Handling Holiday Stress the Trauma-Informed Way
As we approach the winter holidays, we are all well aware that the world around us can feel chaotic, scary, worrisome, and stressful. These emotions and feeling states often conflict with the majority culture’s implicit and explicit emphasis on holiday cheer, happiness, and joy; feelings that are expected and valued. Unfortunately, the conflict between these divergent states can inadvertently lead to feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that can be out of character for many of us and cause further stress, anxiety and sometimes depression.
While this state of affairs may be acute for adults, it is also true for our children and adolescents. In general we hope that adults have the psychological and psychosocial resources to cope with these polar emotional states, but our children may not have the psychological tools to handle these discrepant emotional waves. As we try to reconcile the blitz of holiday cheer with the realities of a challenging world, I would like to take this opportunity to suggest some general tips to help yourself and your children. First and foremost, always keep in mind the following analogy; when you get on an airplane and the flight attendant is going over the safety instructions, they tell you that if the oxygen masks are needed due to cabin pressure changes, to always put your mask on first and then put it on your child. This holds true for stress and mental health. If you, a parent or caregiver do not take care of yourself first, it will be much harder to be to attentive and attuned to the needs of your children.
In general, we know that most children are capable of handling the day-to-day difficulties that life puts in their path and that they have the capacity to weather the typical developmental storms and fluctuations that are part of their everyday lived experiences. That is, they have the psychological tools necessary to handle and cope with the expected levels of stress present in modern society.
On the other hand, many children struggle with a variety of mental and behavioral health concerns as well as trauma. The presence of untreated or unrecognized mental health problems increases the child’s risk and vulnerability. This increased level of vulnerability affects their capacity to cope and increase their risk of not being able to manage their emotions at a time of year that already has heightened emotions and expectations. Additionally, continued and routine exposure to the litany of highly charged and emotional information about the world, at home, in school, and from peers has the potential for a child to become psychologically overwhelmed. As caregivers, It has to be our job and responsibility to monitor our children’s exposure to what is happening around them and to help them manage, understand, and process when we, as the adults see the need. We also need to be conscious that when they bring these concerns to our attention, we have to be ready to help them and to have the capacity guide them. From a developmental perspective, it is critically important for parents of younger children (3-10) to be reassuring and calm and to validate the child’s feelings and thoughts. Parents or caregivers should assure children that they are safe right now and that you will do everything you can to keep them safe, now and in the future. The key to helping younger children feel safe is to communicate regularly and proactively with your child. A good way for caregivers of younger children to accomplish this is to use developmentally appropriate children’s books. Below, I will list some possible examples of books about safety.
For older children, who may have the psychological and cognitive skills to better manage the stress of conflicting emotions and feelings states, caregivers can still initiate and encourage thoughtful and purposeful discussions about general topics relevant to their older child or teenager. For example, we know that cyberbullying is epidemic on social media. Even the effort to let your child or adolescent know that you know about cyberbullying can help the child feel safer and more open to sharing. For older children, who have been impacted by trauma or who have struggled with emotional and behavioral disorders, parents and caregivers can also be proactive in their attempts to “put things on the table” for discussion, while remaining non-judgmental and open to what the adolescent has to say.
In general, with all children, caregivers should pay close and careful attention to what their children are exposed to in the medial (i.e. T.V.) and particularly on social media. Certainly, not all social media is bad or problematic, but even the most benign information can be upsetting in the wrong circumstances. Most importantly, please notice if your child's behavior is suddenly different or changed in some way.
Changes in behavior, even those that seem mild should be noted, monitored, and if necessary, discussed with your child. Most behavior changes will be temporary and developmentally appropriate, but caregivers should pay attention to any change in behavior (both positive and negative) that is different from their child’s typical pattern of behavior. Again, the issues that children, teens, and even adults are exposed to on a moment-by-moment basis, in this often chaotic world can be upsetting and even more so for people struggling with mental or behavioral health issues or histories of trauma. Here are some concrete steps to take to reduce or minimize the impact of children and teens exposure to the stressful, upsetting, and sometimes traumatic events that can shape and influence us.
1. Children (ages 3-12)
Limit their access to this information that you have not curated or reviewed. We know that T.V. sometimes has the tendency to sensationalize and dramatize beyond what is reasonable. Children can be very susceptible to these influences and it can and will heighten their anxiety and can potentially trigger more intense reactions.
Monitor their social media presence. Children under 12 should be given limited access to social media. Caregivers are encouraged to place concrete limits on children’s online exposure to social media and to curate all sites that children visit, even if it means reviewing their social media history. It is not unusual for children to inadvertently get caught up in a “rabbit hole” of social media cites that they never intended to visit.
Be careful about what you say around your child. Their ears are very big. We don't want them to pick up on our own anxiety, fears, worries, because this may make them feel concerned that we cannot keep them safe.
2. Adolescents (13-18)
Establish clear and consistent parameters and boundaries around social media, while being respectful of the adolescents growing need for autonomy.
Approach adolescents with an open mind and a genuine effort at open communication. You will not get everything right, but they will notice and appreciate (even if they don’t say so), your effort to meet them where they are at.
Use “I” statement language and avoid blaming when possible.
3. Above all else, please take care of yourselves. We do our children very little good if we are not making sure to take care of ourselves. Remember the plane metaphor I mentioned earlier. When you are on an airplane and the flight attendant is giving instructions about emergency procedures and they are talking about the breathing masks descending if cabin pressure suddenly changes...the first thing they tell you is to put the mask on yourself first so that you can then help the child sitting next to you. This is not idle advice, but truly goes to the heart of how we need to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our children.
4. Finally, I encourage every parent, caregiver or anybody that acts in any adult role with a child to practice P.A.V.E.
It really works!