Kids with histories of trauma and the holidays

My husband and I have two six-year-olds adopted from foster care. Our son has lived with us since he was four, and our daughter moved in when she was five. We're still a relatively new family, and prior to our kids' arrival in our home, their lives were filled with turmoil and trauma from neglect, exposure, and abuse. This trauma manifests itself in interesting ways, especially during the holiday season. For kids with histories of trauma, consider these four reasons why the holidays are not so merry:
1. The holidays are a mix of sugar, relatives spoiling our kids, Christmas programs, late nights, and trips out of town. Basically, the holidays blow--especially for kids with trauma who often have “chaos brains” (brains that are accustomed to a constant state of fight or flight). Chaos brains are best regulated by having predictable, consistent routines (routine may as well be an antonym to the phrase holiday season). The minute there is a break in this the everyday structure, our kids’ chaos brains tend to spin out of control and breed more chaos. For our kids this looks like excessive silliness, constant running wherever they are (home, school, stores, etc.), and an increase in impulsive behavior from November through January which all lead to an increase in mamma's drinking.
2. They worry their behavior will prevent them from receiving presents from Santa. Our six-year-olds know the whole Santa story; they’ve heard that Santa only brings presents to “good” boys and girls...we’ve tried using it as leverage on many occasions. Desperate to stop the madness, my husband downloaded the app, A Call from Santa. During a fit of crazy behavior from our daughter, he used the app to have Santa “call” and tell her she was being a naughty girl and reminded her there were only 27 days until Christmas. There was a rare two minutes of silence when she gave the phone back to my husband, mortified. The silence was really the calm before the storm, and before long wailing and fat elephant tears ensued. Immediately we became the worst parents in North America; I wanted to apologize to her and spill the beans about Santa being a fraud.

Many kids fear that their bad behavior will earn them a lump of coal on Christmas morning, but for our kids, this fear is rooted deep in trauma because they believe their bad behavior has earned them way more than just a lump of coal in their stocking.  They believe their poor choices are what got them removed from their birth parents. So the Santa business or the Elf on the Shelf crap--all of that reinforces our kids’ belief that they are not good enough to receive presents or love or affection.
3. The holidays can cause them to self-sabotage. It’s common for kids with traumatic backgrounds to want to control situations. The holiday season is rife with enjoyable opportunities for families: trips to visit Santa, picking out and wrapping presents, baking cookies placing store bought cookies on fancy paper plates, eating massive amounts of Life-Savers from those $.97 Life-Saver books. Unfortunately, kids with traumatic pasts often don’t trust that they’ll get to participate in these festivities because they think their behavior will cause the fun to be stripped from them or because they have experiences of previously unfulfilled promises. So, on the brink of fun activities, they will often self-sabotage so they can choose to miss out rather than risk having an experience taken away from them again.

Our kids are known for self-destructing. After recovering from a turkey, stuffing, and family hangover, we decided to put up our Christmas tree. Our kids love to read, so we busted out the stack of Christmas books, set up a cozy spot for them on the couch, and asked them to read together while we put the fake branches on our fake Christmas tree trunk. “Once we get the tree built, then you can help us fluff it out. Please stay on the couch and read until then, okay?” They both nodded and got busy reading. Approximately 47 seconds later, our son jumped off the couch and proceeded to run through the piles of fake pine needles that our fake tree had shed during its removal from the box. Our living room was a disaster zone of Christmas decorations and fake pine needles, so to avoid more chaos, we sent him to his room where he happily played with his cars and trucks as if that’s what he wanted in the first place. Twenty minutes into our attempt to decorate the tree with our family, both kids were in their rooms for what appeared to be intentional defiance, and my husband and I swore as we proceeded with the terrible job of fluffing out our fake tree by ourselves.
4. The holidays remind them of all they've lost. Our kids didn't have much in the way of material possessions to begin with, so you'd think that receiving gifts on Christmas morning would be exciting for them. While it is exciting, it is also overwhelming.

The first Christmas with our son, we showered him with gifts, which resulted in an immediate tantrum that lasted most of the morning. We couldn't figure out the cause for the melt-down; did he want a blue sled instead of a red sled? Did we not explain clearly enough the purpose of a sled and how much fun it is? We had given him nearly everything from his Christmas list. Pissed that our Christmas morning didn’t meet the expectations I had of our first Christmas as a family, I stormed off leaving my husband to deal with our new son’s confusing behavior. It wasn't until after the chaos of the holiday season passed when he said something out of the blue about never receiving Christmas gifts from his birth parents that we were able to understand that perhaps his Christmas morning tantrum came from a place of loss--a reminder of the gifts promised but never received from his birth parents, a reminder that it wasn't natural for him to be spending Christmas morning, a time normally reserved for immediate family, away from his immediate family. Remembering my response to his behavior on Christmas morning, my cheeks burned red in humiliation, and I reached out to hug my boy.

As a foster-adoptive mamma, I’ve learned to accept that the holidays will most likely be difficult for our family. We probably won’t be able to engage in every fun activity our community has to offer, and we may not be able to attend every holiday party we’re invited to. Instead, we’ll spend extra time at home together. It takes an extra dose of patience, so if you know a foster parent or foster-adoptive parent, send them extra empathy and love booze this holiday season to help get them through it.

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