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  • Writer's pictureGina Heumann

Surviving a RAD Holiday

The holidays are upon us and if you have “regular” kids, it can be an exciting time of year. If you, like me, have a child suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) or other related trauma illnesses, the holidays might be a severely anxiety-inducing nightmare. Trauma kids do better with structured time and routine, which is the exact opposite of what the holidays are all about. Kids like ours may suffer sensory issues from the extra people, the extra noise, the extra stuff. They may struggle with transitions, new places, or getting along with others. And of course, when our kids are misbehaving in front of a crowd, we feel embarrassment and failure. Here are some tips on how to survive the holidays with your little RAD:

  1. Think About Timing Try to create a predictable schedule and remind them of the plans often. Prep your child for what will happen: What time will dinner be served? How much time should they expect between dinner and dessert? You may want to discuss the schedule with the hostess and let her know that it’s important to stick to a plan to avert a massive meltdown. If friends and relatives know in advance, they might be more willing to help. Consider limiting the amount of time you spend at the host’s house. Relatives may not be thrilled with this idea, but you have to do what’s right for your family to avoid disaster. RAD kids often think in black and white, so if you tell them you’re leaving at 7:30, hold yourself accountable to that time frame. Now, if you’re traveling and staying at someone else’s home, this idea may not be an option. In that case, consider finding a quiet place to take breaks, or planning a walk around the block every so often. Nature has been proven to help RADs de-escalate.

  2. Plan Ahead If the holiday includes a church or synagogue service, consider whether it’s worth it to attend this part of the day at all. If you decide it’s important for religious or family reasons, realize that sitting quietly may not be your RAD’s strong suit. Pack some quiet toys that can keep them occupied without disturbing others. Also plan to sit near an exit so you can take breaks as needed. As much as possible, let your child know what to expect. If there will be strangers present, prepare them for who is coming. If the host doesn’t have children, plan activities or toys to keep your child entertained. If the host does have kids, give them a rundown on who will be there, what they enjoy doing, and make suggestions on things they could do together.

  3. Prepare the Relatives Kids who’ve suffered trauma such as abuse and neglect may not be comfortable bring touched. Let Grandma know not to force a hug or it may create strain. On the other hand, trauma kids may also be indiscriminately affectionate, so warn the family that this may be an issue: if the child gets too touchy-feely with Cousin Sally or Uncle Bob, urge the adults to redirect them back to one of the parents. Not doing so can actually damage the parent-child relationship, which may be tenuous at best. Forming a solid attachment is our ultimate goal! You also may need to inform the relatives that traditional discipline may not work on a kid who’s suffered trauma. If Aunt Lolly administers a time-out on your child, the results could backfire. (This actually did happen to us one Christmas and it was a disaster!) Urge them to defer to you for any disciplinary tactics and explain that your methods may be different from what they’re used to because your child has special needs.

  4. Don’t Expect Perfection Let some things go... give your child a little slack this time of year. Maybe the normal rules can be bent or stretched on a special occasion, just let your child know that this day will be different from a regular day. Is it necessary to try and force your RAD to eat all their veggies in front of a crowd, knowing you’re in for a fight? No. They won’t die if they don’t eat their greens one day of the year. Consider making an announcement that the holidays are a special time and they can eat what they want today. If they do have a tantrum for some reason, just help them de-escalate and move on. Don’t dwell on the negative. As long as they’re not physically hurting anyone or anything, don’t stress over the small stuff!

  5. Praise Them Often This one might be difficult if you’re RAD is anything like mine was, but really make an attempt to catch them doing something right. If they help clear the table, give them a high five! If they play nicely with a cousin, offer a kind word. And if they make it through the day without a meltdown, practically throw a party!

  6. Don’t Let the Haters Get to You If your family is anything like mine, there is bound to be some comparison between the grandkids or the cousins. In fact, one holiday, a relative pointed out to me that my brother and his wife must be great parents because their girls were quietly playing with dolls (as my boys were running around being boys…). You may suffer eye-rolls, dirty looks, or unsolicited parenting advice from relatives insisting that their kid would never act that way. Stay strong in the fact that every kid is different and that your kids suffered trauma. Have a drink and praise yourself for doing the best you can in a difficult situation.

Still with the tips above, I can’t guarantee you won’t have a stressful holiday featuring some sort of embarrassing incident. Kids who’ve suffered trauma are just plain challenging and we can only do our best to help them succeed. Be gentle to yourself and keep up the good work! Happy Holidays!


Gina Heumann is the author of Love Never Quits: Surviving and Thriving After Infertility, Adoption, and Reactive Attachment Disorder. Purchase her best-selling book, GOLD recipient of the prestigious Mom's Choice Award here: Love Never Quits

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