Wednesday, November 23, 2011

5th Christmas: Taming the Trauma

Yesterday, I wrote that our two internationally-adopted children are spending their fifth Christmas home as part of our family.  Read that post for some background on our progression through the years, realizing our kids’ needs, and finding the wisdom we need to continue to help them and really, to help ourselves.  The holidays can be a huge trauma trigger for adopted kids, whether they are adopted as babies, toddlers, younger children, or as older kids/teens (like mine).  It doesn’t matter if they’re adopted internationally or domestically.  The holidays can be hard on anyone, but they can be especially hard on our kids.

My kids have trouble with nearly every holiday, but some are more triggering than others.  It doesn’t matter what the celebration:  birthdays (anyone’s birthday, not just their own), New Years, Valentines, Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, and Christmas -- they are all crazy around here.  Thankfully, we’ve learned some things to make them less crazy.  Halloween is the worst.  Yet, Thanksgiving through New Year’s has also been pure hell in the past, with New Year’s setting us up for some pretty significant regressions in behavior during the first couple of months of each calendar year.  National holidays, such as Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day, always seem to get to my kids, too.  They question who they are – Eastern European or American.  They just can’t grasp that they are BOTH.

Anniversaries are hard, too.  Wedding anniversaries, the anniversary of a loved one’s death, or our older dog’s death, the anniversary of my husband’s car accident, and especially the anniversary of the truly criminal traumatic events my children have suffered (there were multiple times they endured trauma), all of these are all hard on my kids.  When our kids are going through a rough spot, you can bet our entire family is going through it, too.  I truly believe second-hand PTSD is just as harmful to parents and others in the family as the PTSD our kids suffer due to past trauma. 

There are also emotional triggers for our kids that can happen at any time.  Sometimes, I can predict these, and avoid situations I know will cause my kids pain, because we’ve already experienced it.  Sometimes, however, we get blindsided because we didn’t know something was going to happen, or because we are still learning new trauma triggers and additional traumatic events in our kids’ lives.  This is on-going, even as we approach our 5th Christmas home.  Some known emotional triggers for my kids include visits to our old home town (we moved to a new town less than a year after they were home), certain smells (fried potatoes, paint, strong-smelling flowers such as hyacinth), sounds (loud bangs, sirens, some types of music), and old photos (we have a few from their biological grandmother).

My children’s reaction to all of these triggers varies.  Since we’re talking about the winter holidays, however, I’ll focus on those.  When triggered, their feelings are always a combination of intense fear for their lives (no matter how “irrational” it may seem to those who have no clue what they’ve truly been through), shame, and disgust.  The thing that is most maddening in all of it is that even though these feelings are highly uncomfortable, and my kids are well-aware of most of the triggers that cause these feelings, they are still drawn to them like a moth to the flame.

The holidays bring a host of things that seem wonderful to most of us:  parties with friends, visits from distant relatives, lots of different kinds of foods, new toys, new clothes, music, concerts to attend and concerts in which to perform, Christmas shows on television, commercials letting us know we cannot miss this sale and we must have that new item, . . . The list goes on and on.  For kids who have come from such poverty, abuse, and neglect, these things are completely overwhelming.  Parties with friends and visits from distant relatives provoke anxiety beyond belief.  The abundance of food, and the American gluttony that goes along with it, is something that is completely disgusting to my kids.  Yet, they are also completely drawn to it, and want to participate in that indulgence to the highest magnitude possible, even to the point of physical illness, unless I’m the “mean” mom and I curb their enthusiasm. 

For me, these behaviors can provoke a sense of extreme fatigue, because I feel as though I need to remain on high alert in order to protect them, others, and our property.  I get angry when I have to repeat the SAME. STINKIN’. THING. over, and over, and over again.  I get sad because, even though we’ve been through certain things “a million times,” my kids just don’t seem to “get it.”  Sometimes, I wonder if anything I’m doing makes any difference at all.  (The answer to that is a big, ol “YES!,”  but I have to step back to see it – to see we’re not where we were five Christmases ago, or even one Christmas ago.)

If you want to try some of the things we employ in our family to tame the trauma at the holidays, try these:

TAKE CONTROL:  You have a right to determine what your family does and where the family goes.  Keep it simple.  Leave parties early.  Make memories with traditions.  Don’t play into all the hype.

LIMIT GIFTS:  Our family does three fun/practical gifts:  a big gift(less than $100), a medium gift (under $50) and a small gift (under $20).  We also give the kids new pajamas on Christmas Eve, a stocking filled with small items (from the Dollar Tree, mainly), socks and some underwear.  Some families spread the gift-opening out over a few days, or over the course of the day on Christmas.  We get it all over with at once and tear right through everything (but with one person opening one gift at a time).  Our kids would get super anxious if we spread it out over the day, let alone spread it out over days.

EXPECTATIONS:  Go ahead and spoil at least some of the surprise.  If your kids’ entitlement issues are rearing their ugly heads (like my kids’), let them in on the secret:  you’re not Donald Trump, nor are you his mistress.  I don’t tell my kids everything, but I let them know what the limitations are for our budget and for what we allow our kids to have according to their emotional maturity (not their age).

COMMUNICATE:  Tell people in advance what you will and will not do.  Not everyone outside the immediate family needs to know all the details, but anyone who is in contact with your family regularly does need to know your children come from a background that affects them, especially at this time of year.  When you tell friends and family to do or not do something with or for your kids, they need to trust that you’re doing what’s best for them, and that you're not simply being an over- bearing parent.  Sometimes people will listen to you.  Most of the time, they won’t.  At least you tried.  Then, if something does happen and they’re caught off guard, you can say, “I told you so,” in whatever tone fits the occasion.

PREPARE:  You know those commercials with the crazy Target lady preparing for the Black Friday insanity that starts at midnight tomorrow?  There ya’ go.  You have to prepare for this time of year in ways others do not.  You have to be prepared for the entitlement, for the sullen and/or nasty attitudes, for the hyper-activity, for the arguing and for the general over-all heightened “craziness” that is this time of year for traumatized kids.  If you’re prepared, then you can respond with unaffected therapeutic parenting mindfulness instead of stressed-out, triggered trauma mama nuttiness (like I have the past four Christmases).

REHEARSE:  Before a big party or before company arrives, rehearse with your children how they should behave and what they should say, or not say.  If your kids are older, present scenarios to them and ask them how they want to handle it.  Then guide them if their plans don’t quite meet YOUR expectations.  If they’re little, give them situations that may likely occur.  For example, “Now, Sally, Aunt Louise is coming for dinner tomorrow.  You remember how she likes to hug?”  [Sally]  “She smells funny and I don’t like her.”  [Parent]  “I know you think she smells funny.  She loves you and just wants to show you.  But if you don’t want her to hug you or hold you, you are allowed to tell her in a polite voice that you are glad she is here, but you do not want a hug and Mommy said it was okay for you to tell her no hugs.”  That way, you can handle Aunt Louise.  Sally feels protected because you’re the one who said it was okay to say no, and Sally is empowered because she rehearsed with you what to do.

PRACTICE YOUR TOOLS:  Our kids have some tools to use when they’re feeling stressed.  My daughter gets particularly hyper and silly-talkative.  We remind her of her tool to “breathe.”  We tell her to stop.  Think.  Take three deep breaths.  And come back.  This helps her regain control.  Sometimes we remind her of the obvious – that she is safe and we are there with her.  We are not going anywhere.  Things are silly at the moment, but they will not be silly for long.  This often helps her visibly relax and behave more normally again.  It’s amazing what reminding our kids of what seems obvious to us does for them.

FOCUS:  Focus on the spirit of the holiday.  This time of year wasn’t meant to be crazy; it was meant to be peaceful.  Read the REAL Christmas story (Luke 2).  Talk about what Christmas is really about and focus on the faithful reminders of the season.

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