Why Are the Holidays so Hard for Traumatized Kids?

by | Parenting, Holidays and Celebrations

The holidays are festive and fun, but they can also be torture for our traumatized kids! The very things we love about the season can send our child’s issues into overdrive and their behavior into orbit. That can easily make this a season to be dreaded and NOT fun for everyone in the family.

Rather than complaining about it, or worse, threatening to take Christmas away because your kid’s behavior issues landed them on top of the naughty list this year, let’s turn the tables and talk about why the holidays are so hard on our kids.

Holiday meaning and traditions

The holidays are traditionally a season for celebrating love, joy, peace, and relationships. We gather as families and friends (many of whom we may not see very often), give gifts to those we love, play special holiday music and attend a plethora of parties to celebrate all the things we treasure in life.

Most of us also try to be on our best behavior, too. After all, this is a season of peace and joy! Our natural inclination be a little kinder, a little more friendly, a little more generous, and a little more aware of those who are less fortunate than we are.

Our kids don’t get any of it!

All of those meanings and traditions listed above are the reasons why I love the holidays! They are still foreign concepts to my kids, though. In fact, all of those things are reasons why they DON’T love the holiday season!

Rather than embracing and loving them, the whole season can be a scary and very uncomfortable time for our kids, especially if they have experienced complex developmental trauma or have attachment problems. I believe it is very important to recognize that!

None of us, myself included, are very pleasant to be around when we’re scared or placed in an unpredictable or uncomfortable situation. In fact, most of us look for every excuse possible to get out of those situations as quickly as we can. Our kids aren’t any different. If they don’t feel comfortable or safe or secure, they’re not going to be on their best behavior. They’re not going to be interested in being polite or cooperative. They’re not going to care about social protocol, either.

In fact, more likely than not, they are going to ramp up their “special” behaviors both in public and in private. They may also intentionally try to sabotage everything. They aren’t doing it to be naughty or hateful, though. They simply want to return to a more familiar and safe setting as quickly as possible.

Our kids don’t feel like they belong

When someone we love is away or no longer with us, when do we miss them most? I’ve asked this question to numerous people. Without fail, everyone single person has said: “during the holidays.”

Although I still miss those I love who’ve now passed on quite often, it really is true that I miss them most during the holidays. This particularly applies to all four of my beloved grandparents who I had the pleasure of living close to and truly knowing for much of my life.  Many of my favorite holiday memories involve them and many of the holiday traditions we still observe in our home and extended family started with them, or even before them, and have been passed down through the generations.

My sisters and parents miss them, too. We still have reminders of them all around us. That means we often find ourselves sharing our memories with each other. Most of the time we laugh, but sometimes we also get a little teary-eyed, too. Even though it’s been many years since they’ve passed on, we all still love them dearly. Their passing left a hole in our hearts and proverbial empty chairs at our table that can never and will never be filled by anyone else.

Our kids weren’t part of those memories

None of them were. My last grandmother passed away when my daughter was in Kindergarten. However, my biological daughter and all her cousins are still connected to them through our greater extended family. Though they have few memories of these people themselves, the relatives they hear about are part of the only family they’ve ever had. They are still their people.

That isn’t the case with my boys, though. We aren’t the only family they have ever known. They have a long and sorted past that is full of other people, too. They are people we don’t know and are very different than we are. They are still “their people” though.

Even though I’m my boys “real” mom, I’m not their birth mother. Nor will I ever be. Even if their birth families were total schmucks who did horrible things to our kids, my boys still remember them and are still connected to them. There are still empty chairs at their tables because of them, too.

The loss of their people is real

Just as I miss “my people” most during the Holidays, our kids miss and worry about “their people” most at this time of year, too. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about any of those people. None of those people are part of their life anymore and never will be again. We don’t even know where they are or what happened to any of them. That doesn’t mean they weren’t real.

Unlike the sweet and precious memories I have of my loved ones, most of the memories my kids have of their previous people are either sad, scary or fantasized. In most cases, even if the memories are fantasized or the details aren’t correct, those memories still translate to HUGE amount of loss.

Loss = Grief = Anger = Sadness = Overwhelm = Survivor’s Guilt = Shame = Unworthiness = Questions of Why. Why me, why couldn’t she, why didn’t she, why did he…and what happened to all of them? For our still hurting kids, it’s most likely going to translate into some fabulously fantastic funky behavior simply because they have no other way to express what they are feeling.

Everything is out of routine!

On top of all the loss and touchy-feely stuff, everything about life is topsy-turvy at holiday time. There are gingerbread houses to decorate, cookies to bake and share with the neighbors, shopping to be done, special meals to prepare, concerts to attend, lights to see, gifts to wrap, events to attend, cheesy movies to watch, and the list goes on. But that’s not all… Especially for us parents, there are also end of the year deadlines at work that must be met, all kinds of new people to meet and see, and when you live in snow country like I do, there are also driveways and walks that must be cleared, ice to scrape, and driving that must be done on slick and icy roads.

The stress, overwhelm, busyness, glitziness, and general hype of the season can turn anyone into a grinch if we’re not careful! While yes, the holidays often bring out the best in people, they can also bring out the worst in all of us too. I confess I’ve become a huge fan of January simply because it’s a time of rest and renewal and I can finally slow down and breathe again.

Kids aren’t great judges of time

Most kids  don’t get that no matter how what they do, how much they act out, how rude they are, or how grumpy and inappropriately they act, the Holidays won’t be over until they are over and we can’t just magically make them go away.

Most kids, even “normal” kids don’t have a great sense of time. Nor do they appreciate the concept of delayed gratification. This is especially true for our special needs kids. They are impulsive and they want what they want NOW! However, they don’t understand that life doesn’t work that way.

The Holiday season is VERY long!

Unfortunately, our kids also don’t understand that that no matter what they do or how much they try to sabotage it, the hype of the holiday season is going to drag on for five solid months (or longer) without any breaks! You see, the Christmas season doesn’t start or end in December. Many retailers will start setting up “peek-a-boo” Christmas displays by mid-July as a subtle reminder of what is coming next. This is also about the time they start heavily pushing “back to school” merchandise and fall décor.

Literally the day after school starts (and in many cases before) out comes Halloween and Christmas in full force. No wonder our kids are a little testy by the time mid-December rolls around! They’ve already been trying to settle in, process all the triggers, catch their breath, hold it all together, and return to their familiar and safe rhythm of life for several months now, but haven’t been able to do it.

If they’re lucky, they might be able to catch their breath for a minute in January.  But, of course, once Christmas goes away, it will be replaced with Valentine’s Day. In their minds, why on earth would anyone want to celebrate a day of love when love is the very thing that hurts people the most?


Oh, goodness! The holidays are full of them, aren’t they? Every commercial, every advertisement, and everyone’s great aunt Mildred seems to send a clear message that everything must be perfectly executed, blissfully romantic, exquisitely decorated, and all gifts must be on par or we’ve ruined Christmas for everyone. Regardless of what holiday you actually celebrate (or don’t celebrate)…be it Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas, or something else, we are all still bombarded with expectations to measure up, step up, get with the program, and do our part to make it a magical season for everyone.

I believe we also put a lot of unnecessary pressure on ourselves and our kids, especially at this time of year. We expect them to behave. We expect them to be grateful. We expect them to be patient and kind. We expect them to keep it together in situations that are stressful for everyone. Yet our kids may or may not even be capable of doing any of those things.

We also tend to put a lot of expectations ourselves as well.  It’s no secret that we moms are the ones who make Christmas happen. One of my own personal struggles is to misjudge how long things will take to complete. As a result, I often find myself overcommitted, trying to cram too many good things into too short of a time frame, sleep-deprived, and doing too much physically, emotionally, mentally, and sometimes financially, too. The more we can cut back, simplify, say no, and match our expectations with the reality of our own abilities and those of our kids, the smoother things will go!

Competition and Consumerism

For many kids, the huge push from the retailers to keep the holidays in our sites tends to bring out a huge sense of materialism and entitlement for our kids. It can also awaken a fierce sense of competition and deprivation for them, too. They want EVERYTHING, regardless of whether it is age or developmentally appropriate for them or not.

They also have a tremendous desire to be “normal” kids and be like everyone else. Except they have no clue what that really means. Most kids with trauma-related issues DON’T know that all kids aren’t like them. They don’t know why people don’t gravitate to them. They don’t know that most kids don’t hate their parents or dis on them all the time. They also don’t know that most of what they see or hear from other kids in the halls at school is hyper-inflated.

Kids talk big but don’t always tell the truth

It’s normal for all kids, especially once they hit about middle school, to start “showing off” and bragging about all the cool stuff they have. All kids this age are trying to find themselves and figure out where they belong in the world.  It’s a normal developmental phase. However, since most middle and high school kids aren’t yet secure in who they are, they often try to impress others and make their way into the “cool kids” group by telling stories.

The truth is, though, that not all kids have the latest iPhone. Not all kids even have a phone at all! Furthermore, the vast majority of kids don’t have a phone, a smartwatch, a tablet, and their own gaming system. Yes, there might be a few who do, but they probably also have absentee parents who use presents to compensate for a lack of presence.

The difference is, though, that most kids know these are just made up stories. However, our kids probably don’t. As such, the stress they feel in being “left behind” is very real. If neglect, abandonment, or adoption are part of their story, there is a pretty good chance any outbursts related to not having all the latest, greatest cool stuff is really about the latter.

We need to tread lightly

There are things we can’t control. There are things about our kids’ history we can’t change. No matter how crazy our kids’ behavior gets, especially at this time of year, there is a reason for it. We need to tread lightly.

Before we get sucked into all the craziness of their stuff, it is important for us to step back and look at what’s what’s behind it. They aren’t just being obnoxious or naughty. There is a reason they are doing what they are doing. More often than not, those reasons will break our hearts. In all the hullabaloo of the season, they need some time to just be. They need time to process and feel whatever the need to feel.

I can promise from experience that honoring their story and their reasons and give them the space they need to be who they are,  the holiday season will be brighter for everyone!

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