‘Tis the season to be triggered…

‘Tis the season to be triggered…

As the song goes, Christmas should be ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, but for many children sadly this isn’t the case. For many, Christmas is far from full of wonder and magical memories. For children in care, under special guardianship or who have been adopted, the build-up to and culmination of all things Christmas can trigger a whole host of huge emotions. It’s important that those of us who work with children are mindful of this when planning and delivering activities at this time of year.  It’s not all about ‘making up for what they’ve missed out on’ but rather being sensitive to what they can manage.

For children who have experienced neglect, abuse and/or domestic violence, the excitement of Christmas can be incredibly overwhelming. Throw in a core sense of shame, loss, hypervigilance, excitement confused with fear, changes to routine, party food and chocolate galore, 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, potential contact with birth family (and promise of presents that may/may not appear) and the pressure that Christmas must be one big happy family time (remember, their ideas around family may be incredibly complex), and it’s no wonder our most vulnerable children can feel, well, even more vulnerable than usual and present with intensely anxious behaviours.

So what can we do to help our children not just survive Christmas, but thrive? A good place to start is by recognising and being mindful that there are triggers everywhere. Not everything will trigger every child, but where there’s a possibility, awareness and monitoring is key. Here are just a few things to bear in mind:

  • 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 – keep things simple, and communicate any changes to routine or staff 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 an open dialogue with parents/carers to maintain as much consistency as possible, and to show home/setting are on same page with support.
  • Consider the Christmas films and stories that are being shared. Even the incredibly popular Elf (which I, and my 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.
  • Be mindful around parties or setting treats involving food – food issues are incredibly common in 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 monitor behaviour closely.
  • 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.

While we want all children to experience the magic of Christmas, this doesn’t have to involve lots of noise, overstimulating environments and copious amounts of sugar. Children simply cannot experience things positively if they are stuck in fight/flight/freeze mode due to raised anxiety. I saw Sally Donovan, Author of ‘No Matter What’, speak at an Adoption UK conference a couple of years back and she used a phrase which really resonated with me:

‘A boring success is better than an exciting failure.’

If you work with vulnerable children and are interested in training in Attachment and Trauma, I deliver an introductory session on behalf of Mandy Parry Training. Our next half-day workshop is on Friday 25th January 2019. Book here via Eventbrite.


Author: Associate Trainer, Emma Spillane