Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Christmas can trigger a whole heap of feelings and memories for any one of us – some may be magical, some less so. For children in care, under special guardianship or who have been adopted, the build-up to and culmination of all things Christmas can trigger some very intense emotions which of course can lead to dysregulation.
It’s important that those of us who work with or parent children who have experienced early trauma are mindful of this when planning and delivering activities at this time of year. This isn’t about not doing anything Christmassy or fun, but rather about understanding why children may struggle with certain things, being sensitive to what they can manage, and supporting their emotional regulation throughout.
Put simply, children cannot experience things positively if they are stuck in fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode due to overstimulation or increased activation of their stress response. Christmas activities may tap into a core sense of shame and loss, or trigger a heightened level of hypervigilance, or levels of excitement that can feel the same as fear which then activates the stress response.
Think about the number of changes to routine, the increased likelihood of there being lots of party food and chocolate galore (sugar rush anyone?), busy shops, noisy and sparkly environments, so many presents, the idea that the elf on the shelf is watching, or that Santa has put them on the naughty list, the lack of self-worth, the pressure that Christmas must be one big happy family time (remember, their feelings around family may be incredibly complex).
Everything can feel BIGGER and intensified. It’s no wonder our most vulnerable children are more susceptible to emotional dysregulation at this time of year – they need our help to make things feel less chaotic, to attune to their needs, and to get in alongside them and support them with co-regulation.
So what can we do to help our children not just survive Christmas, but to really enjoy it? Not everything will be an issue for every child, but where there’s a possibility, we need to work with that understanding. Here are just a few things to bear in mind – as always, this is not an exclusive list and I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips too:
Routine tends to go out of the window to make way for ‘fun’ things like school plays, concerts, parties, Christmas dinners, Christmas jumper days etc. Stick with routine as much as is possible where you can so children have ‘safe’ anchors (knowns) throughout the day to hook into – keep things simple, and communicate any changes to routine clearly up front.
Use visual schedules to help children navigate the day more easily and check in with them regularly to ensure that they understand what’s happening, when and why.
Keep a regular and open dialogue between home and school to maintain as much consistency as possible, and to show everyone is on the same page with support – anything that helps the child to feel very much ‘held’ by all key adults at any one time is especially important when everything else feels out of kilter.
Consider the Christmas films and stories that are being shared and be mindful about what they might trigger. Even the incredibly popular Elf (which I, my husband, and our children, love) has a core message around adoption – Buddy the Elf is himself adopted as a baby. Most Christmas films are incredibly emotive and family-focused which can bring its challenges.
Be conscious that parties or treats involving food may bring challenges for children who’ve experienced neglect – food issues are incredibly common for children in or previously in care. Show that there will be enough food to go around, be clear about when it will be time to eat, and be prepared to provide extra reassurance and support during these times.
Be mindful of traditional Christmas messages around good and bad/naughty lists, how Santa delivers presents etc. – the simplest of throwaway ‘light-hearted’ comments by well-meaning adults can trigger core shame or anxiety.
Elf on the Shelf also needs to be navigated creatively if a child wishes to engage with it – not every child will be able to cope with the idea that little elves come and go from their house in the night (same with Santa). Nor should there be any link made between the elves visiting and good or bad behaviour (which can tap into shame). Using the elves to have some family fun and bring some playfulness into the morning routine can be great, if done carefully and taking into account any anxiety. Our elves helpfully used to bring our children their advent calendars on day 1 and Christmas jumpers the day before they needed to wear one to school, and were only associated with fun, nice, non-threatening things which worked well.
Consider staggering giving out gifts over several days if there seem to be a lot of presents to give out from family and friends. We did this with our children to begin with, and year on year have needed to do it less and less as they’re able to accept more without feeling so overwhelmed. Alternatively of course, keep gifts to a minimum – whatever works for your family situation, but know that quantity (even if it’s lots of cheap stocking fillers) can be an issue.
Make new family traditions and rituals together. Christmas throws up lots of lovely opportunities for connection and high nurture. Whether it’s getting the children involved in making mince pies or Christmas crafts each year, decorating the tree, wrapping presents together, writing (or for very young children, putting ink stamps in) Christmas cards, snuggling up with a hot chocolate and a cosy blanket watching Christmas TV together on Christmas Eve… take what works for you and your children and build it into your annual Christmas routine so each year they know what’s coming. The same can work with schools – are there a couple of simple annual traditions you can build in that each class undertakes at the same time so all children know what to expect each year?
And last, but not least, look after you. If you’re caring for or supporting a child who finds aspects of this time of year especially difficult, you will also need to take care of your own emotional regulation. Consider what it is that feeds your soul, that supports your wellbeing and ensure you get regular doses of this too – this doesn’t have to be anything huge – it can be taking a moment to take a few deep breaths, to enjoy a cup of herbal tea or hot chocolate, to video call a friend, to buy yourself a token pick-me-up gift, or to take a brisk walk in the crisp, winter air that can make the biggest of differences.
Please do feel free to share any Christmas traditions you have established, whether within your family or classroom, or any tips for managing this time of year - it'd be great to hear from you.
In the meantime, I wish you all a happy and emotionally regulated build up to Christmas!
If you're looking for some support or training in attachment and trauma, please do contact me for a no obligation chat: firstname.lastname@example.org