Thanksgiving

THANKSGIVING:  HOW IT IMPACTS CHILDREN WITH EARLY TRAUMA AND THEIR FAMILIES

Introduction:

It’s November! Parents are pulling out their children’s sweaters because the seasons are changing. Along with that the time changes, too, and it gets darker earlier. Stores change their merchandising. Halloween costumes go on sale and Thanksgiving decorations appear. Billboards and commercials start pounding out the must have Christmas gifts for our loved ones and friends. The clock begins to tick downward towards the half way point of the school year. High schools are finishing the fall sports. Halloween is past and our sights are set on the Thanksgiving holiday with Christmas and New Year’s close behind. Negotiation and preparation start becoming prioritizes in our scheduling. The anticipation begins, who will host, what foods are served, seating arrangements, travel arrangements, child and pet care arrangements, even, which football games (if any) will be watched, a seemingly endless array of questions. Don’t forget the silent considerations, “Who gets along with whom?” “Who might drink too much?” “What subjects need to be avoided?”, etc. Everyone’s expectations begin to build, looking forward to the upcoming gatherings.

The above paragraph describes a typical November for many families. Some of the activities are fun filled, others are anxiety producing. For most, it’s just the transition into the holiday season. But for those who are attempting to provide a healing environment for traumatized children, this is a list of triggers, and not an exhaustive list either. The holidays can be a wonderful time of year. Most of us, even have a part that would say, “There is a huge emotional expectation that it should be a wonderful time of year.” Someone even wrote a song to that effect, but is it that way for a traumatized child? What would it be like to have a part of yourself that believed you were bad, loved ones could not be trusted, and the world was an unsafe place? How would that song feel? What if you had parts that failed to develop properly at various stages to an age-appropriate level? You would know that you were unable to live up to everyone’s expectations. What if you were torn by two opposing parts; one knowing you are loved by a trustworthy parent and another that knows you are not loved? Which part would enjoy thinking about gathering as one big happy family around the dinner table, catching up, playing games, getting hugs from elderly relatives?

For traumatized children, the holidays can be a very scary time. Depending on where they are in recovery, they may even be totally unaware of their fears. Over the years we have seen escalations in problematic behaviors that are caused by the children’s inability to manage this fear.

Let’s examine the first paragraph and identify possible triggers to behaviors. Don’t forget, as your children’s fear and the resultant behaviors increase, your own emotional world will become increasingly strained at a time when demands for your time and attention are rapidly increasing. DON’T FORGET SELF-CARE.

Trauma Disrupted Competencies

Trauma Disrupted Competencies (TDC):  Through the interactions between an infant/child and the caregiver, the child learns and develops. When this relationship is disrupted, the child’s learning will be similarly disrupted. Every child with early trauma will have a combination of disrupted competencies, some more than others. Examination of the child’s behaviors through this lens allows for a wide range of possible interventions with the parent in a coaching role instead of punitive.

TDCs are designed to look at behaviors through the trauma lens, find their origins, and then, develop healing interventions. Our work is built on the foundation that problematic behaviors are a result of fear, unrecognized and poorly managed. Most behaviors can be seen through the lens of every TDC. However, for this article, we will only list the top TDCs we found over the years for the presented fears. Our goal is to provide parents a path to recognize seasonal triggers and the fears generated in traumatized children. We strongly encourage parents to develop healing interventions that are designed to help the child recognize the fear and learn new ways to process it instead of the disruptive behaviors.

(Additional information on the TDCs can be found on our website: www.earlytrauma.com)

ActivityFear or sadnessBehaviorTDC (Origin of behavior)
Pulling out sweaters (changing to winter clothing)Fear of wearing clothing that may be uncomfortable, losing their favorite clothing, of not having enough clothing, of not fitting in sociallyOpposition to the new clothing, seeking the old clothing, complaining of inadequacy of the clothing and/or parents, disrespect to parents, trading, losing, or destroying clothing, increased tantrums/irritabilitySensory defensiveness: “Wool makes me itch.” “My coat is too heavy.” “Long sleeves and pants are constricting.” NIWM: “Can I trust you to provide clothing that makes me look good?” Development delay: “The new clothing has too many buttons that I cannot do.”
Time change/Darker earlierFear in schedule changes, new demands and expectations, getting up too early, unpredictability, loss of wake/sleep time, going to bed to early, fear of losing time to play, exasperated fear of the darkOpposition to schedule changes, increased struggle with energy (too sleepy, cannot sleep), increased tantrums/irritabilityNIWM: “World is a dangerous place; transitions are scary which means I will lose something.” Self-regulation: Cannot sleep at night, cannot stay awake during the day, cannot fix it Developmental Delay: “I’m still feeling afraid of the dark.”
Halloween was recentlySadness over loss of parades, costumes, parties, arguments over candy consumption, lingering thoughts around violence and horrorComplaint of boredom, demand to be entertained, desire to wear costume, increased stealing, scamming, and complaining of parent’s inadequacies, desire to watch inappropriate programs, increased tantrums/irritabilityNIWM: “My parents have been denying me assess to my own candy.” Self-regulation: The increased fear of Halloween activities was calming. Now, it’s over. Developmental Delay:  Halloween—more child focused activities and Thanksgiving more mature focused activities
Increase in marketing for Christmas presentsFear of not getting what is desired, has magical thinking that their world will be improved with the next present, false desires kindled by a highly manipulative social media/advertisersIncrease stealing, scamming, and complaining of parent’s inadequacies, increased tantrums/irritability, hyperfocus on a desired item or an inability to focus on a desired item, increased self-sabotage, decreased ability to maintain daily expectations: chores, hygiene, homework, etc, increased tantrums/irritabilityEmotional Response: “I want, I want, I want.” NIWM: “You won’t give me. You won’t give me. You won’t give me.” Self-regulation: constant triggering of desires makes focus more difficult
Fall sports finishingSad with loss of physical activity and time away from home, social engagement, possibly losing identity as a sports figureComplaints of boredom, demands for entertainment, behaviors stemming from too much energy (wrestling, ball throwing and running in the house, jumping on the furniture), increase in dangerous behaviors that prompt parents to restrain or contain the child, increased tantrums/irritability Object relations: “Who am I in school without my football uniform? Will they still see me as a good athlete?” Self-regulation: What does the body do with all that energy that was being spent in sports/outdoor activities? Self-regulation: Unrecognized sadness and loss, leads to grumpy argumentative, “fight picking” behaviors.
After the holidays, the school year will approach the halfway markFear of academic failure, previous excuses for non-performance start to wear thin as academic pressures increaseIncreased complaints about school staff and demands, blaming, school refusal, disruptive behaviors at school, increased defensive posturing, increased tantrums/irritabilityNIWM: “I can’t do it. You are only proud of me if I get a good grade. They will only ask for more.” Emotional Response: “Oh, no, my lies are catching up to me.” Self-regulation: “I don’t seem to be able to focus on school work.”
Anticipating Thanksgiving Day and the changes in the family (extended family, travel, new or different foods)Fear of too many people, new foods, fear of traveling, too much intimacy, inability to predict or control the environment, loss of safety, fear of social failure, will I get my needs metHyperfocus on possibly fearful occurrences, the “what if’s,” self-sabotaging behaviors, increased negativity, refusing to eat new foods, steal/hide more food, yelling and screaming, triangulation of adults, increased tantrums/irritabilityNIWM: “This is going to be awful, I can’t imagine having fun.”
Emotional Response: Increasingly on edge anticipating failure and of their perception of losing control. Sensory: Too much auditory and visual input overstimulates the brain.
The expectation of feeling warm and fuzzy during this seasonCognitive dissonance-that feeling of not being or feeling what you should, “I am just not right.” The gap between what society/self expects of me and my inner experienceIncreased isolation, problematic behaviors around holiday preparations and activities, complaints of current family while reminiscing of other families, disrespectful attitude, avoidant of connecting activities, overly friendly towards strangers, avoidance of self-care, increased tantrums/irritabilityNIWM: Mindless attempts to balance warm and fuzzy by behaving cold and hard. Self-regulation: Reliance on older, less functional self-calming strategies  Object Relations: “I have had so much loss in my life, I know you will leave, too.”

Conclusion

We have met parents who would like to cancel all holidays because of the problematic behaviors they seem to generate. Of course, we don’t recommend going to that extreme. There is hope! Take time to take care of yourself. This is not an option. Exploring the origins of your children’s behaviors, is hard work. The effort to recognize their fear, feel it with them, and model how to re-regulate is exhausting. While holidays may appear to exasperate this effort, they, also, represent invaluable opportunities to create healing. Hopefully, our work will help you see your child differently, The Trauma Lens Paradigm Shift. What we can never forget on the journey, is the boundless joy and connection that comes at the end from helping a traumatized child heal.

If you need more understanding of how trauma impacts your child, check out our website. Don’t be afraid of the holidays! www.earlytrauma.com Watch for the next newsletter that will look at how Christmas impacts children with early trauma.

© 2022, Jeff and Faye. All rights reserved.

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