Holiday Rituals Give Kids a Sense of Security, Continuity and Safety

11/06/2017 06:56 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2017

For families who struggle with addiction, rituals that remain in tact can be a way of telling kids that life will go on, of reassuring them that bonds still have meaning and that their place in the scheme of things is not shaken. Trauma makes the world seem unreliable whether that world is an inner world that feels scattered and disorganized making it difficult to focus, or an outer world that feels altered and different. Maintaining normal routines gives children something to grab onto, it is a way of keeping the structure of their world feeling reliable and safe. When we maintain routines and rituals we’re telling our kids that they are worth remembering, worth going to effort for, that they are valued and have a place held secure for them in the world we create as adults, relatives and parents.

Rituals help us remember that even though times might be difficult, there is a larger plan somewhere that remains in tact. In families that are experiencing the disruption of addiction and/or treatment from addiction, respecting rituals, doing our best to remember what's good in the holiday season and expressing gratitude and appreciation for all of life’s continued blessings, can help children to feel secure. It can provide a calm center in what may feel like a storm.

Remember children don't think the way adults do. Rather they look to adults to find out how to think, so it is up to us to maintain form even if there are moments in life when that form seems challenged, empty or painful. Many adults who are suffering from the pain of addiction feel as if they are only going through the motions. Celebrating the holidays can even make them feel compromised, throwing in their face all that feels missing so they want to avoid them. But for the children among us, holidays can and do hold meaning and a sense of continuity and security. They are a reminder simply by being there, that normal life is still out there and that we can eventually return to it or create it again.

If mounting a full holiday feels like too much scale it down, do what feels manageable; gather with relatives and friends who can support you and your children. Let your children feel as normal as possible, let them tap into the love that is still there for them, the security and the holding that they can use to sustain themselves through a difficult time.

This in itself models an important life lesson, moving through difficult times and continuing to do our best to be grateful for what we have, even though we are aware of what is missing, teaches children that challenges can be surmounted. It sends a message that better times are ahead or happening even alongside the tough ones.

Let Kids Participate: Let Them Have a Sense of Personal Agency

I have two examples of this in my own life. When I was 11 or 12, my mother stopped putting out Christmas stockings, because so much had changed for her she forgot that I still needed Christmas in my life. I asked her if I could put them out myself and to her credit she said I could. I asked her for a little budget and she gave me one so I bought things I thought my siblings and parents would like and filled their stockings. It wasn't the Christmas I wanted but it was the one I had and I lived it as best I could. I was in charge of stockings after that, it gave me a sense of agency, a feeling that I could do something, even a little something to make home feel like home. I have since, in my own family had decades of beautiful, wonderful Christmases. Life doesn't stop when we have serious problems; it just feels like it stops. But for the children among us we need to keep going.

Another memory is the Christmas my mother-in-law decided not to decorate the tree, her self a drinker she didn't feel up to it and decided that if she “couldn't do it perfectly she wouldn't do it at all”. By this time I had little children, and would have so preferred an imperfectly decorated Christmas tree. My little children would not have known it didn't meet high standards, it was an adult mindset layered onto children, kids caught in the middle.

Make Use of What’s Out There

At moments such as these our faith-based institutions can also be a beautiful refuge supplying holiday cheer and warmth that we may not feel up to generating. Take the children to celebrations that are occurring at schools, faith based institutions or in your neighborhood or community. Children want to feel normal, they want to feel they belong so let them, help them. One of the best gifts that my mother gave me was not to get in the way of my attempts to help myself, it was a real gift and it came with love. She knew that what was happening in my home wasn’t my fault and she was glad to see that I could get something from others that she did not have to give me herself. It taught me to reach out and accept what others were willing to give me, it taught me to be humble and appreciative. Church, my own friends and the kindness of relatives and those in our faith community carried me through.

Part of trauma remember is what happens to us, but a more important part is how we deal with it. We as parents are our child's best resilience, we’re the buffering factors that will help them to feel safe even in a storm. Teaching them that life is still out there and can be accessed; that goodness, fun, celebration and warmth are available and helping them find it and get to it, is sometimes the best thing we can do for our kids. Even if we don't have it to offer ourselves this year, there are those in our world who do. Help your children access that. A sense of isolation is a symptom of both depression and PTSD. There is no need for isolation around the holidays. Find the celebrations that you can be part of, let your children celebrate with friends and relatives, schools and communities. There is good out in the world and they will find it if you help them, they may find it even if you don't help them and in those cases just wish them well and support their enjoyment.

The holidays offer us a moment when we can show our children through action that life goes on, that difficulties can be overcome, that there can be joy and blessings amidst pain. This models giving life the best we have to give it at that moment.

So buy a tree and decorate it or continue your Hanukkah or holiday rituals. Play music exchange gifts and remember to be grateful for what you still have.Teach your children by your example that you can cope and then they will think by extension, that they can, too.

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