Updated: Mar 2
About a year ago this week, my husband and I took the family to Chicago for a pre-Christmas weekend. We went to visit my son and daughter-in-law living there and to enjoy the city. I had looked forward to having the entire family together.
Before we left, I did all that I could to ensure our trip went smoothly. I had thoughtfully planned activities that (I thought) would work well for all of us, including for my child with reactive attachment disorder.
But the weekend did not go well. Our child with reactive attachment disorder had a quiet anger brewing inside him that I didn’t understand. We all felt it through his passive-aggressiveness and opposition in everything we did. It created a cloud over the entire trip. All of us tiptoed around him in an effort to not upset him more.
I came home tired, crabby, and sad. We spent a lot of money and time on the trip. But our son’s behaviors put a sour spin on the whole weekend. I was mad at our son but also mad at myself. I wondered what I could have done differently.
My son’s behaviors didn’t surprise our therapist at all. The big city fun was too much, she said. Too stimulating. “It was all too much for him,” she said. “Your family is too much for your son to handle.”
The therapist explained that many children with reactive attachment disorder sabotage family gatherings. She said my son doesn’t know what to do with close family relationships and normal attachments. What seems nurturing, lifegiving, and essential for the rest of us threatens our son.
Love and togetherness feel scary for kids with reactive attachment disorder. Their brains are literally wired to flee attachment. For them, it is a means of survival due to early trauma.
It was a good and humbling reminder—while my son’s behaviors feel like too much for us, we are often too much for him too. It’s extremely difficult for everyone.
I’m not the only one who places high expectations on myself during special occasions like Christmas and family trips. Lots of people do. But for those raising children with reactive attachment disorder, the stress is especially high. Our kids often act out in big ways with all the commotion.
The lovely family pictures that pop up all over social media or in the mail don’t make the holidays any easier. Parents of children with reactive attachment disorder see what other families do that they cannot. It can make parents like myself feel even more alone. So the “most wonderful time of the year” can feel like the worst. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
After years of parenting kids with reactive attachment disorder, here are three lessons that help me along the way (especially during special occasions):
1. Lower expectations
I keep looking for the magic key that will help my child attach. I still haven’t found it. The pressure I put on myself to make this better makes me feel frustrated and helpless. I keep trying to change a situation I cannot and likely will not change. It leaves all of us exhausted.
I’m working on accepting things as they are. Rather than trying to change things, I need to remind myself that reactive attachment disorder isn’t my fault. It isn’t my son’s fault either. It’s just the result of early childhood trauma.
A different attitude can help to make things a bit less stressful. I try to loosen my tight grip from an ideal of perfection and lower my expectations. It is what it is.
2. Be present
Presence is key in the midst of a busy season. We must learn to be in the moment, without worrying about tomorrow or overthinking the past. It is a lesson that may take a lifetime to learn but is vital for mental health.
I’ve missed many beautiful moments. I was so worried about what my child may do that I missed what was right in front of me. Even when things are calm, it seems I am waiting for the next hard moment. This is not a great way to live; it only makes me tired and stressed. So being present in the moment is key to not just surviving, but thriving during this season.
Take time to notice the little joys.
3. Pace yourself
I admit I can get very anxious when I look at the weeks of Christmas break stretching out before me. I can see our busy calendar and how much I need to get done. And I want to just crawl in bed and pull the covers over my head before it even starts.
The holiday season comes with so much pressure to do it all and make it magical. But as parents of children with reactive attachment disorder, we especially need to set boundaries.
And that means not doing some things. Maybe you need to opt-out of certain traditions that just don't work with your child’s needs. That is okay. Choose what is best for your child and your family. You can also choose what is best for you. We have to pace ourselves and take it one day at a time.
Whatever your holiday plans this year, remember to take time for yourself, look for the small moments of joy, and take it one moment at a time.
The time will pass anyway. Might as well make the best of it. When you do so, you may even feel pleasantly surprised.
Amy J. Brown is a wife, mom, writer, and mentor. She writes to encourage special needs moms. She shares honestly about her adoption story and parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Amy mentors moms and believes that when we honestly share our stories we learn from each other, gather strength, and come away encouraged. But most importantly, we feel less alone.
Amy lives in Michigan and is married to her high school sweetheart. She is the mother of six kids, who are all in different phases of life—from adults to middle schoolers. She loves quiet mornings, strong English breakfast tea, and a good book.
You can connect with Amy and read more of her writing at https://www.amyjbrown.com/.