How to Make the Holiday Season Easier for Kids With Trauma Backgrounds

The holiday season can be a tricky time for children who have experienced trauma or loss. In a time so focused on giving, family, and celebration, emotions are so easily heightened, and regulation can be a challenge. In this blog, we share tips and resources to help your little ones cope, regulate, and even enjoy the holiday season.

Why the Holidays Are So Challenging

There are many reasons adoptive, foster, and kinship children can struggle during the holiday season. On top of the typical excitement and anticipation of the holidays, according to Creating a Family, stress and anxiety can be triggered by changes in routine, sensory overloads, changes in diet, and expectations. With the bustle of the holiday season and so many activities, many children are thrown off their typical routines and reminded of the loss they have experienced.

“Even if your child doesn’t remember much about his life before joining your family, the irregularities of the holiday season can increase his anxiety about his place in life or in your home,” says Creating a Family.

Even for adults, the holidays can stir up nostalgia and remind us of family we’ve lost or times we miss. However, for children with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), feelings of excitement, sadness, or anger can be amplified in the rush of the holiday season. A blog post by Upbring highlights the importance of Trauma-Informed Care during the holidays, saying, “These [Adverse Childhood] experiences shape the way children experience the world, including how they form relationships and react to certain situations.”

Upbring encourages parents to do the following to approach the holidays through a trauma-informed lens:

  1. Don’t assume your child is enjoying him or herself.
  2. Invite your child to talk when you sense something is wrong.
  3. Practice empathy.
  4. Start small, and let your child opt out of experiences if they need to.
  5. Form new traditions together.
  6. Avoid sensory overload
  7. Stick to a routine when possible.

On top of these tips, in the case that your child is acting out, keep in mind that your reaction to your child’s behaviors can hurt or help the situation. When you are able to remain calm and keep your child’s needs at the forefront (above your own hopes for how you would like things to look), you are helping your child process and regulate their emotions.

“A lot of times, we get so caught up in wanting to make this a great experience for kiddos,” says Haley Morte, Child & Family Therapist in a blog post for Arizona Family Counseling. “They seem like they’re struggling, so let’s add something more that would make this holiday season memorable for them. I think there’s good intention in that, but I think a lot of times we need to recognize that, for our kids, this is not helpful.”

Morte tells parents to lower the bar for the holidays and have grace for children who come from trauma and loss. She says behaviors may be the only way children know how to express to you that they’re struggling.

How to Help Your Child Through

The good news? Your holidays don’t have to turn sour because of trauma-triggered behaviors, and you can help your child through this holiday season!

Therapist and parent coach Eileen Devine details in a blog post four ways parents can help kiddos through the holidays:

  1. Clearly communicate with family ahead of time. Clearly communicating with family ahead of time what you and your child will or will not participate in can clear any expectations and relieve pressure.
  2. You know your family. Trust your gut. Understand that some family may not know how to be flexible and accommodate for your child. If you know a gathering is not a good fit for your child, this may be a good opportunity to decline the invitation.
  3. If things go south, don’t match the energy. If after setting clear boundaries and requesting appropriate accommodations you notice your child is struggling, remain calm and gently transition to either a redirect or an exit. Don’t match any dysregulated energy, but take the necessary steps to support your child.
  4. Give yourself permission to not participate. If you believe not participating in an activity is truly what is best for you, your child, and your family, allow yourself the ability to not participate.

Ultimately, creating as much stability as possible for your child is increasingly important during the holiday season. Doing this requires you to prepare for the holiday season ahead and remain open to asking questions and hearing about your child’s feelings, especially when your child’s schedule fills with holiday bustle. Keep in mind that your child may need time away from events and even family members and encourage them to take breaks when needed.

The Attachment Trauma Network even highlights the importance of giving children a safe space to escape during holiday functions and making it a point as a parent to remind them during the event to take breaks.

Another tip recommended by Attachment Trauma Network is recognizing the letdown after the holidays or special events: “For someone who does not regulate emotions well, emotions are felt on a rollercoaster,” says Attachment Trauma Network. “Being upset after an activity doesn’t mean they didn’t like it. They may have had such a great time that it’s confusing to go back to the normal.”

Lean into Joy

Whether you are preparing for your first holiday season with a child who has experienced trauma, or you are seeing new behaviors from your teenager, remember to give your children and yourself grace this season. Every day (and sometimes, every hour!) can be an opportunity to reset and move forward in the joy of the holiday season.

When they are older, your child won’t remember how perfectly your home was decorated, how every evening was filled with a new, exciting activity, or how many gifts were under your Christmas tree – they will remember the warmth of your home, the safety of your presence, and the comfort they experienced knowing they had you at home to lean on.

Happy holidays from your Families Are Forever team! If we can be a resource to you this holiday season, please reach out.