Managing Loss and Trauma During the Holidays
December 11, 2022 by Jennie Dalcour, Child & Family Therapist
As the days grow shorter and colder, as Santa’s familiar face starts popping up in grocery stores and television ads, our minds naturally turn toward the Christmas season. This time of year is often eagerly anticipated by children and adults. Children count down the days until the Big Day, while parents add plenty of “Christmas magic” to their schedule. The red and green buzz in December is palpable. And even the songs we listen to build hype around Christmas:
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year
There’ll be much mistltoeing
And hearts will be glowing
When loved ones are near
It’s the most wonderful time” (Pola and Wyle, 1963)
But what happens when the Christmas lights strung with care just don’t glow, when holiday parties and family gatherings just don’t feel so magical? For many families Christmas is not the happiest time of year. For some, the holidays can bring vibrant reminders that life just hasn’t turned out the way they planned. Maybe they don’t have the home decorated beautifully with garland and twinkle lights. Maybe they don’t have family or a partner to make magical memories with. Or maybe they can only hold memories now of a beloved friend or family member who has passed away. The holidays can shine a cruel light on grief, loss, and disappointment.
The children in our care can face a similar sense of loss and longing during this time of year. The holidays are a constant, tinsel-covered reminder of family they no longer get to see and traditions they no longer celebrate. Holidays may also trigger memories of traumatic, painful Christmases in the past. Even children who were placed in safe homes during early childhood can experience triggers of the trauma they hold in their bodies from those early years. Every decoration, every holiday event serves as a reminder of loss and fear.
The holidays can also bring on overstimulation for children with sensory processing challenges. The bright lights, Christmas music, and holiday cheer all assault their nervous systems. The presents provide an overabundance of visual and tactile stimulation. This can create a sense of overwhelm and emotional dysregulation. The sensory overload along with grief can become a perfect storm of dysregulation for children without the words or ability to express their emotions.
Although Christmas can be a challenging time of overwhelm and loss for children (and caregivers too!), it can also be a season of healing. Parents who recognize the potential for grief and trauma triggers can act intentionally to minimize the struggle of the season. This may require caregivers to adjust their own expectations of a picture-perfect holiday.
Families may want to downsize their decorations and limit Christmas events. They may want to be sensitive to sensory overload in their children, lowering the music volume and offering plenty of breaks from the holiday cheer. Parents may want to decrease the number of gifts they give their children or even spread out the presents over multiple days. It is helpful to offer children vocabulary and time to express feelings of loss even in the happy moments.
By changing their expectations and providing empathetic support, parents can guide their young ones safely through a Christmas season fraught with grief and memories of trauma. Children can slowly learn to appreciate why we celebrate this holiday season knowing they are loved and cared for. Christmas is truly a time of reflection and celebration, even if the celebrations must look a little different to help provide emotional safety for the children in our care. Christmas can become once again, the most wonderful time of the year.
Pola, E and Wyle, G (1963). It’s the most wonderful time of the year [Recorded by Williams, A]. On The Andy Williams Christmas Album. Demi Music Corp. D/B/A Lichelle Music Company