Two helpful tips to make it through the holidays when your child has reactive attachment disorder

Updated: May 1

Holidays bring celebration, joy and gatherings for many people. But if your child has reactive attachment disorder, you may dread these times. You’re all too familiar with what many families around the world will experience this Easter due to COVID-19—isolation and difficulty conjuring up a celebratory atmosphere.

But while many families worldwide may struggle with loneliness this Easter, you have even more to tackle. You must also handle your child’s especially difficult behaviors.

For children with reactive attachment disorder, the connection and bonding of family activities feels scary due to their early trauma. “To feel in control and disconnected—“safe” in their minds—children with reactive attachment disorder often sabotage holidays,” said renowned trauma expert Forrest Lien, LCSW, Owner and Founder of Lifespan Trauma Consulting, “This is difficult for the entire family.”

Here are two tips to help you navigate special days when your child has reactive attachment disorder:

1. Set realistic expectations.

If you lower your expectations, your day has less potential for stress. You may need to let go of certain traditions or ideas for now. Consider the level of connection that triggers your child and plan accordingly. It may be helpful to have alternative low-key activities or plans if your child starts to struggle.

I remember one Thanksgiving well—our child’s trigger was to eat as a family. She could not handle everyone gathered at the table sharing stories and laughing.

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We ultimately had to do what I’d never envisioned for our family. We set up a little table on a different level of our home and allowed our child to eat separately from everyone else. While it certainly felt strange and sad, she had the space she needed and we were all able to maintain calm in the house.

Your holiday likely won’t look like your neighbor’s home or what your extended family expects. But that’s okay. Their needs are different from yours. In order to keep going, you need to keep your immediate family as your priority—not what others are doing or thinking.

2. Don’t share details of the day with your disordered child.

Details of the special day should be on a “need to know” basis with your disordered child. For some, this may seem counterintuitive. It’s true—kids often do better when their schedule is familiar and predictable.

But holidays aren't like every other day and your child isn’t like all other children.

When you lay out the details of the special day—including how important the day is to each family member—you give your child with reactive attachment disorder an instruction manual, if you will. With that manual, your child can shut the whole plan down.

That may sound a little harsh but think of it this way—when your child feels overwhelmed from the holiday, he or she can essentially “pull the plug” at any moment. This is their "survival mode" due to early trauma.

It’s best to give only small amounts of information to your child as the day unfolds, maintain a more subdued energy and provide your child with an outlet in some capacity if needed. It’s best for everyone—including your child.

Give yourself grace as you navigate this holiday.

The reality is that your child has reactive attachment disorder and you’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. The day won’t be perfect and neither will you. At the end of the day, there’s no need to relive every moment or wish you did things differently. Remember, your child's disorder is not your fault. You did the best you could with what you know and the resources you have at hand. And we think you’re amazing.

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