences impact so many people. They can shape the way a child understands expectations, relationships, safety, etc. Three types of ACEs include: abuse (physical 28.3%, emotional 10.6% and sexual 20.7%), neglect (physical 9.9% and emotional 14.8%), and household dysfunction (mental illness 19.4%, incarcerated relative 4.7%, mother treated violently 12.7%, substance abuse 26.9% and divorce 23.3%)
Despite our greatest efforts, many of our children (adopted, fostered or biological) have experienced one or more ACEs. While we can not undo the past, we can do a handful of things to help our children not be reminded of or relive these experiences. This list highlights a few behavioral characteristics to help you identify if your child might be struggling with their past trauma during the holiday season.
- Stomach ache
- Seemingly random outbursts
Remember: almost all children are a little uneasy during this season due to tiredness and build up of anticipation. Try to have grace with your child regardless of their past.
Why our children act out during the holiday season:
Holidays have the potential to impact everyone in some negative ways, despite our greatest intentions! Can you think of a time that you have simply been overwhelmed with all the commotion surrounding family gatherings, parties, cooking and shopping? We can!
While we like to highlight the surprises and celebrations, this also means a lot of change in routine, diet, people and surroundings. Children are greatly impacted by stability, or lack thereof. If your child is unusually acting out, this might be because he/she is checking to make sure you are paying attention to them. When your child is throwing a tantrum… they are not trying to sabotage your work – don’t take it personally. This list highlights a handful of things parents tend to overlook or negate that actually impacts children more than they think!
- Change in bed time routine
- Change in diet (more sugar, more carbs, different foods)
- Change in meal routine
- Change of surrounding
- Change of people/interactions
- Build up of anticipation
- The unknown (surprises)
- Increase in loud noises, activity, music and lights
- Distracted parents – cooking, cleaning, decorating, holiday parties, etc.
- Increased expectations – relatives asking for hugs, singing songs, etc.
What parents can do to help:
- Make a plan – Plan how you will do things differently this year in an effort to make things better/easier for your child
- If your child is fostered or was not adopted at birth – try to find out if they had any holiday traditions before they were in your home. Ask them if they would like to continue those traditions with you.
- Ask your child what they would like the holiday season to look like and incorporate their desires into the family’s plan this year
- Ask your child how they are feeling frequently AND validate their feelings
- Continue basic routines – try to be as consistent as possible
- If there will be a change in routine, let your child know (“this is happening tonight so your bed time might need to be a little bit later”)
- Use a visual schedule – can be words or pictures
- Give your child time blocks – “between 3-4:00 we are going to start making cookies with grandma” – this way you do not pin yourself to a tight schedule that will disappoint or confuse your child when you are not making cookies at 3:00 on the dot
- Make sure your child knows they are always allowed to have a snack if they are hungry. Then make that snack familiar, visible and available to them.
- Help your child drink water and stay hydrated
- Remember that surprises aren’t always fun. Your child might have been extremely disappointed, embarrassed or fearful of a surprise early in their life which makes anticipating a surprise now very difficult. If surprises are scary for your child try:
- Telling them little snippets (ie. what the gift might be used for or with)
- Letting them help you wrap the presents (including theirs)
- Taking the child shopping with you for Christmas gifts
- Focusing on the activities you can share together rather than the amount of gifts
- Baking cookies
- Going for a walk
- Playing a game
- Reading a story
- Watching a movie
- Decorating their room
- You could even give them gifts of activities like a membership to a place they can enjoy all year (zoo, gym, etc.)
- Make sure your child knows the people they are around and knows they are safe
- Remind them that if an extended family member asks them for a hug they are allowed to say no
- Talk through different scenarios with your child and be there if possible to reinforce their confidence when the different scenarios occur
- Try to avoid having a kids room and adults room at family gatherings. Your child will feel safer knowing they are allowed to approach and be with you
- Don’t cross your fingers and hope they will “do better”
- Don’t put more pressure on them to perform well
- Don’t make a plan without asking your child their preferences if they are old enough to give input
- Don’t ask your child how they are feeling and then tell them they are wrong
There are so many different triggers a child might experience and there could be new triggers each year. It is extremely difficult to predict all your childs triggers. However, if you know things that comfort them or have triggered them in the past, try to be mindful. “For example, if your child is prone to feeling overwhelmed in large groups of loud talking, try to take them to the side for a few quiet moments throughout the day” – Heart to Heart Family Counseling
In the end remember that this is a special time to share with your family no matter the circumstances. Being aware of your child’s feelings is the first step. We are praying for your family and wishing you well this holiday season!