Everyone who works in a congregate care program knows that there are more behavioral problems during the holidays. The escalation usually starts around Thanksgiving. We explain it to each other: “you know, it’s the holidays.” Yet have we taken the time to look at the components of the holiday experiences of our children, and from that understanding plan how to best support them during this time?
Memories are a central part of the holidays. For our children, both good and bad memories can hurt. If they have warm and caring memories, they feel sad and angry that they are no longer with their families. Many children also have painful holiday memories of fights, alcohol, abandonment and other types of pain. These become vivid as the holiday season approaches.
We are all surrounded with media images of what the holiday season is supposed to be. On Christmas or Hanukah you should be surrounded by loving family and friends, eating huge piles of delicious foods, and opening wonderful gifts that change your life forever. It’s not just that our children’s holidays do not fit this picture. It is the meaning they ascribe to that difference. What does it mean about me that I have no family, no feast, such a different holiday? There is an underlying message in the media that suggests that if you do not have these things you are a loser and it is somehow your own fault. Our kids are prone to thinking everything is their own fault anyway. So holidays are not just disappointing, they are one more source of shame: I must have done something terrible because I am the only child in America that is not having a happy day.
Then there are the gifts. Many places like ours are inundated with generous donations during the holiday season. We receive more presents than our children can possibly use, and we save some for distribution throughout the year. The kids get to ask for specific presents, and then get many more they do not choose. So they should be happy they are getting all this very nice stuff, right?
But what is this gift receiving experience like for our children? They know the gifts were not chosen by someone who knows and loves them. They know that people give gifts out of sorrow and caring about their plight. They may receive gifts from family; they may not. Often the donated gifts are more than their family could afford. What does all this feel like? It is wonderful that people donate gifts and it means a lot to the child that receives them. Yet, there is a hollowness, a disappointment, because the gifts are not the same as love.
A child may build up expectations around the holidays. Maybe my mother will finally come and visit. My father said he would send me a video game. Often, these are disappointed. Luckily, some children are able to spend time at home. In fact, we facilitate them going home if it is at all possible. Sometimes our wish that the child be at home for this one important day may even overcome our common sense. So a child who has not gone home in a long time does, and may or may not have a good visit. Either way, it evokes a lot of complex emotion.
Then there is the inevitable let-down. The holidays are over. Nothing has changed. My life is still the same and I still have no plans for my future.
So what can we do to help our kids with this holiday season? The most important thing is to validate, rather than try to cheer them up. It might be helpful to share that there are many people who do not have a picture perfect holiday. And to acknowledge that gifts from strangers feel different from gifts from families; and that it sucks to be stuck in a residential at Christmas or Hanukah. Give them an opportunity to talk about their memories of past holidays, good and bad. Talk about their feelings about their families, any contact they are going to have, anything they are going through. Don’t try to point out the good things- at least not at first.
Another thing to watch out for is over-stimulation. In our efforts to offer many treats to our kids we can ignore the fact that too much good stimulation can be overwhelming to them. Getting over tired reduces their already limited coping ability. Lots of noise and activity can wind them up and they do not know how to calm down. For some kids, a low key mellow celebration might be best. If there are parties, make sure to alternate them with down time, time to relax, talk about what you are feeling, and to engage in quiet activities with people you know. Remember that strangers are scary to some of our kids. It is easy to underestimate how stressful it may be for certain kids when members of the public attend agency events. Will my abuser be one of them?
Schedules and predicting what is going to happen, where it will be, who will be there, how long it will last is helpful. Also predict any stressors or issues that might come up. The child may dismiss what you say, but it can still be helpful when the event happens. Involve the child in planning for success. Is there a signal he can give you if he has had enough at a party? Will it help if he sits next to you, or brings his stuffed animal, or takes a nap before the party? Remember in doing this you are not only helping the child with this particular event, you are teaching him a method to anticipate and conquer stress which he can use throughout his life.
The adults caring for the children are also often stressed out by the special demands of the season and the pressure to do more, plan more, accomplish more. They may be experiencing their own holiday stress outside of work. And on the actual holidays themselves, the children may be cared for by part time staff they don’t know as well. Furthermore, we experience vicarious traumatization from participating in the childrens’ pain. It can feel especially sad to see children managing without their families through the holidays. Anything we can do to support each other and acknowledge the pain to each other will help us offer regulation to the kids.
Most importantly, watch and listen. Pick up early signs of stress. Give the child plenty of time close to regulated adults, when he can talk, be validated, and just be connected with someone who cares. After all, isn’t this really what we are all looking for during the holidays?
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