Fighting our way through the Holidays

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Let me begin with this great little gem I found online,

Written by a fellow mother raising children with a diagnoses of Reactive Attachment Disorder, commonly referred to as RAD, she has rewritten a classic Christmas favorite to reflect our reality…

Ah, my friends, Listen to the song of my people…

“‘Twas the night before Christmas

and I had it bad, thanks to the chaos from

dealing with RAD

The stockings were ripped from the mantle and strewn

in sad tattered heaps all around the whole room

The children were screaming and fighting and clawing

The littlest one on the dog’s leg was gnawing

Hubby in his pj’s, the cat in my lap,

we’d escaped to the den for an urgent nightcap

When all of a sudden, there arose such a clatter

I put down my gin to see what was the matter

Away to the doorway I flew like a flash

to the family room now I made a mad dash

The moon through the window

and lights from the tree

showed me a scene that I didn’t want to see

For what to my tired bleary eyes did appear

but a nightmare unfolding, the worst one this year

The guinea pig shrieked as he hung from the tree

by the ribbon they’d wrapped ‘round his little belly

A furry white ornament, angry and kicking

while the littlest one now her nose busy picking

The next-oldest one I saw swing from a bough

while the short middle child through the room he did plow

Armed with a hockey stick, the little despot

broke a lamp, then a window, and hit me in the butt

Wildly swinging while onward he came

he screamed like a madman and called us all names

“Hey nose-picking poophead!” he shrieked at the baby

“you bit the dog, now she’s given you rabies!

And you’re such a moron, up there in the tree,

you’re just a baboon-bum, a stupid monkey!”

Our 15-year-old daughter, whom we’d left in charge

screamed at her siblings as Christmas loomed large

“You filthy urchins!” she shrieked next to my ear

“It’s just about midnight and Christmas is near!

I’m sick of you all!” she ranted and raved

“You act just like you were brought up in a cave

with badgers and bobcats, and wolverines, too!

Well, guess what’s going to happen to you!

I’m calling Santa! His name’s in my phone

You’ll be on the bad list, and then you’ll all moan!

You’ll pout and you’ll cry and get nothing at all,

while I’ll get the presents! They’ll be wall-to-wall!”

What happened next, I sure could see coming

the savages attacked, and the eldest went running

But before I could gather my wits and step in

to prevent mass murder, a deplorable sin

up on the roof, there arose a commotion

like battleships fighting it out on the ocean

An explosion that made the entire house rock

and down the chimney my next-eldest fell with a squawk

Dressed in a hoodie now covered in ashes

designer jeans ripped-up and brimming with gashes

One shoe was ruined and the other one missing

His glasses were cracked, and the cat ran off hissing

His eyes, they were huge as he looked wildly around

then out of the fireplace he came with a bound

“Everyone run!” he screamed, ignoring my ire

“I blew up the fake Santa, now the house is on fire!”

The kids all ran shrieking, not waiting for me

as I cut the poor guinea pig down from the tree

The shenanigans done really stuck in my craw

but I ran, shoving guinea pig down in my bra

He did not enjoy the wild bumpy ride

as he squeaked and he clawed, but I kept him inside

The kids were all shivering out in the yard

My eldest corralled them, wouldn’t let down her guard

As I yelled for my husband and started back in,

he emerged with our bottle of Tanqueray gin

We sipped and we slugged and we stared like zombies

as the sirens, they wailed, and the neighbors looked pleased

The dog and the cat had escaped without fail

they ran like the devil was hot on their tails

The fire was soon out, the house it was saved

yet I still had to deal with my clan, so depraved

But first to my bed, where I dropped like a stone

inserted my earplugs and turned off my phone

As I crawled ‘neath the covers, whimpering and sore

exhausted and beaten, and yet I still swore

that when Christmas is over, I’ll do it, you’ll see

Our family is headed to RAD therapy!”

It is only funny because it’s true! 

The true test of whether you are raising your own little “RAD-ish” is if you find yourself with tears running down your legs from laughing too hard!

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A few days ago I had the opportunity to take part in an interview for an adoption newsletter. The article was penned for the purpose of helping families with older foster children navigate the unique challenges of the Christmas season. As I considered what lessons we have learned after 6 years of Christmases with our kids from hard places, I thought first about the reasons why the Christmas season gets so ugly around our home…

Here are 7 possible “WHYs” behind the holiday struggle:

#1:  They feel unworthy.

Abandonment or the perception of abandonment in children who have been adopted  can lead to a deep sense of shame. This may make them feel as if they are unworthy of love, unworthy of having good things happen to them, unworthy of gifts or attention. With that entrenched feeling of being unworthy of truly feeling happy, sabotaging behaviors can begin to emerge. They may sabotage so that they can force what they see as inevitable disappointment. If their parent then responds in anger to their sabotaging behavior, it only further validates their belief that they are unlovable.

#2: They find themselves triggered.

During the holidays, triggers are everywhere. Smells, sights, sounds, memories of the past… the holidays can be a minefield to navigate. These triggers can cause a fight, flight or freeze response.

#3: Excitement and anxiety can feel the same in their little bodies.

Butterflies in the stomach, quickening of breathing rate, a loudly thumping heart, sweating, and trouble sleeping are the same body responses whether you are feeling excited or nervous. When your child feels those body sensations, it can bring memories of times of stress when they felt that way due to anxiety and fear.

#4: They are overwhelmed with the weight of expectations.

When a child believes that he will fall short of the expectations placed on him, he may decide to just quickly blow things up to get it over with. The stress that come with anticipating the disappointment they may cause can be overwhelming.

#5: They can’t handle the increased family connections.

For children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, Christmas can be a nightmare because during the holiday season relationships are usually the focus and there is more emphasis put on family togetherness and unity. This feels like a threat to kids who are putting protective walls up when it comes to family relationships.

#6: They are overcome with grief.

Holidays have so many things that can magnify grief, sadness and loss.

#7: They are focused on self-preservation and protection.

Attempting to protect their heart from further disappointment, a child who has experienced early trauma will put walls up and push others away. With everything being magnified during the holidays, those walls have a tendency to go higher and that pushing away can turn to an aggressive shove (literally or figuratively).

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Knowing the possible reasons behind the struggle somehow makes the struggle slightly more manageable, or at least makes it feel a little less cruel and personal. It can help us to develop feelings of empathy rather than the resentment and defeat that can penetrate our hearts when the behaviors are all directed at the adoptive mother simply because she is the primary nurturer in the family…AKA “Mortal Enemy #1.”

Knowing the “WHY” then allows us to implement the “HOW TOs” as a family, and successfully navigate the minefield known as the holiday season.

Here are some of the tried and true strategies I shared during the interview: 

Adjust Expectations-

This is by far the greatest determining factor of whether the holidays will bring joy or disappointment, and it is a lesson that was only learned through a lot of mistakes and failings on our part. I think the holidays can sometimes bring a heightened level of anxiety as we feel the pressure of turning December into a Hallmark channel movie. Our expectations increase as we make plans for a magical Christmas season. I think this pressure is one most Moms can relate to, but those who find themselves opening their homes to children who have not been able to experience the normal childhood magic of Christmas, due to heartbreaking beginnings, might find this pressure increased 10 fold. In an effort to make up for a lost childhood, we increase the Christmas magic factor by 100 and rather than a comfortable sprinkling of Christmas joy, we hit our kiddos with a fire hose blast of Christmas Spirit. What began with such loving intentions very often cannot be received in the same spirit.

For kids whose “normal” is chaos and conflict, the overabundance of cheer, connection, traditions and loving gestures may feel more like an itchy wool sweater than that “warm blanket hug” you were going for. I know this to be true for one of our adoptions treasures specifically. Holidays and birthdays are sure triggers for the most challenging of his behaviors and every special family tradition and gesture of love is met with efforts to sabotage and push away the family. This is a tough pill to swallow as a parent. But the reality is: my December is filled with more chaos than joy (at least the Hallmark version of Christmas joy) but if I can set aside my pre-conceived ideas of what a happy holiday season should look like and accept more time will be spent on the trauma therapist’s couch than on Santa’s lap, I can face our new normal with joyful acceptance.

Prepare for the Inevitable- 

This is another HUGE one! I have learned with my kids that is it never a question of “if,” but rather a question of “when.” I know that December will be fraught with meltdowns, broken decorations, holes in the drywall, sleepless nights, self-harming thoughts, suicidal ideation, sabotaging behaviors including coming out of my room to find purchased Christmas presents ripped open and destroyed, or all the Christmas cookies that were baked, gorged on and consumed in the 5 minutes I was out of the room. I know December will probably bring more than one trip to Western Psych., many angry chants of “I hate you!” and more tears than giggles as my kids mourn the families that have failed them. I know more that one night will be spent staying up long past midnight as I hold one of my crying biological children as they struggle with resentment towards a hurting sibling who responds with cruelty to every kind gesture, and inevitably by the 31st of the month I will be so emotionally drained and physically exhausted by the heightened levels in our home for the last 30 days, that I will close out the year with a bout of the flu.

I say this not from a place of pessimism or self pity, but from a place of experience and realistic expectations. If I can enter the month anticipating the patterns that I have seen in the past, then I can be prepared for the inevitable and respond in a more measured and loving way, rather than responding with anger and frustration. I have learned to keep presents hidden and have emergency spares set aside for sibling or teacher gifts that are destroyed in anger. I have learned to keep my bedroom locked with all my most precious items safely tucked away until the heighten season of Christmas is over. I am more diligent with door alarms and security cameras, and I don’t leave my emotionally heightened children alone with siblings or any of the animals, knowing that their ability to make good choices is compromised when they are in fight, flight or freeze mode. I make allowances. I give second chances. I ALWAYS have a plan B figured out. I prepare for the worst so that when it comes it is manageable and hopefully all can make it through the crisis fairly unscathed.

Find Joy in this Season of Life…even if it is not Ideal-

This one is so hard but so important. It took me a while to figure this one out and even longer for me to accept it and embrace it with joyful acceptance. It requires a surrender of self to God’s plan. It means letting go of what Christmas pasts might of looked like and accept that for this season of temper tantrums the good china will be put away and paper plates will showcase Christmas dinner. It may mean the days of large Christmas parties are put on hold for a few years and December evenings are spent watching movies and going to bed early. If the smells of a Christmas dinner trigger your hurting kiddos, then Christmas dinner may have to be Chinese take-out for a few years.

But regardless of what this season of Christmas looks like, the joy of Christmas can be found in the absurd and unorthodox…because the joy is born from love of family.

Last Sunday some of our kids were in crisis. We were at the end of ourselves and I wept tears of defeat after a week of challenges. My magical Christmas season was dissolving before my eyes as words of hate and anger filled the house rather than songs of goodwill. Everyone was hurting. All were grieving. Relationships were crumbling and it was time for emergency triage. We were suffering from blood loss after some major war injuries and we made a judgement call to meet the needs of our hurting children and find joy in our journey even though it wasn’t “ideal.” Everyone was sent to their rooms to put on PJs and we declared it a relationship recovery day. We spent the day praying as a family, watching videos of the birth of Christ, making family memories as we decorated sugar cookies and played games. We served each other and others and ended our day by turning off all the lights, except for the Christmas tree, and participating in a time of worship as we watched a silent Christmas lesson and allowed the spirit of Christmas…the spirit of Christ…to permeate our home and our hearts.

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Here is link to the Silent Christmas Lesson we watched as a family:

Was it what an ideal December Sabbath would have looked like five years ago?

No.

But it was exactly what was needed that day, in this season of life.

See the Need/Meet the Need-

Some of our long-time readers might remember a blog post I wrote a few years ago about a strategy we use in our home when our boys are emotionally heightened. It is a strategy we continue to use today and one I shared in the interview…

I am speaking of the McCleery holiday nerf wars!

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Entering the Christmas season with expectations that the next four weeks will be fraught with conflict and chaos, we make sure we enter the holiday season armed with tools and strategies to meet our kids’ emotional needs before the explosions occur. This takes preparation and awareness of what your kiddos’ triggers are and what coping skills are most effective for each of them. Knowing this, I am able to make sure we have the tools in place prior to the need. I load up on dollar store stress balls, fidget toys, bouncy balls, etc. but the #1 tool for managing my boys’ need for conflict and chaos during the Christmas season is nerf battles. By giving them a healthy and connecting way to escalate they are able to have their emotional need for chaos met in an emotionally healthy way.

Kids who come from an abusive situations have a different brain chemistry than a child who has never lived in the turbulent, high stress environment of an abusive home. As a result they become accustomed, from a very young age, to a constant surge of adrenaline as they live in “fight or flight mode,” never knowing when the next strike will come.

To feel calm they need that adrenaline release, so our job is to find ways to meet that need in a healthy, happy, PARENT LED way.

Our favorite strategy: family nerf battles!

So, with the tree twinkling in the background we have engaged in frequent, much-needed nerf battles so that our struggling kiddos could have their emotional needs met. As we neared the holiday season we made sure the guns were collected and placed in a basket in the corner and that our nerf bullet supply was replenished, for just a time as this:

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Remember the Reason for the Season-

This is by far the strategy I have found to be most affecting. Remembering the reason for the season allows us to regain perspective and adjust our expectations. It allows us to find joy in imperfection. It is important to remember that this time of year isn’t about the traditions, the decorations, the perfect tree, the delicious dinner, the ideal reactions to perfectly wrapped gifts…

It is about love.

It has been from the very beginning.

There was nothing “ideal” about that first Christmas…

There was poverty.

There was homelessness.

There was filth and pain and rejection as a young husband, a simple man with little worldly offerings, begged for a place for his wife to give birth.

A young woman, heavy with child, with no place to lay her head, brought her baby into the world in a place of dirt and filth.

There was no family surrounding her, no words of support from anyone other than her husband.

The only sounds accompanying her moans of pain were the baaing and bleating of farm animals.

There was nothing “ideal” or “Hallmark” about that first Christmas, and yet it was perfect. Not because of where they were, or what they wore, or what they ate, or who was there, or because of the gifts that were given.

It was perfect because it was born of sacrifice.

It was born of redemption.

It was born of faith.

IT WAS BORN OF LOVE!

That is what Christ offers each of us.

That is what He offers our hurting children.

That is what He offers our hurting world.

That is the key to navigating the holidays with children from hard places…

Nothing matters except this:

Let it be born of love and the rest will fall into place.

Merry Christmas

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