Trauma and the Holidays

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The holidays are my favorite time of the year! My home is decorated and everyone is jolly and excited for Thanksgiving and Christmas! Everyone has lights on their houses, and our city puts Frosty and Candy Cane lights on the street lights! And don’t get me started on the Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes… I love working in a school during the holiday season. Christmas trees are everywhere, the kids are excited, and class parties and Christmas performances abound!

I should say this was me before we adopted our daughter. But looking at the holidays through her trauma eyes has made me…well…more cynical and sad. Don’t get me wrong – my little girl loves everything about the season, but her little brain just can’t handle it. She is triggered and pushed back into the past by many things she sees and hears during this time of year. And a lot of our family and friends just don’t understand. Most years I just want to hide at home until after the New Year (with my Little Debbie Christmas Tree cakes), so we can survive without a major catastrophe, but even a mention of “not doing” Christmas sends our loved ones into shock and horror. Two months of holiday fun sends us giant steps backwards and hurts her healing so much. It takes months for us to get back to where we were before the holiday season started.

I’ve been reading all the books on trauma and how to heal her brain. I’ve been researching how to handle this holiday season, so we can get through without so much hurt to her and ourselves. Here are a few things I plan to do this holiday season to help my daughter cope and prevent my husband and me from losing it. 

Stay on our normal schedule and keep our normal routines. We get two weeks off from school and it’s so tempting to let my daughter stay up late and sleep in, but keeping her on a schedule is so important! It helps her feel more in control and know what is coming next during such an anxious time. Even if we decide to travel over the break, I will keep our bedtime routine and other routines that help her cope. My daughter craves structure, and I plan to keep her days structured even if we are traveling. If we can stay home and have family come to us, that is always best. We are hosting Thanksgiving this year, which makes things easier for us and our daughter. We make a point to wake up on Christmas morning at our home to maintain our daughter’s routine and keep the chaos minimal.

When traveling, bring all items that help my daughter feel safe. Children who have been through trauma need to feel and know that they are safe. I want to make sure that no matter where we are, my daughter feels safe. For us, this means packing her favorite weighted blanket and favorite stuffed animal. When we stay somewhere other than our normal places, our daughter sleeps on a pallet on the floor near us, so she feels safe knowing we are right there to protect her.

Have a plan. Things never go how I want them to when my daughter is involved. I always need an exit plan when we attend events, just in case. This season, I plan to leave holiday events early while things are still going well for my daughter. I want to leave on a high note, so she will be proud of herself and not carry her out while she’s screaming and kicking and then end up feeling bad about herself afterward.

Take frequent breaks. I know that I need breaks from extended family (who doesn’t!), so I know that my daughter will need breaks from family, too. I am planning breaks for snacks, exercise, and for her to use the coping skills that her counselor has taught her. Even if it’s just the two of us going and taking a walk for 5 minutes, it will do her good to get away from everyone for awhile. We will do things with our extended family that are structured, like play games or watch movies. Also, we will make plans for just the three of us, like baking cookies or building a gingerbread house.

Say “no”. There are always so many events to attend during the holiday season. I know we can’t attend them all. I know which ones my daughter can handle and which ones she can’t. There will be a lot I will be saying “no” to this season. I know my daughter can’t handle unstructured chaos, so anything like that is off the table. I’m sure there will be people who get their feelings hurt, but at this point, my daughter’s healing is more important. 

Get families on the same page. I will be talking to our extended family about my daughter’s routines, discipline, and food she is not allowed to eat. It’s so important for consistency across the board for her healing to continue and not take giant steps backward.

Keep things simple. I love having the perfect Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family, but I’ve learned in the last few years that a perfect holiday looks a little different than it did before we adopted our daughter. The first year she lived with us, we tried for a huge and “perfect” Christmas with lot of food, activities, and every gift she could possibly want. It blew up in our faces. It’s too much for her, and she gets overstimulated when there are too many people and things going on at once. We’ve learned over the years to keep holidays very simple, and things work out much better.

My husband I have so much hope that our daughter is headed down the path of healing, and we pray that this holiday season doesn’t set her back.

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Carissa is a loving wife, mother, and educator holding a masters of reading from the University of Central Oklahoma. She loves helping around their farm by taking care of the goats, chickens, and dogs. Her newly-adopted daughter brings lots of new challenges to her life as she is learning to balance work, family, and parenting.

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