Betsy de Thierry, author of The Simple Guide to Sensitive Boys and The Simple Guide to Child Trauma, explains how Christmas isn’t necessarily a happy time for all children, especially those who have experienced trauma.
Television adverts and social media are full of happy families at this time of year. Tables are laden with delicious food, presents can be found under trees and all around everyone is smiling. Beneath this image, however, there are many children who, for various emotional reasons and past traumatic experiences, can find the contrived festive spirit overwhelming.
For those who care for a child who fits this description, I thought I’d highlight a few challenges and potential triggers to be aware of during Christmas.
- Adult expectations that all emotions will be positive
As parents and carers we do love it when our photos make us look like a happy family. We enjoy dressing up our kids in Christmas jumpers and taking photos that make us look way more perfect, peaceful, harmonious and happy than perhaps the reality is.
Children who have experienced trauma can pick up on a parent’s anxiety for everything to go ‘perfectly’. They are often hyper-vigilant which means that they notice the small detail of your facial expressions, others emotions, smells, sights and sounds – such as a raised eyebrow – because their subconscious has been trained to notice such things in order to survive unpredictable frightening scenarios. Whilst it has been a survival strategy to pre warn them about anything frightening about to happen, it also means that they can see clearly in your eyes the look of hope, fear and uncertainty as you speak about the plans for Christmas celebrations. They want to please you so they may try and be all that you want them to be- but the cost to them can be high. If they feel that your need for perfection and a ‘happy Christmas’ is important for their ‘survival’ then they may deny their own struggles to focus on your needs, which could lead to a volcanic eruption of negative emotions at some point as they will be struggling to hold all their strong emotions internally for too long.
As a tip, it can be helpful to laugh together at the media’s image of Christmas and talk about how many feelings all the adults and children can have at Christmas. It’s always helpful to tell stories of when you were a child and received a weird or unexpected present and how you navigated the expectations and feelings you felt. Laughter at expectations is important and can dilute the pressure that can be felt.
2. Overwhelming feelings of happiness, loss, sadness, excitement all at the same time
For almost every child, Christmas is a time of experiencing lots of different emotions. Most children will feel excited and hopeful and then on the day of presents will feel happy alongside short, sharp moments of awkwardness, disappointment and sadness that a few presents were not received or weren’t quite right.
For children who are struggling from trauma, these emotions will be significantly stronger but can also be coupled with a strong feeling of loss. Loss seems to be a strong emotion at Christmas; in an environment where things ‘should be perfect’, the loss of a family member, their birth family, a life experience, or a loss of innocence can be felt powerfully, although sometimes on an implicit subconscious level. The strong feelings of loss, which can be felt as sadness and anger, can be overwhelming in the context of ‘happy people’. Somehow the contrast can feel explosive. To add to the cocktail of strong emotions is the most potent of all feelings, which is guilt and shame.
Guilt and shame is often carried at the core of traumatised children as they feel the weight of self-blame for what they have experienced, despite the obvious fact for us that they never caused or deserved anything that happened to them. Shame is the sense that they are bad, dirty, worthless people at the core of who they are. Christmas can feel so overwhelming that their shame levels can rise because they feel that they will probably be ‘the one to ruin everything’ and make everyone unhappy. This can create anxiety or terror, which can lead to some children emotionally exploding before Christmas events have even begun.
3. Relatives commenting on how they look, small talk and expected hugs
Children who have been through trauma can sometimes feel confused about adult requests (‘oh give your granny a hug’) and ‘small talk ‘conversations (what a lovely, happy chap you are!”). When there are unfamiliar relatives who hold expectations such as hugs, it can feel like being traumatised. Trauma can be defined as experiencing powerlessness and terror at the same time. A child could feel powerless (inability to say no) and terror (strong fear) when adults ask them to hug, tickle them or tease them. We need to be able to explain to children that they can say ‘no thank you’ and be confident in ‘being shy’ because that is a normal response to such demands. It’s also helpful if we can chat to relatives and other adults who may visit and explain that, for safeguarding reasons, we are teaching our children that they can take the lead on their own body and say ‘no’ when they want to. We can also explain that sometimes children may not engage in small talk because they are learning how to be authentic in their conversations and so may not say ‘the right thing’. It can also be important to point out that children certainly don’t like being teased or commented on because they are children with real emotions and sensitivities.
4. Needing to pretend they like the presents they are given
This is fairly obvious but can be a huge pressure for children to navigate. They see the look of hope on the present giver and don’t want to disappoint whilst also feeling a sense of disappointment themselves. Let’s be kind to children who are honest and have emotions that are authentic and enable them to process negative feelings in a way that ends well and gives them a life time of skill.
5. A strange fat man (Father Christmas) is coming into my bedroom while I am sleeping
As an adult I would not be keen to think that an old man is coming to my bedroom at night while I am sleeping. It doesn’t make me feel safe. I have no idea why we think children would be ok with this! If your child doesn’t sleep around the Christmas season, it could be due to fear about this experience. They may feel too much shame to tell you as others seem so excited about it, but actually the feelings of anxiety can rise leading up to this ‘special night’. For those who have been sexually abused, by a man at night coming into their bedroom, it would seem obvious that they may not be feeling that relaxed. Popping the fantasy bubble about Father Christmas can be the kindest thing you can do to some children!
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This is such a helpful article with such useful advise and insight. As a parent it’s so easy to get carried along with the expectations of Christmas so it’s great to read your tips on how to help navigate our children during what can be a very tricky season. Thank you for taking the time to write it.