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Make Your Presence the Present

A Trauma-Informed Approach to the Holidays

It’s the holiday season! Festivities, fun sights, sounds, and excitement surround us. The celebrations and traditions are comforting and something to look forward to for most of us. However, with this season comes a great deal of pressure and reactivation of trauma for many.

There are several forms of trauma that can be related to the holidays; missing a lost or distant loved one, family issues that can creep up, stress on parents that can cause anger and depression, vicarious trauma children receive from a parent’s own past trauma about the holidays, struggling families who feel unable to provide children with gifts, and the list goes on.

While there is no doubt that the holidays can be special, for those who have had traumatic experiences this time of year, they can be quite overwhelming. Families, parents especially, feel a great deal of pressure to make holidays special. All the societal expectations around decorations, gifts, celebrations and the expectation that everyone should be happy can be quite frustrating. This type of pressure can make some households quite a sad place to be. The good news is that there are things we can do to make the holidays more enjoyable for those who have experienced such trauma.

Respect one another’s feelings

As a family it is important for everyone to understand and respect that the holidays may not be joyful for everyone. Perhaps mom or dad have trauma related to the holidays from childhood. Perhaps children from less affluent families feel left out. Foster children may be triggered by family events. These feelings can be somewhat tempered by just respecting everyone’s feelings and needs. Learn to be comfortable with the fact that not everyone will be happy all the time. Allowing each person to take the space they need and make some time for themselves can benefit everyone.

Take the pressure off

Rarely are holidays what you see in the movies or magazines. Nevertheless, people feel pressured to make the holidays perfect. Start by reframing what your idea of the perfect holiday is. If your idea of perfect is amazing decor, dozens of gifts and everyone happy, you’re probably going to be disappointed. If your idea of perfect is time together and a few meaningful gifts, it’s much more likely that you will succeed.

Create a distraction

If holiday fairs and parties aren’t a comfortable place for everyone, do something completely unrelated. Take a hike on a nice day. Curl up and have a family movie day. Go to the library and let everyone pick a book so you can all read together and drink some hot cocoa. Play board games or do puzzles; anything to keep everyone together and busy with activities that don’t add stress.

Help someone else make their holiday special

Volunteer at a soup kitchen together. Make a visit to a senior center. Make cards and take them to a local children’s hospital. Bringing joy to others inevitably brings joy to us. Just be respectful of places and activities that may trigger past trauma.

Most importantly, let your presence be the present

Perhaps the greatest source of pressure during the holidays is in the gifts. Everywhere we turn there are pictures of trees full of gifts and not everyone is able to make that a reality. The truth is that the best present you can give someone, especially your children, is you. I was fortunate enough to come from a family that had all the gifts, but my fondest memories have nothing to do with the material items. My best memories are driving around looking at lights, family meals, movies and curling up under blankets together. To this day, at the age of 44, what I look forward to most is being with my siblings and staying up so late that we eventually end up in fits of what we call “Christmas Eve laughter”. What children truly want and need most is to be surrounded by people who love them.

So, bake some cookies. Make handmade gifts for one another that will be special for years to come. Sleep in the living room and have a slumber party. Stay up late until you’re all loopy and giggle all night. Most of all, just be present. Nothing soothes trauma quite like feeling loved.


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