28 Nov

Creating Holiday Plans that Fit the Needs of Your Child During the holiday season, nearly everywhere you look, the media produces images of the “perfect happy family.”  We see “holiday perfection” in movies, advertisements, books, and in store displays.  With so many sources giving out the message of “This is the Perfect Family,” it can be hard for many children to reconcile the differences they perceive from the media in comparison to their own lived experiences.  This is especially true for children from families of high conflict, divorce, foster care, and adoption.  As a result, it is important for caregivers to acknowledge their children’s lived experiences in relationship to aspects of the holiday season.  Here are some tips to help children navigate through their past experiences of sad and scary events as you create a more healing version of family holidays this year.  While it may be tempting for caregivers to try to live up to the idea of “holiday perfection,” especially to potentially make up for past years that may not have been as happy for a child, it is a trap to be avoided.  Instead, it is actually more helpful for a child’s healing journey to have their past experiences honored and emotions recognized; as well as allowing the child to have an active role in creating a meaningful holiday experience this year.  Start by asking your child holiday related questions.  The answers your child shares with you are a valuable window into your child’s world.  Asking questions opens up the opportunity for conversations centered around healing.  Helpful questions may include: What is your favorite and least favorite holiday – Why?  What is something you have enjoyed about holidays in the past?  What is something sad or scary that has happened during a holiday in the past?  What is something you would never like to do again for a holiday?  What is something you would enjoy doing for a holiday?  What emotions do you have when you think of the upcoming holiday?  Where do you feel those emotions in your body?  How do you think other people celebrate holidays?  Are there any holiday experiences you feel you have missed out on in the past?  Are you confused about anything that has happened during past holidays?  What would you like to do this year to celebrate the holiday?  In addition, some children may enjoy drawing pictures or creating a small book of their past experiences or what they wish a holiday would have looked like instead. Often children will reveal parts of the sad and scary events in their lives when given a nonjudgmental space to share; therefore, as your child is sharing their answers to the questions, please try to validate their experiences rather than correct details they have stated.  Ways to validate include: naming the emotion (you felt sad when that happened), reflective listening (rephrase what the child has said), and share how you feel in the moment (I feel sad too thinking about what you experienced).  In addition, using cues like “and then what happened” and “tell me more about that” can help guide children to tell their own perspective of events.  Ultimately, it is the child’s interpretation of the lived experiences or perception of the experiences that are most likely to still influence the child today.  While an adult may be able to realize that a certain event is unlikely to happen again or know the full explanation behind circumstances, children’s feelings are much stronger than logic.  As a result, emphasize that the feelings are important and that this year, you want to work together to decrease the feelings of sad and scared and increase the feelings of happiness.  Additionally, keep in mind that while it is possible for children to verbally tell us what they have experienced, it is even more common for their behaviors to illustrate their lived stories.  Take note of changes in behaviors or strong emotional responses to certain holiday stimuli.  Something that may seem insignificant to most people, like blinking holiday lights or the scent of pumpkin spice, may actually elicit a strong emotional response for children that they are unable to verbalize.  Even just seeing images of other “happy” families or being in a happy family now can cause some children to disengage due to sadness and feelings of missing out in the past.  Furthermore, past trauma can cause additional challenges for children and families during the holidays.  (For more information related to trauma, please see our past blog titled: Tips for Caring for Children with Trauma during the Holiday Season). After you have talked with your child and you have an understanding of their lived experiences and their preferences for future holiday celebrations, work together to determine what a holiday experience could look like this year that honors all the information your child has just shared with you.  Including your child during the planning will help your child feel valued and demonstrate that your child’s voice and feelings matter.  This will not only help your child heal from past hurts, but also sets your family up for a more joy filled experience this year that focuses on meeting your family’s specific needs.  As you work together to create a plan for holidays this year, use current routines that work well for your family to structure holiday events.  If possible, stick to designated eating times and family norms/rules.  Common changes like an increase in eating sugary foods and disruptions to normal meal and sleep schedules can be problematic for many children.  While it is often fun to stay up late to watch an extra movie, attend an event, or eat lots of holiday treats, these seemingly simple changes can cause more irritability and emotional dysregulation.  Children thrive with consistency and predictability so if you have an established routine, your child will benefit from keeping it as much as possible.  This year as a family work towards fitting the holiday plans to meet your child’s needs rather than trying to fit your child into the holiday plans.     Wishing you a healing and joy filled Holiday Season from your Heart to Heart family. ~Tasha Lehner MA

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