4 Ways to Find Some Peace During the Hard Holiday Season with Kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder
The holidays are coming. Before reactive attachment disorder came into your life, you may have felt excitement as November approached, but now you likely dread it. Why are the holidays so hard for families dealing with reactive attachment disorder, and what can you do to make them less stressful?
Why Holidays are Hard for Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder
Reactive attachment disorder is a developmental trauma disorder brought on by childhood trauma and inconsistent caregiving, whether from parental neglect, health complications early in life, or other unfortunate circumstances. Children with reactive attachment disorder unconsciously learned they cannot trust their caregivers and are in danger when caregivers are in charge. Thus, they push their primary caregiver(s) away and strive to always be in control.
There are two main reasons the holidays cause extra turmoil in families dealing with reactive attachment disorder.
“For one, the holidays are family oriented—gathering together, intimacy and connection,” says Amy VanTine, chief executive officer at RAD Advocates. “There are also lots of expectations during the holidays.”
RAD Advocates Chief Operating Officer Heather Houze agrees, “Family members come to visit during the holidays, and we’re demonstrating our love and closeness, so it can be triggering.”
“Secondly, schedules change,” VanTine adds. “When kids are used to a tight-knit schedule, it’s hard to transition out of everyday life.”
This was definitely the case for our son with reactive attachment disorder. He was hypervigilant and became agitated if he didn’t know what was going to happen next or had a change in routine. I learned early on to create a schedule for school breaks or vacations. He seemed incapable or unwilling to entertain himself. He wouldn’t utilize any of the toys, games, or hobbies available to him. For time off at home, I’d make a list of things for him to do during the days like a half hour of reading, arts/crafts, exercise, helping around the house, plus limited screentime after the other items were accomplished.
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A schedule can also help with upcoming holiday-oriented activities or get-togethers.
“You can write out a schedule so they have an understanding of what to expect, who will be there, where they’re going, etc.,” VanTine suggests.
Create a More Peaceful Gameplan for Holidays with a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder
1. Plan ahead.
“If the kids are on the mild end of the reactive attachment disorder spectrum, you can talk to them in advance of the holiday,” VanTine says. “Timing is everything. Don’t do it too far in advance or you may create anxiety, but allow enough time for them to prepare. Tell them what to expect and what it will look like.”
For any outings, have a safety plan and a backup plan in place. For example, have a place identified where the child can go to take a break, like their room or a guest room if you’re visiting friends or relatives. Allow them to eat separately or not participate in certain activities if they choose. That helps them be proactive about their feelings and needs, and also helps them feel in control and safe.
Closeness and the expectation of closeness often make attachment-challenged children stressed.
Wherever you go, have a plan in place in case things head south. For example, take two cars so one parent can leave with the child who is acting up, or see if family or friends can bring the other children home while you leave. Decide if it works better to host events or dinners at your house or to go to someone else’s home. Or, perhaps these events won’t work at all, and you need to keep things simple with just your immediate family. That’s what we found worked best — staying at home with our two adopted children and not traveling or going to other people’s homes.
2. Consider skipping the holidays or tone things down.
Both House and VanTine have worked with families who chose to skip a holiday altogether. If you only have one child with reactive attachment disorder, or all your children struggle with a holiday, then this can be a good option. However, if you have other children in the home, you may need to divide and conquer—where one parent does something with one child and the other parent with the other child/children—or tone things down instead of canceling altogether.
“Try not to overwhelm,” VanTine says. “You don’t need to do every tradition. You can dial it back and pick one or two traditions. It will depend on what the child can handle. You can even use that verbiage with the child: ‘Let’s see how you handle this, and then we will determine what’s next.’ Give the information to the child, then they are in control of their participation in the holiday activities.”
While we assume children love the holidays, for children with reactive attachment disorder— who may also have other conditions like sensory processing issues—holidays can be overwhelming.
3. Avoid expectations and allow natural consequences.
Houze and VanTine suggest having no expectations beyond safety. This was a major challenge for me. I felt I had to teach my children manners like thank you notes and making homemade gifts for folks who gave them presents.
“If you force things, the child will switch into control mode and wreak havoc,” VanTine warns. “Natural consequences are better. If Grandma gives a gift, and the child doesn’t say thank you, leave it in Grandma’s hands. Better that it comes from somewhere else. If the child doesn’t shower or dress appropriately, maybe someone will say something. That will play out better.”
Along this line, they recommend letting friends and family members know it’s OK to say something to the child if they see something inappropriate.
“It can help if someone else says something,” Houze says. “It reiterates what you’ve been telling your child already.”
When it comes to adjusting expectations, Houze tells the story of one family she worked with. Their teenager with reactive attachment disorder didn’t want to participate in opening presents with the family and instead chose to stay in his room. The father delivered his presents, simply dropping them off. The father successfully let go of his expectation over how present opening would look in their home.
“As parents, we get more triggered during the holidays too,” VanTine says. “We worry what people will think of our parenting. Part of it is just letting that go. Maybe warn the family ahead of time that Johnny’s having a hard day and may not look or act appropriately.”
Houze adds, “As parents, we feel our kids’ behavior is a reflection of us. We don’t want others to see their behaviors. That’s why no one believes what’s going on in our homes. Sometimes you have to let people see it.”
4. Think outside the box.
Reactive attachment disorder isn’t something any of us could have imagined. As such, dealing with it requires thinking outside the box. Sometimes we need to turn holidays upside down. Maybe that means creating new traditions. Other times it may mean identifying what really matters and figuring out how to accomplish that.
Mother’s Day was always the worst in our home. I always ended up feeling sorry for myself, despite knowing I shouldn’t have expectations. In hindsight, I see that what I should have done is taken the weekend for myself—gone to a spa or to visit friends or family. That way I would have felt like I was taking care of myself. I would have been saying, ‘your needs and your feelings matter.’ Sitting around waiting for a triggered child to help me feel appreciated only created more stress for everyone, including me.
“As parents, we feel our kids’ behavior is a reflection of us. We don’t want others to see their behaviors," says RAD Advocates Chief Operating Officer Heather Houze. "That’s why no one believes what’s going on in our homes. Sometimes you have to let people see it.”
Every child and every family is different, so you’ll have to experiment with what works. For example, maybe the child with reactive attachment disorder would rather go to respite or for Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house vs. with their own family.
If Nothing Else, Give Yourself Grace.
Through it all, give yourself grace. We talk a lot about what parents can or should do, but it’s not easy, and we’re not always capable of doing whatever that is in the moment. We have our own challenges and our own triggers. Don’t spend so much time trying to take care of everyone else that you aren’t addressing your own needs. Build personal time and whatever self-care you need into your holiday plans.