Parenting Through Holiday Madness

For a time that promises joy and laughter, the holidays can bring stress and tears to many.  As overworked parents try to find ways to stretch their tight budgets to cover the extra expenses of presents, extravagant meals, and extra childcare, children are thrown out of the routines that make them feel safe and stable – even the older ones who tell you how happy they are to be out of school.

 Remember the following to help reduce the tears and yelling and increase the laughter and fun:

  1. Seek ways to avoid the commercialization of Christmas: Think more fun, less stuff.  If your child still believes in Santa there’s a magic to gifting, but it can also be exhausting.  Work with your children on being realistic – there are almost 2 Billion children in the world and Santa has to take care of all of them, so one present per child is still A LOT of presents.  Talk with your children about the real meaning of giving during the holiday season and encourage them to engage in good deeds – maybe donating to a toy drive, clearing the way for new toys by giving some of their gently used toys to a shelter or Good Will, or helping a neighbor shovel their walk.

  2. Emphasize structure and routine whenever possible: The holidays are notorious for throwing everyone’s schedules off.  The children are out of school, they (and you) stay up late, and everyone rushes around shopping, participating in events, and going to parties.  While some of the schedule change is unavoidable – nope, sorry, your child’s teacher is not going to continue to teach all the way through Winter Break no matter how much you plead – introducing some discipline into the family schedule is possible.  Prioritize regular sleeping and eating routines – talk with family about how important these routines are to your children and be clear about what they need.  Let older kids know that while there is some loosening up of the schedule during the holidays, there are still expectations you will enforce.

  3. Find a family holiday ritual: Whether it’s building a snow family or sledding, baking cookies, stringing popcorn to put on the tree, or making handmade gifts while listening to Christmas songs, it is the activities you engage in with your children that they will cherish. I couldn’t tell you a single present under the tree from my childhood, but I remember with fondness sitting with the whole family looking at the lights on the tree, drinking hot chocolate, and listening to Bing Crosby and Jim Nabors (okay, I’m showing my age).

  4. Get outside – yes, even when it’s cold: We often think of winter as a time when we put on weight due to a richer diet and less time outside moving around.  Interestingly some studies recently have shown that the effect of cold on the body is to cause it to burn more energy and to produce a chemical that burns fat – even without exercise!  Besides the potential for weight loss, increased access to Vitamin D from the sun helps fight depression on those bright albeit short winter days.  And getting everyone out of the house avoids cabin fever, which inevitably leads to squabbling.

  5. Take some ME time: When it comes to routine, remember that it is important for you as well. If you usually go to the gym find some time to get there.  Go for a short walk by yourself.    Find a quiet corner and read a book.  Take a bubble bath.  And remember to get enough sleep.


Happy Holidays from the FACTS family to

Parenting Through a Trauma Lens

Studies over the past couple of decades have unearthed some startling statistics about the prevalence of childhood trauma – more than 25% of children experience a serious traumatic event before their 16th birthday.  One quarter of these children will develop symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress.  The following statistics are not meant to frighten you, but to increase awareness of the degree to which trauma is a part of the lives of children in our society today.

Sexual Abuse - Though not the only kind of trauma faced by children, sexual assault is a significant risk with the greatest risk between ages 7-13.  One in four girls (25%) and one in six boys (17%) will be sexually assaulted before age 18. 

Out of Home Placement – A national study of adult foster care “alumni” found high rates of PTSD (21.5%) compared to the general population (4.5%) and to war veterans (ranging from 6-15% in recent wars).

Motor Vehicle Accidents - Vehicle deaths are the leading cause of death for adolescents and for the survivors a major source of trauma.

Other Traumas – Physical or emotional abuse or neglect; witnessing or being the direct victim of domestic, school or community violence; other severe accidents; natural and human-made disasters; the sudden death of a parent, sibling or other important attachment figure; exposure to war, terrorism, or refugee conditions.

Of course, not everything bad that happens to children is traumatic – some of what they see as traumatic is just “drama” (e.g. a failing grade on a test or the loss of a BFF).  At the same time, it is important to recognize that even though children often want to avoid talking about actual traumatic events and insist they are “fine,” if the child is exhibiting behaviors and showing symptoms consistent with traumatic stress, ignoring it will not make it go away.

Depression and anxiety are both common reactions to trauma.  Childhood trauma victims may experience nightmares and trouble sleeping, and will avoid people, places, or things associated with the trauma.  Many are scared for no reason or feel “crazy” or out of control.  Difficulties with concentration (resulting in behaviors problems at home and issues with academics) are common.  Children develop traumatic expectations, feel helpless, angry, shameful, guilty, sad, and/or numb.  Many have low self-image.  Some present physical health complaints and/or behavioral issues (including aggressive and violent reactions).

Symptoms are our body’s natural response to feeling threatened.  We all have experienced aspects of the fight, flight or freeze instincts in our life.  Some people are temperamentally wired towards one or another of these instincts.  Environmental factors can contribute to one becoming an instinctual response.  A child who witnessed domestic violence or community violent might develop an instinct that the only way to stay safe is to fight – thus even in non-violent situations when that child feels threatened in some way – emotionally or physically – he or she becomes aggressive.  Another child even a sibling may have developed an instinct to “leave” stressful situations which becomes a lifestyle of avoidance.  Others may simply “numb” as they shut down any reaction to stresses around them.

However, helped to process and manage the emotions related to their trauma many children end up with lessons that can serve them well later in life (e.g. how to conduct themselves in the face of danger, threat or major stress, that others can be relied on to protect, that support is available, a positive sense of being a survivor, and increased compassion/empathy for others.)  A major factor is having a believing, supportive and protective caregiver.

Parents whose children have experienced trauma may have some of the following reactions: self-blame; guilt and shame; blaming the child; being overly protective; being overly permissive; feeling overwhelmed; worrying the child won’t recover; suffering from their own PTSD symptoms; fearing that focusing on the event makes the trauma worse.

It is important for both child victims of traumatic events and their caregivers to recognize that trauma and the symptoms it causes do not define the child.  They may be the reason for the referral to a mental health professional, but trauma is simply “what happened to you” not “who you are.”  And while symptoms are a manifestation of “what do you think about what happened to you,” their resolution lies in redefining the answer to that question. 

Working with a trauma-informed therapist can help families work for more positive outcomes despite past traumatic events. 

The Adolescent Brain: What’s Going On in There?

During adolescence, the brain is under construction developing from front to back. That means the brain’s CEO, the “prefrontal cortex” (located in the front of the brain), is developed last. Why is that important to know? Because the prefrontal cortex is the area that controls decision-making, planning, problem-solving, and impulse control. That means adolescents often lack the skills needed to stop and think in the moment, leading to those questionable decisions that make us scratch our heads and say “What were they thinking?!”

The adolescent brain goes through three important phases of development before being sculpted into an adult brain:

Phase 1: Blossoming - A sort of explosion happens in the brain where an overabundance of electrical connections is made. This allows for lots of growth and learning to happen, but the over abundance also leads to clouded thinking and poor judgment.

Phase 2: Pruning - In an effort to reduce this excess of connections, the brain then begins to strip away the underused connections in a “use it or lose it” approach. This is a crucial stage because it presents a window of opportunity where positive patterns of behavior and thinking can be reinforced. On the flip side, it is also a time when negative patterns, such as poor self-esteem or aggression can be locked in. Once these patterns are locked they follow us into adulthood and become very difficult to change.

Phase 3: Myelination – The final phase is like the glazing process used to set a clay sculpture. Each time a connection is used it becomes coated or insulated, causing those connections to become stronger and faster. The down side is the more a connection is used and insulated, the harder it is to undo or change. So if you start an unhealthy habit during adolescence, like smoking cigarettes, it’s harder to quit during adulthood due to this process. On the positive side, things such as learning 2+2 = 4 become set in our brains and can be recalled with minimal effort in adulthood.

Beside the major construction happening in the brain, adolescents are also dealing with fluctuations in hormones. This also contributes to the sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality changes and mood swings you may see.

Adolescence can be exhausting and overwhelming for parents, adults, and the adolescent’s themselves. The most important thing to do is become educated about what exactly is going on in an effort to help guide the child through this chaotic and confusing time. Education also helps adults keep their own emotions in check, reducing stress levels and preventing unwanted conflicts and arguments.

Both/And vs. Either/Or

“... for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, p. 11

I was writing a closing letter to the mother of a teenager and amongst the recommendations I had was to continue to work with her daughter on dialectical thinking. In this case, as with many of my clients, it is not just the teenager who needs to improve these skills. Mom too would benefit from more flexibility, open-mindedness, and acceptance that two people holding differing opinions may both be correct.
This type of thinking is as old as Plato. It comes from the Dialectic Method of Reasoning that attempts to resolve disagreements through rational discussion and a search for the truth. Rather than rigidly – and passionately - holding on to one’s view, a person using dialectical reasoning is flexible and unemotional in exploring an issue.

Dialectical thinking is an important component of empathy. In order to think this way, one must accept that something other than what they believe – even the polar opposite - may also be true.
When one is caught up in emotion the areas of the brain that control executive functioning (i.e. reason, logic, problem-solving, etc.) shut down, it becomes difficult to accept any version of the truth but one’s own. When a child is in this state, the attuned parent will recognize this and empathetically respond to the child, understanding that until the intense emotion passes there is no version of the truth except the one the child has settled upon.

So too, a parent must recognize when he/she is experiencing strong emotions that preclude unemotional thought and will put his/her agenda of “getting to the bottom of things” aside until emotions have cooled. Then both parent and child can look at an issue using dialectical skills and see whether this is a “both/and” situation.

Author and therapist Pat Harvey, LICSW and her co-author Jeannine Penzo, LICSW have written a book to help parents learn and teach their children dialectical skills: Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions: Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Help Your Child Regulate Emotional Outbursts and Aggressive Behaviors (2009), Harbinger Publications. (There is also a version for parenting teens.)




Expecting but not Inspecting  

As parents we have a lot of expectations for our children. We expect them to clean their room, come home on time, and not spend time on inappropriate websites. All that is very positive. We need to be communicating our expectations to our children.


If it stops there though, there will likely be a problem in time. Children often do not do what we expect them to do. Sometimes you will not even know that is occurring unless you inspect and monitor your child's behavior.


The research is clear. Parents who supervise and monitor their children's behavior have children who are less likely to be involved in delinquent behaviors.


So what does this mean for you as a parent? Follow-through with making sure your children are doing what you expect of them.


This doesn't always mean that you have to be the one who is doing the inspecting. For instance you may make sure you have good Internet monitoring/protection software. Or you may have a neighbor watch your house when you are not home if you have teenagers who are there alone. On a more practical level just make sure your child cleaned their room when they say they have.


Behaviors that are monitored regularly tend to occur more frequently. Make sure you are encouraging and inspecting for the behavior you want from your children on a daily basis.