Spring break is not routine. It is a break from the routine. It is welcomed by typical kids and typical families. They take trips and sleep in. They stay up late and rent DVD’s for movie marathons. They visit and have plenty of play dates. They look forward to this time each spring to rest, relax and rejuvenate.
Most parents of children with trauma backgrounds and attachment disorders dread spring break. It is not routine. It is feared by trauma/RAD parents and anticipated with much anxiety by their kids. There’s too much uncertainty in trips. Sleeping in throws off medication schedules. Staying up late and watching movies opens doors for all kinds of triggers. Too many people and too much stimulation are recipes for rages. Trauma/RAD families look forward to spring break being over so life can get back to “normal” crazy, rather than crazy-on-steroids-riding-a-roller-coaster.
Thank God Almighty, after 4.5 years of therapeutic parenting, therapy, and medication management, my kids actually had a GOOD spring break. There were two or three times when someone needed to be reminded to “use their tools,” but overall, it was pretty awesome! Even with five days of rain, we were okay. We established our own routine for the week – staying home most of the time, keeping our world small, sticking to bed times, and planning ONE morning/lunch time outing that lasted all of four hours. (We went to an interactive zoo about a 45 minute drive from home.)
Some of the things we’ve done through the years to make spring break (and Christmas, summer, and other holidays) more bearable include:
Staying home. NOT planning every minute of every day doing activities and visiting people.
Keeping visitors to a minimum. (Sleepovers are NOT a requirement for school breaks. Really, they’re not.)
Sticking with the bedtime schedule and routine. (Just like you should do for a 3-year-old.)
Keeping up with the medication schedule.
Making a “Monster Pillow.” Take a pillow and case. Use permanent markers and let your child draw their own monster. This pillow then becomes their safe place/thing to hurl big feelings. They can punch it, kick it, bite it – whatever – when in a rage. Coaching them when they are CALM that it is OKAY to have big feelings – and that being angry isn’t wrong – what’s wrong is hurting people or destroying things, has helped me direct them when the rages come. (Thankfully, rages are rare with my kids, but when they come, they’re big. And my kids are big. I’d rather have them punching a pillow than hurting me.)
Affirming feelings. (Notice I did not say “agreeing with their feelings.”) Acknowledge anger. If your child says, “I’m SO mad,” say, “I can see you’re very angry.” If they say, “You don’t listen to me,” say, “I bet you do feel like I don’t listen to you.” If they say, “You don’t love me,” say, “I’ll bet you DO wonder if I love you or not.” If they say, “I hate you!,” say, “I’ll bet you do feel like you hate me right now.” (DON’T say, “Well, I love you.” Not while they’re in the rage.) While your child is raging, acknowledge their feelings – don’t try to correct them. You’ll just fight, the rage will be longer, and the child will dig their heels in even deeper. If they can’t identify their feelings, you can help them identify what’s going on by “NOT talking” about it, saying things like, “It looks like you’re angry, but we’re not talking about how XYZ is making you sad.” Read this blogpost by Lindsay, mama to nine, for a good illustration of this technique. (It is awesome!)
When your child is calm, setting the ground rules together for what’s allowable during a rage. (Don’t say, “no rages.” You can’t stop rages. The child has to get to the point where they feel safe enough not to rage. That could take years. It is also possible rages will always be a part of your child’s life.) Affirming with them that anger and grief are valid emotions helps both you and your child. There is nothing “sinful” about anger. What is sinful is when we hurt someone, or destroy something, by acting out that anger in a harmful manner. Teaching our children tools and techniques to use that are safe, socially acceptable, and legal (can’t ignore legal) has helped them to mature over time. We only talk when they are calm and we are removed from a trigger by several hours – or even days. We no longer try to talk as they are calming down from a trigger, or even right after they’ve calmed from a trigger. We’ve made that mistake too many times. It just doesn’t work. And shaming them? Please don’t go there. Shame is huge for traumatized kids. Shaming them will only make your life miserable. It will not help your child.
Identifying a safe place. Is it the child’s room? A porch? The backyard? A closet? (We removed the doors.) Again, do this when the child is calm. Allow them to determine a place to go when they feel triggered and are moving into a rage. If they know where to go – where it feels safe for them to “be mad” and not hurt anyone or anything, it can be very helpful in curbing the rage. My son emptied the floor of his closet and put a blankie down. This was his spot to retreat. My daughter uses her bed and punches the stuffin’ out of her pillow.
Mixing it up and hanging in there. Feeling safe is the only thing that will keep the triggers at bay for our kids. When there is a change in routine, be prepared for your child to feel an even more urgent need for safety. Remember that what works to keep them feeling safe during one break may not work the next time there is a break in routine. Keep learning. Mix it up a bit using various therapeutic parenting techniques. Remind your kids of their tools. Sit them down before a break and talk about it. Help them plan – not a full schedule – but a calm schedule. You may actually have a spring break you all enjoy. This year’s was a first for us. My kids have come a long way, baby.