Holiday Gatherings Survival Guide for Moms of Traumatized Kids

by | Therapeutic Parenting, Holidays and Celebrations

The Holiday season is a wonderful time of year! It’s a great opportunity celebrate all that is good with our family and friends, reflect on our blessings, and participate in treasured traditions. However, it can also be an incredibly difficult time for children who struggle with complex issues related to Reactive Attachment Disorder or developmental trauma exposure. Unfortunately, all the things we love about Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to set our kids off in a big way. That can make it extremely difficult for any of us who live with such kids to enjoy the season.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I want to offer a few holiday survival tips, especially for those celebrations that involve special holiday gatherings. My hope is these little tips will help keep things just  a little saner for you and make the experience more successful for everyone!

We’re shooting for success!

Notice I said we want the experience to be successful. That’s the goal we are shooting for. We want these types of experiences to be successful for everyone…for you, for your child, for your family, for the event host, and for all the other guests.

I frequently see trauma parents recommending to each other not to involve our struggling kids in these types of events. I wholeheartedly disagree! As such, what you will not hear from me is any type of suggestion to dump your kid off somewhere else while you go enjoy the day yourself. Oh yes, doing so will probably allow you a bit of peace for a few moments, but it won’t lead to long-term success or healing for anyone. In fact, it will probably come at a high price and spur on a whole lot of post-holiday backlash once the child comes home.

The tips I’m going to share with you today are about setting things up so your child can successfully participate in the festive holiday event, they can feel like they were successful, and they will know they belong there as part of the family.

How to survive holiday gatherings when your child has Reactive Attachment DisorderTherapeutic parenting doesn’t get a holiday break

This tip is #1 for a reason! Just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean we can take a break from therapeutic parenting. Oh, goodness! I know we want one. We probably need one, too. However, big days that come with big gatherings (such as Thanksgiving and Christmas) aren’t the time to take that break. They’re actually the time to up your game rather than kick back and blow it off.

If we want to have any hope of being able to enjoy any part of the celebrations ourselves, it is essential that we kick that therapeutic parenting into high gear! It honestly doesn’t matter if others don’t understand what we do or why we do it. Nor does it matter if THEY think our kids are fine (and they aren’t bashful in sharing their opinions on the matter). We’re still the parents, we know our kids best, and WE are still the ones who live with them and deal with all the stuff they can dish out, especially when they don’t think others are watching. The minute we take a break from therapeutic parenting ourselves is the minute when all their special crazy stuff will come out and shoot holes in everything.

Adjust your expectations

Holiday gatherings come with a lot of high expectations. We put them on ourselves. We put them on our kids. We feel them coming from others. For this reason, we tend to feel a lot of pressure to do things we wouldn’t normally do, to step up and perform at a certain level or in a certain way that will help meet those expectations, or to be someone that we can no longer be or isn’t consistent with who we are now.

While these things may be rooted in good intention, the line of thinking tends to be “If you get with the program and do exactly what I say, everything will turn out great and it will magical for everyone. But if not…

Sadly, this type of pressure often comes from extended family we don’t see very often. They likely don’t know anything about our kids or their issues. They may have only known us when we were kids ourselves and have no idea who we are now or how our family operates. They probably also can’t even begin to wrap their heads around what happens when no one is looking. They do, however, probably just want everyone to be together and to be happy.

Here’s the deal, though. You know your child and your family better than anyone. Trust your instincts. Trust your gut and keep your expectations realistic. There is no such thing as a perfect holiday gathering. Do only what you can do, do it in a way that works for you and your family.

Also, remember that Reactive Attachment Disorder is a neurological condition. It isn’t reasonable to expect a child with this type of a brain-based special need to conform to any kind of mold or behave a certain way just because it’s Thanksgiving. It’s also unreasonable to expect them to be on their A-Game all day long without having some sort of fall out later on. Life just doesn’t work that way! Neither does the disorder.

Keep it simple

Fun as they may be, holiday gatherings can be stressful! They aren’t just stressful for our kids, either. We mamas get stressed out, too.

Just the preparation alone that is involved in pulling off a holiday gathering, especially Thanksgiving, can send our own stress level over the moon. There are all kinds of special foods to prepare (most of which require significant time and attention). Plus, there are all the school parties, office festivities, and the local charity auction to attend. Inevitably, there is either a house to clean and/or packing that must be done in order to make it “over the river and through the woods” to Grandmother’s house before the big day.

None of these things mix well with special needs kids. Our kids will quickly pick up on our stress, add their own to it, and will magnify all of it by about a hundred-fold. As a general rule, the more you can simplify and the simpler you can keep things, the more successful the experience will likely be for everyone. Remember, success is the name of the game.

It really is okay to buy a pecan pie from the big box store or local bakery rather than making it from scratch. In fact, it is okay to forgo the pecan pie all together if it’s just too much. If it isn’t necessary, if it doesn’t add to the experience, or if it is causing more stress than enjoyment, let it go! 

Go in with a plan

Holiday gatherings are often much more successful for everyone if we plan ahead with our kids’ needs leading the way. Stress will happen. Noise will happen. Strange people and foods will be there. Overwhelm will happen. If we’re not on top of all of it, or if we don’t strategically plan for it, chaos will happen too.

 Make sure there is some downtime planned in there, both for yourself and also for your kids. Plan some escape routes, too. Regardless of what everyone else is doing (or even what they think about things), take a few minutes to step away from the festivities at the first signs of stress for yourself or your child. Don’t wait until they’re on the verge of a meltdown or problems arise. Step away from things long before that, allow things to settle for a bit and then come back and join the fun.

Perhaps you could designate a quiet room or other safe space where your child can retreat when they start to get overwhelmed or stressed. If space is at a premium, getting in the car with your child and driving around the block a few times to allow everyone’s nervous system to settle can work wonders. Tag-teaming with your spouse or partner can also allow both of you to be on “parent duty” some of the time and then kick back and relax and enjoy some of the festivities when it’s the other person’s turn.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what your plan is. What matters is that you have one and you do works for your child and your family to make the event successful and positive for everyone. Having a plan and sticking to it will also prevent a whole lot of post-holiday meltdown later on. At least for me, that is what ultimately determines how successful an event really was.

Keep it short

Even the best laid plans will eventually run out if we stay too long. It’s also a good idea to plan your exit strategy. Remember, we’re all about creating success here. Stay only as long as you or your child can handle the event. Then cut off the fun while everyone is still doing well.

If your special needs or attachment disordered child has been able to keep it together for a bit and/or re-engage in the event after a few breaks, don’t press your luck and assume they will keep doing well if you stay all day. Call it good and call it a day while everyone is still enjoying things.By cutting things off when they’re still having fun, you’re creating a new script that says they CAN be successful, they can do this, and it’s safe to be at these types of events. Hopefully next time, they will feel that safety again and will be able to stay a little longer, too

It’s okay to say no!

Let’s be real. It may not always be possible to keep it simple or to keep it short. It also may not be possible to enjoy an event when other people’s expectations are too heavy, their opinions or judgment calls are too loud, or it generates too much drama.

When this is the case, it really is okay to say no. It is perfectly acceptable to put boundaries in place and say “You know, I appreciate the invitation, but this type of thing just doesn’t work for me or my child or my family anymore. We love you, but for the sake of our family, we need to do our own thing and take a pass this time.”

It’s also okay to stay in a hotel instead of in Grandma’s basement with all the other cousins. It’s okay to ask your sister to host the event at her house this year, even though it’s your turn. Yes, it’s even okay not to go at all if it still feels like too much.

Those boundaries are really an important part in creating success. They aren’t there to be mean or hurt the other person’s feelings. They are protective barriers for yourself. They’re all about maintaining physical and emotional safety for yourself, for your kids, and for your family…and safety is something we never negotiate!

Arguing is pointless

Going right along with saying no and keeping expectations in check is a reminder that you do not have to attend every argument you’re invited to attend. The holidays are a stressful time for everyone. Reality is they can bring out both the best and the worst in all of us! Let’s give each other grace rather than taking everything personally or taking offense when none was intended. 

However, you’re still the parent. You are still the one who knows your child best. You’re also a grown up. Your job is to make choices for yourself and your family that are in the best interest for your family. Others are free to think whatever they want. You don’t have to defend yourself.

People who respect you will respect your choices. People who don’t won’t. It is pointless to argue with anyone about any of it, especially if they aren’t interested in listening. If they want to understand and learn and be part of the solution, great! If they don’t, why put yourself in a situation that will only do more damage to your self-esteem and relationships? It is perfectly okay to step away from those kinds of situations with your head held high.

As you go into this holiday season, remember that we’re shooting for long-term success and healing. Keep your expectations in check. Keep your therapeutic parenting skills sharp.  Keep those holiday gatherings simple and short, and go into them with a plan. Above all, remember that it’s okay to say no if you need to and arguing with anyone about any of this will be frustrating, pointless, and futile!

Happy Holidays!  You really can do this!

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