It always starts with a happy event. Well, at the very least, it starts with an event that I consider to be “happy.” Happy events are often triggers for the traumatized child. Something we all enjoy will get them thinking about why their first family couldn’t have done the same. Sometimes happy things become almost too close for comfort. They become scared that it could all be taken away. Happy events, like holidays, can pose a virtual minefield of trauma triggers for the adopted child.
In our home, the littlest chickens go nuts over bringing Christmas ornaments up from the basement. They beg and cajole, and finally I just start decorating for Christmas the day before Thanksgiving. Basically it’s a half day of school and the chickens just spend that many hours sneaking down into the basement and mysteriously appearing covered in suspicious bits of tinsel. I might as well supervise the destruction of the storage packaging. The little chickens, in their holiday fervor, cluck and squawk and run around in circles picking up and promptly dropping each glittery item, in what can only be called a chicken frenzy. Here are some of the pitfalls and trauma triggers of the holiday season:
Naming the Holiday. For whatever reason, naming Thanksgiving is very tricky at our house. When we talk about turkey day, it’s like the holiday time bomb starts ticking. Carl and Mary can become very apprehensive around the holidays. They will alternately reminisce about life in their “bio-home” and then try and pretend they never lived in the aforementioned home. I’m not sure if they miss their first family around this time. They definitely miss former foster homes and so we visit as often as we can. I believe in preserving as much of their past connections as possible. Mentioning the holidays in relation to her biological family will cause Mary to shut down and quit talking. She will look at the ground, bow her head, and flop like a rag doll. She can remain in this unresponsive, catatonic state for almost an hour.
Bio family. There will be no visits this year. Bio mom has not returned from Puerto Rico and has refused all contact with DCF. Bio dad did not show up to last year’s visit and had refuses all contact with DCF. Contact with an bio sister is really all we can do right now. We called her on Thanksgiving. Carl talked her ear off about “me and my dad” this and “my mommy” that. She was very gracious but I always worry if this contact is healthy for her. She was never adopted. Mary didn’t want to talk and only answered a few “yes” and “no” questions. She was very clingy and emotional for the rest if the day. She had a few minor meltdowns and a very difficult time getting in the shower. I think somehow the contact with a family member from her past reminded her of scary things from her past. So, of course, I sat outside the bathroom door and belted Christmas carols all through Mary’s Thanksgiving shower.
Happy Family Moments. There are so many happy moments during the holiday season. We work hard to build traditions that the kids will remember. The happy moments are often overshadowed with fear and doubt from our kids. Sometimes they fear that they will lose everything they have gained. This fear causes them to react as soon as they experience too much happiness. One Christmas carol too many can cause a massive meltdown. After all, they have loved and lost a family before.
So what do we do about it? We move on. Of course we do. I refuse to let our children’s past control their future. We forge ahead and build new family experiences. There is something to be said for avoiding triggers, but realistically, our kids deserve a chance to experience what other children get to experience. If we can provide a piece of the magical holiday season to their childhood, darn-it, we are going to try! Corrective experiences about being with a functional family. We relish being together and cherish the good times, even if those good times are hard for the kids to handle. We honor their past family while building the foundation of this new family together. Here is what we do:
Decorating. We do it together. mostly. My teenage step-children sit on the sidelines looking somber and skeptical over all the fuss. In desperation I ask my 16-year-old stepson, Seth, if he would like to help. “Um, no,” he replies. We are making zombie-themed gingerbread houses complete with red licorice entrails and severed gingerbread man heads. There is candy and sugar and smeared frosting all over the dining room table, chairs, and faces of my youngest chickens! We also decorate a zombie nativity scene. The Littles speculate that the angel Gabriel will fly in and save the baby Jesus just before the hoard of hungry zombies attacks. Did I mention that our family is big on zombies? Eventually, I rope in the two oldest and now everyone is covered in sugary fun!
The Littles each have decorated Christmas trees in their rooms. Carl topped his with Darth Vader in order to be “just like daddy,” in his obsession with “the force.” When we all participate, we are making Christmas “our own.” Forget holiday expectations. Let’s stick to the Star Wars characters and the Zombie Genre that we love. After all, it isn’t about living up to anyone’s standards. It’s about being a family and making memories!
Being together. This year is particularly important to Mary because she spent most of the holiday season in and out of in-patient hospitalization last year. She ended up in a short-term residential placement following Christmas, but was able to come back successfully after that. She is panicked that she will miss out on something this year. She had been awakening at 5:00 AM each day in her fervor, shouting, “Is it Christmas yet? Is it time to do something fun? As a family? I’m doing it, too!!” I sleepily lift open one eyelid and nudge Luke in the side. It’s GOT to be his turn to explain the only thing our family should be doing at 5:00 AM is sleeping!
Visiting their former foster home. We maintain connections. This is bitter sweet, for everyone. The wonderful foster couple that had Sean, and Mary for 2 years (and Carl for around 6 months) is always glad to see them. They can see how far the little chickens have come. When we visit, the Littles are always happy to play with former foster siblings, and see their former foster parents. They refer to this couple as “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” They love this trip, but everyone has a hard time leaving, including me! Mary wailed on the way home, “Why can’t we just all live together?” We can’t. But we can stick together. We are all family now.
Happy family moments. Yes, happy family time can be a trigger. It is also necessary. Traumatized children need to experience PJ parties and family time. If we don’t provide the corrective experience about how families are supposed to spend time together, then they can never learn about it. By torturing them with family fun we are actually breaking a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma. After all, if you grow up believing families are supposed to fist-fight and make each other bleed, how will you then raise your family? So, yes, we teach our kids that moms and dads will wear matching PJs with you and dance in the kitchen. Christmas jammies are really Star Wars jammies in our home. We put them on, watch Christmas movies and, of course, the Holderness “Christmas Jammies” video in YouTube. Then we run our of milk and go to Big Y in matching jammies? Why? Because that is how this family rolls!
The holidays are not easy for children with complex trauma. Being adopted into a jammie-wearing-hug-giving-zombie-enthusiast family does not cure trauma. Love doesn’t even cure trauma. But it sure goes a long way in teaching these kids something new. I may be covered in baking flower (from making clay Christmas tree ornaments with the kids, which they subsequently tried to eat!) I may have a glow-in-the-dark zombie or two in my hair, and I may be wearing my matching family jammies. I may look like a mess. But I am also wearing a huge smile. A huge “isn’t-it-great-that-I-get-to-do-mom-stuff-because-I’m-their-mom?!?” smile. That’s me. Happy holidays!
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
*If you have ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to start your own adventure.