With the holidays upon us I thought I would share a little from an article I just read titled “stress and the holidays”. It was written by Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a child psychiatrist who practices at the Boston clinic and writes a weekly column for the New York Times.
The article covered multiple topics but I thought I would center on why this happens and different ways to help lower this stress in children. The holidays are filled with surprises and departure from daily routines which, while exciting for many, can be overwhelming for traumatized young ones. Holidays are meant to bring back memories of the past and for most of us these are pleasant but for most of our children these memories just bring back pain.
Steps to Help
Dr. Sparrow believes the first step in helping in these situations is to establish safety. Traumatized children need constant reminders that we love them and are devoted to caring for them. If they still feel scared other efforts to help will be of little use. Past memories may come flooding back – “Why was I abandoned?”, “Why was I hurt?”, “Why am I in this different home?”. For some of our children the outside dangers of the world now seem to take up residence inside them. Behaving badly can be one way to find out if the home they are in now is any different from the home they came from, will they be welcome with all their “badness”. While this can be extremely frustrating, it is not you they are fighting, it is their past.
Words help organize feelings
To get their behaviors under control they will need to find words to organize their feelings. It is possible to gain some control over their feelings when they can gain some control over their words. When a child asks simple clear information can help: “yes it was the day before Christmas when the police came to take you away from your parents.” Can they handle more? Their body language will tell you. If they nod and make eye contact, they may be ready for more. If they turn away or become angry that’s probably all they can take for now. Slowly putting words to the experience organizes it and makes it less scary than when it is shrouded in silence, or when there are no words for their feelings. However children need to be in control of these conversations, do not explain it all when they might not be ready for it.
All of our “normal experiences” are turned upside down in trauma. These children need experiences of mastery and control that are within their reach at the time to gain healing. I will close with a quote from the last paragraph of the article:
“We may wish children will forget the people that have harmed them. But they can’t and are bound to think about them from time to time, especially at the holidays. Helping them tell their story can help them make sense of what has happened to them. Their stories can become a place for the sadness, and for the good times that the bad ones can’t undo. Stories speak from the heart.”