Holidays can be challenging for those who have experienced relational trauma. Relational trauma is defined as a trauma that occurs in a close relationship, usually a caregiver, not caused by a single event but rather by an ongoing series of events. Being harmed by those who were supposed to protect you leave emotional scars that can manifest in various ways. Often, holidays were moments when conflicting messages were sent to children: happy moments followed or preceded by scary, lonely, violent ones. Christmas can be painful and confusing. Usually, this time of the year is celebrated, enjoyed, and related to good memories for most. However, developmental trauma may impact a child’s ability to enjoy such moments. Sometimes, trauma survivors can feel embarrassed and have longing feelings or be ambivalent towards their adoptive and biological parents. The kids might have mixed feelings: they miss the celebrations from the country of origin; they recall the festivities with their birth families but also the scary memories. Celebrations can trigger trauma-based behaviors that might not be expected, especially if time has passed since the adoption. The fight, flight, or freeze responses may come back.
Holidays can be a minefield. Giving the kids a voice and allowing them to speak about their painful memories is an excellent option to help them deal with their feelings. Allowing them to speak helps them learn they are valuable, that someone is listening now, and they know how to rely on their attachment figures. It also teaches them coping strategies that lead them to co-regulation and self-regulation. You can make a plan when you learn what triggers your fight, flight, or freeze response and brings back the trauma-based behaviors. Sometimes, Holidays don’t trigger traumatic memories or behaviors. However, the feelings related to the loss of a family might still be somewhere out there, and the child may wonder how they are doing. Ambiguous loss feelings appear. And the lack of closure that this type of loss has does not allow the children to leave behind the past experiences but to revisit them from a new and more complex perspective as they grow in understanding. And holidays are especially hard for those dealing with ambiguous loss. Adopted children’s biological family is not physically present, but their emotional absence comes into their lives from time to time. And Holidays are one of those moments where they may wonder how they are doing, if they are thinking of him/her, if their siblings are doing fine, if the grandparents are still alive, etc.
And even though some behaviors related to developmental/relational trauma may seem the same as ambiguous loss, they are not. As Dr. Boss says, “Ambiguous loss inevitably leads to ambivalent feelings, emotions, and behaviors toward the missing person and others in the family. With a deficit of information about the whereabouts or status of the absent person, people don’t know how to respond and feel torn about the course of action to take”. All these can lead to anxiety, somatic symptoms, guilt, anger, or picking a fight. Try to normalize ambivalence, allow your children to talk about those feelings, and acknowledge their existence. Adapting to the ambiguity of the situation can minimize the effects of ambivalence. When recognizing such ambivalent feelings, resilience may start.
- Try not to overwhelm the children with many visits or too many presents.
- Allow your child to feel sad or emotionally vulnerable.
- Have some traditions from their country of origin. Ask your child about what he enjoyed when celebrating Christmas / holidays and make them part of your family celebration.
- Allow your children to get enough sleep. It is essential to diminish the fight, flight, or freeze response, so your child needs to be well-rested, well-fed, and hydrated.
- Try to find emotional outlets. For example, do some physical activity and draw about how he/she feels.
- Be fully present and become a better listener to your child’s stories (and pain). This way, your child will learn that ambivalence is normal and that he/she can rely on you and have a voice to express feelings.
- Talk to your child about ambivalent loss. Let them know that this emotion and reaction is very real, and they should not feel ashamed if they are experiencing these feelings.
Ultimately, the holidays can be a joyous time surrounded by family and loved ones, but for our children with histories of trauma and loss, the holidays can also be triggering, scary, and even lonely. Continue to be the safest space for your child, and put their needs above any unnecessary holiday obligations like that gift exchange at Aunt Betty’s or the overwhelming potluck brunch at cousin Eddy’s. Be present, be in tuned to your child’s triggers and comfort level, and be intentional about your holiday plans.