December is often a month of ‘unpredictable’ and ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ events that can be disconcerting to traumatized children. Routines get changed, we stay up later, and that is only the beginning in this “wonder” month. Often families of troubled young ones wonder “why?” Why do things that are special get ruined? Why does my child sulk and act entitled when we stress giving in our family? Why is my child in their “time-out” chair before the first present is even opened? What can possibly be the reason when all I want is for everyone to enjoy this special time.
Lack of routine-
Everything I read points to a “lack of routine” as a possible trigger for our children. Children with a trauma history depend on structure and routine. The predictability helps them feel safe and lowers a bit of the activation in their nervous system. When life becomes unpredictable, little brains go on high-alert, primed to be ready for any danger that may arise. Being on high-alert also causes them to see “trouble, trouble!!!!” when there isn’t any. “High Alert State” is not known for reading trouble accurately.
Many of our kids from trauma have a sensitive sensory processing system. This may make excess noise, crowds of people, and bright lights very difficult to manage. This extra sensory input leaves children right at the edge of their “ability to cope,” meaning that your child may be more easily triggered into dysregulated and troubling behaviors.
Negative Sense of Self–
One of the most troubling impacts of early childhood trauma is how it destroys a child’s belief about who they are. Children who experience abuse, neglect, or other trauma without a strong support system in place start to believe things like “I am a bad kid,” “I only deserve bad things” and “I cannot trust adults.” Being offered good things- like holiday gifts or fun family times puts kids in conflict with what is inside of them. Our body and brain likes to stay in equilibrium- even if the equilibrium is negative. Children may unconsciously gravitate toward experiences or relationships that validate their negative beliefs. Unfortunately, these negative beliefs are their normal, safe, and comfortable ones.
Trigger Past Memories-
The holiday season can trigger both voluntary and involuntary memories in our children. Most adults can empathize with this. How many of us navigate through the holidays without ever feeling a glimmer of sadness or regret, I know I don’t. Often I either remember happy memories that are no longer present at the holidays (I still miss my dad sitting at our table), or sad memories of holiday experiences you’d rather forget? (“remember that time when our daughter was in the hospital at Christmas”) Our children may be having similar holiday experiences. The holidays may heighten feelings of sadness and missing their first family. The holidays can also trigger negative memories through some of the distinct sounds and smells that December brings about.
It’s not easy
The holidays are hard for many of us- but they can be extra challenging for your child who has a history of trauma. Slow down, limit sensory input, and stay in a routine as much as possible.
I wish to thank Robyn Gobbel for the article she wrote entitled “Hard holidays with your child of trauma” – this article helped me think again about many of these wonderful suggestions she made. To read more from the Center about the holidays and the stress it can bring click on the link.