I hear a lot of reports about holiday meltdowns and birthday struggles from the parents amongst my pediatric clients. Frequently it's paired with judgement from extended family members who have little to no understanding of the special supports needed by children who've experienced trauma. I want to take a moment to address this and suggest some scaffolding that may help everyone find joy in the coming holiday season.
As adults we frequently experience increased levels of stress around the holidays. There's shopping to do, menu's to plan, groceries to buy, big extravagant meals to prepare, and loads of dishes and laundry to do. If we have family joining us we may add to this stress the need to ‘clean the house from top to bottom’. All this is on top of our 'normal' every day responsibilities. Is it any wonder we easily get overwhelmed with the list of things we need to accomplish? That sense of being overwhelmed can lead to us not being as in tune with our children as we might otherwise be.
Children who are not living with their genetic family can really feel that loss during birthdays and holidays. Every birthday is a reminder that the people that gave them life opted out of being 100% in their lives. Children who are adopted trans-racially and internationally may be celebrating holidays that they have no personal connection to. It is especially important to respectfully observe the cultural holidays of adopted children to preserve that link to the cultural identity. It is a part of who they are as a person. Regardless if it's Chinese New Year, Kwanza, Dia de la Muerte, Mardi Gras, Yom Kippur or any other holiday, do some research and incorporate it into your family traditions. We have a family tradition of letting whomever is celebrating their birthday choose what they want for their birthday meal. We also consider ourselves Chinese American as a unit so we celebrate Autumn Moon Festival and Chinese New Year.
With two big holidays as close together as Thanksgiving and Christmas are, it's important to recognize the cacophony of emotions at play for a child with complex developmental trauma. It can be hard to be happy when you feel unworthy and worthlessness connected to the loss of your genetic family. As adoptive and foster parents, we must take ourselves and our feelings out of the equation, except in cases of safety concerns. We must recognize that while we’re celebrating, our children are frequently mourning as well. I recognize this can be a challenge.
I strongly encourage you to take a moment as the holiday's approach to look at the dynamics of your inter-family relationships and how they affect your child(ren). Especially when genetic and adopted children live in the same home. How do the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other extended family members treat each child? My children are very aware of this. They talk about it often and they have lost respect for some extended family members because of bias shown. My genetic daughter has flat out told me there are members of our family she doesn’t like because she has witnessed this bias.
It's critical to put your nuclear family (spouse, kids, and self) first. Your child's emotional needs are more important than great-grandma's needs. I encourage you to find a way to honor both if it doesn't over tax you to do so. Maybe you can go visit great-grandma and show her photos while the kids stay home with their other parent. Maybe the kids have a play date with a friend while you do the 'family obligations'. Please give children an out. Giving them some control over whom they have to see, and what is expected of them, shows them you respect their boundaries. I implore you, please never force them to give an aunt, uncle, or grandparent a hug or kiss. Allow them the opportunity to learn that it's better than okay, it's ideal to have control over their own body.
It's hard to build connections when children are stressed, over-taxed, insecure around a family member, or just plain not interested. Children are much smarter than most people give them credit for. This is a good time to speak with your child(ren) before the holidays arrive and ask them for their input. This is an excellent way to build connection. It also helps you find out what their needs are and how you can support their needs during the holiday chaos, which will greatly reduce your stress level as well.
After you've had a chance to talk with your child(ren), talk to your spouse or significant other and take what you’ve learned and set boundaries that make your nuclear family the priority. Set boundaries to protect your child/family from the rude or inappropriate family member. Make it a point to speak to potential offenders before an offense has a chance to occur and a trust is broken. If your best efforts aren’t successful speak up for your child and take a stand. If the event is outside your house, get up and leave. If you’re the host ask the offender to leave. Will it create drama, probably, but your children will learn that you have their back and that is a strong foundation for building connection. You don't necessarily have to be rude about it, however you can use the opportunity to show your children how to define and defend boundaries.
After speaking with your children and spouse or significant other. Take a moment to really analyze the data. Use it to lower the expectations for yourself, your spouse, and your children. The only thing that matters during holidays, birthdays or other celebrations is building happy memories that will sustain our children throughout their adulthood. Do what you need to do to make that possible to the degree you are able.
Here's some questions to think about: Can you simplify the menu? Can you do any menu preparation ahead of the big day? Can you order some portion or all of the meal pre-made from a local restaurant or grocer? Can you avoid food related triggers by avoiding artificial colors, sweeteners, or preservatives while meal planning, grocery shopping, and during the meal prep? Can you order gifts online?
If you order gifts online you may need to have the gifts delivered to a friends house so the kids don’t see them. For ingredient research, we can save a lot of time by taking advantage of the technological age we live in. We can Google search brands to see who has artificial colors in the cranberry sauce or canned yams. We can ask friends or Google search for nearby locations to get a turkey from a ‘local’ rancher or a market that works with local ranchers.
Maybe you don’t want to do turkey at all. What would make this a happy holiday for your family? Maybe the time together is more important than the food and you want to do a build your own pizza or nacho station, maybe a lasagna and garlic bread are more your style. Maybe you want to order Chinese take out and reheat it the next day. We totally did the Chinese take out one year for Christmas dinner and it was AWESOME! Do what works for your family to reduce the stress on everyone so you can enjoy your time together.
Thanksgiving is a big deal at our house. It’s my husband’s favorite meal of all time. I’ve learned that I can honor that without spending the day in the kitchen by streamlining the menu. It’s all about the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing for him. So I get pre-made organic mashed potatoes from Costco. Enormous time saver! 75% of my family is gluten-free, stuffing was a challenge until two years ago when Trader Joe’s released a gluten-free boxed stuffing that is super easy to make and passed my husband’s taste tests. Some years ago I realized we don’t eat any part of the turkey except the breast. So now, I just order a turkey breast. Cooks so much faster and is much less hassle. I’m a Texas gal and I love some candied yams. A couple of years ago I found a recipe for yams made with espresso and bourbon. Everyone in the family loves them. I’m hoping Facebook will remind me of the recipe, as we get closer to the holiday. I already have an event in my calendar to have my husband pick up a few shots of straight espresso on his way home the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. If I have to improvise I will, I'm looking forward to those yams. These are just some of the ways I've found of honoring the needs for each of our family members while also reducing the workload typically associated with Thanksgiving. I would love to hear any ideas you have, please share in the comments section.
Because we make such a big deal out of Thanksgiving dinner here, Christmas is very simple. We take a vote on what folks want. Some years I pan cook duck breasts. Some years we do Chinese take out. This year I ‘traded in’ my birthday dinner, for a Christmas standing rib roast, I chose to forgo eating out on my birthday to have an incredibly decadent Christmas dinner. My mouth is watering every time I think about it. We could go out for such a meal, but for our family of four the cost would be close to $300. I would rather use $200 to get a whole amazing grass fed rib roast from my organic grocer, cook the whole rib roast and get a whole week of meals rather than get one meal out of that expense. I can feed my family the organic mashed potatoes from the refrigerator section of Costco or I can roast potatoes from the garden to go with it. We can eat off that roast for most of Christmas week, which gives dear old mom a break from kitchen duty and reduces the amount of dishes the child on dish duty has to do.
Buying holiday gifts can add exponentially to the holiday stress. We have young teenage virtual twins who couldn’t be more opposite if they tried. They’ll be launching in a few years and being the Southern gal I am, I’ve started giving them “hope chest” items as part of their holiday gifts. When they launch they’ll have their own set of quality towels and sheets to take with them. They get fun stuff as well but that get’s harder as they get older. We decided to invest in their future by putting the price of 5 credits worth of community college classes in their college savings accounts each Christmas between now and when they launch. When it’s time to go to school they’ll have the means to do so. If they chose not to, they have the means of buying a car that is safe or the ability of getting their own place. I want them to know we care about investing in their future while still giving them options. I don't want to give a teenager large amounts of cash they could have problems managing. Again, these are just ideas we're using. I'd love to hear ideas you have for reducing stress during holidays or for gifts that support connection in the comments section.
It’s easier to navigate the holidays when we’re able to manage expectations. It’s easier to manage expectations when we’ve had open dialogue with our nuclear family to find out what’s important to them. For families that host, attend multiple events, or go to large family gatherings, it can help to give the child (ren) a schedule of activities to support their felt safety. A pictorial schedule is great for a non-reader and a succinct number list is sufficient for a reader as long as it’s written at their level of understanding. If a child has had a negative experience with a particular location or family member, giving them a choice on whether or not to attend an event where that person is expected, shows them you respect their needs, and are looking after their interests.
Recognizing and honoring the loss felt by our children during holidays and other celebrations helps build connection. Gently helping the child name the emotions in an age appropriate manner helps them to understand their feelings, to know that it's okay to have feelings, and that you are there for them to help them process their feelings.
As we approach the holiday’s many of us can remember the scents, smells, sounds, stories, and aromas of holiday’s past. If your child is in a hyper-vigilant state using a calming aromatherapy blend can help them relax and reduce the stress on everyone. A custom blended hydrolat room mist can serve a dual purpose of supporting the whole families limbic systems, therefore reducing holiday stress. It also smells nice and is gentle enough for the most hyper-vigilant or hypersensitive individual.
There are many recipes floating around the Internet for use of this, that, and the other essential oil in the diffuser to give your home that “holiday feel”. Many if not most of these essential oil diffuser recipes have not been created by certified aromatherapists with safety in mind. Should you choose to try one, please listen to your body and observe your family’s response to the recipe. Almost all of the essential oil recipes I see freely given online use far too many essential oils and way too many drops of essential oils for the needs of a hyper-vigilant and/or hypersensitive individual or child.
©2017 Cynthia Tamlyn-CCA
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