Tips for Caring for Children with Trauma during the Holiday Season
The Holiday Season can be a magical time of the year filled with fun and memories. However, it can also bring extra stress and dysregulation for children, especially those that have experienced trauma. When your child is struggling, there are some key questions you can ask yourself.
- Does my child feel safe?
- Could my child be hungry?
- Is my child triggered?
Here are some tips for helping you and your child avoid some of the Holiday Madness and increase the Holiday Joy and Memories.
- Sometimes at holiday gatherings the adults congregate in one area while the children play in another area. This can lead to kids being in charge of other kids. This type of set up can be problematic for a variety of reasons. Young children especially can benefit from being in an environment where both children and adults are around. This offers the fun of playing with other kids but also the safety of having adults available if needed. Another option is to have regular check ins between parents and adults to make sure that both the child and parent feel comfortable with the activities the child is participating in.
- Another safety concern for some children relates to personal boundary setting. It can be common at family gatherings for people to want hugs or kisses from children. It is extremely important for the child to feel comfortable giving any form of physical affection. Children can feel pressured to comply with a request for a hug from an extended relative. It is important for children to know they are in charge of their own bodies and they can say “No” to a hug request and their answer will be respected. Maybe the child would feel more comfortable giving a high five, fist bump, or wave. If the child still doesn’t want to participate, parents can say something like “Sometimes Jimmy likes giving hugs and other times he doesn’t. Today Jimmy has decided not to give hugs and that is ok.”
- A fear that stems from some types of trauma is the fear of not having enough food when a child is hungry. Many parents traditionally think of the holiday season as having more food or treats than normal so they may not be aware of moments where a child’s trauma can be triggered. For example, it is common for many families to have a bigger Christmas meal in the middle of the day. This may be the one and only large meal of the day, meaning that the typical midday lunch and even dinner meals are either smaller or absent. To a child, this change in meal timing and meal size can be confusing and triggering especially if the child has a fear of not having food. A child that is used to eating at a certain time may be told to wait for an upcoming meal or a child that has previously eaten a large Christmas meal may be told later in the evening that they have already eaten so shouldn’t still be hungry. While an adult may be able to easily wait another hour for a meal or may still be full from a previous meal, little bodies need more frequent meals than adults. One way to help children manage meal changes is to allow snacks either before or after a meal if they are hungry.
- Also, some children do not respond well to new foods or smells. One way to help ensure their appetites are satisfied is to include a dish that you know they like to eat. If you are a guest attending a holiday meal, you could bring a dish to share or have a small dish as a backup for your child. One mom I know brought a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread as her dish to share at a large family gathering. It was brilliant; her children were happy being able to have food they liked and other children also enjoyed being able to eat a classic peanut butter sandwich.
- Additionally, a child may hoard food from a large Christmas meal if they have had past experiences where food has been scarce. For these children, it can sometimes be helpful if they have a special type of food set aside that they know will be available to them if they are ever hungry. If your child does have a history of food hoarding, mention it to your counselor and they can help you develop additional strategies.
- It is nearly impossible to accurately predict and prevent all potential triggers for children. However, it can be helpful to know what has triggered your child in the past and if possible try to reduce the likelihood of it being a problem again. For example, if your child is prone to feeling overwhelmed in groups with loud talking, try to find opportunities for you and your child to have a few quiet moments throughout the day. If your child is sensitive to the smell of flowers or incense in church, try to sit further away from these smells. Additionally, if your child has a favorite comfort item like a blanket or stuffed animal, if possible encourage them to bring it with you to holiday events. Having a familiar comfort item and taking deep breaths can often help soothe children when they feel triggered.
Overall, remember that your child is working hard to try to manage any stress they might have during the holiday season. Trauma can be overwhelming for children and their parents. Showing love and grace to our children during the stressful and tense moments is often one of the greatest gifts parents can give.
Wishing you all a joyous and blessed Holiday Season from your Heart to Heart Family.
~Tasha Lehner MA