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Holidays, A Child in Treatment, and Your Ability to Thrive

Let’s face it, when you have a child in treatment, the holiday season is just not what it used to be.  We see many trends, challenges and successes through our transitional work with families when it comes to thriving during the holiday season. There are many concerns surrounding how the holiday will play out, how to manage emotions how to make decisions that will support the whole family system.

Here is a glimpse into the guidance we offer that helps families to do their best…

Nostalgia Kills

Throughout the treatment process, parents often comment that they miss the “little girl” or “10-year-old boy” who their teenager used to be.  This feeling often is stirred up over the holidays and it can send the wrong message, especially if you are saying it out loud.

The fact is, things are different now, and it is so important to strive toward a level of acceptance surrounding the changes in your children and your family system.  You want your child to know that you accept who they are NOW, which does not mean you offer permission for the unhealthy behaviors; rather, it is the practice of acceptance and commitment to the growth everyone is making.  It would not be good for anyone if, for example, your 16 year old girl acted the same way she did when she was 8.  By getting stuck in the past, you are delivering the message that you would rather be there, in a time that no longer exists, than right here with the people around you.

Is that the message you want to deliver? Likely not.  Rather than delivering that message, understand that there is appropriate grief and loss work that you might need to do for yourself, in order to show up as your best self for your family.

Check out Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach for some tips on truly accepting things as they are today.

Bittersweet Can Still be Sweet

Be sure to honor the sweet and don’t just give credence to the bitter.  Many family members, including the children in treatment, have actually said that their first holiday apart was better than the last few holiday’s together. With healthy separation, each has the reprieve to relax and enjoy again without worrying about an emotional tornado.  Families often say that they learn through this experience that it is possible to enjoy the holidays again.  Parents and children in treatment then discuss how to enjoy it together, now they they see that they themselves can enjoy it.

Role Modeling Matters

Simply said, your job as a parent is to act as the adult you hope your child grows up to be.  As the holidays approach, check your attitude.  If you exude catastrophic energy because you assume things will fall apart, the people around you will feel that and feed off of it. Engage in the practices that your child in treatment is being asked to practice, such as journal writing about related emotions, developing a relapse prevention plan to avoid the pitfalls of your own emotional reactions.  Be proactive by staying engaged in your own wellness…go on walks, get to the yoga class, don’t miss the basketball game with the guys…whatever it might be.

Transparency Builds Trust

If your child is recently home from treatment, nerves can be edgy with everyone walking on eggshells, trying not to ruffle feathers.  You are afraid that the “old story” and old patterns will resurface.  Don’t be naive, but don’t live in fear either.  Instead, be transparent about your feelings and concerns by simply talking about them.  When we don’t talk about the nervousness or the fear we tend to just react to it in unproductive ways.  Allowing you and your family the opportunity to just open the lines of communication about how everyone is feeling as you enter the holidays, can abate the fears and concerns or, if they do come to fruition, you enhance your ability to address it in healthy ways rather than emotionally reacting.

See Ruben Jimenez’s The Road Home and the chapter on “TLC”

Stress is Your Friend

Offer yourself the opportunity to shift how you view stress.  You are part of a generation of parents who stereotypically view stress and uncomfortable emotions as “bad.” This viewpoint helps  protect and rescue children from facing challenges.

For example, a generation ago, when a child was upset by the holiday plans developed by the parents, the child had to “deal with it” as it was.  More and more nowadays, parents report changing preset plans for the entire family due to one child’s tantrum.  These parents have also admitted to changing these plans 2 or 3 times in a season, with the intention of helping the child “feel better” each time he or she complains about the plans, thus, placing the child and the child’s discomfort in charge of the show.

HOWEVER, experiencing stress, feeling it and recognizing it can help you and your children build resilience and problem solving skills.  The goal here is to stop trying to avoid stress and to learn to live differently with it. You can change how you deal with others when you are experiencing stress, simply by saying to yourself, “it makes sense to be stressed right now and we will do our best to figure it all out, I don’t need to…(shut down, lash out, find someone to blame)”

One more thing to check out in order to change your paradigm about stress.  If you pay attention to anything in this blog, please, watch this TED Talk.  Kelly McGonigal is easy to listen to and will help you really see stress differently.

As the Holidays Approach…

How to talk about it

This might begin with the parent needing to make a thoughtful decision about where you will be, with whom and whether or not it is appropriate for your child to have a home visit at this time, if he or she is still in treatment.  Address as a family what are the pros, and cons and general risks.  While you do not want to run you home or your decisions in a fear based way, it is important to be thoughtful and aware.  For example, if you have a substance using child in treatment, are you prepared for the holidays to be substance free?  Is your house free of easily found prescription or over the counter drugs?

For more information, the National Institute of Drug Abuse has some pointers here

Again, offer transparent and loving communication in regard to your thoughts and emotions as the holidays arrive.  Communicate with your therapist, your girlfriend, your trusted male friends (men, if you don’t have any, listen to Wayne M. Levine talk about the importance of having them in his book, “Hold On To Your N.U.T.S”).

Be aware but don’t over ask about how your kids are feeling, especially your child who was recently in treatment.  It can be overwhelming for anyone to be asked repetitively how they are feeling.  Perhaps, write a letter that is left on your daughter’s bed that expresses your excitement about having her home and your desire to be there with her through happy times and the not so fun times. Or, have a “drive by” check in with your son, even while you are simply shooting some hoops together, where you keep your message short and sweet: “Hey bud, just wanted to let you know I was thinking about having you home for the holidays.  It has been hard in the past and I know we are on a new path.  If you are having a tough time with anything, I am sure you will find a way through but if you need me, I am here.”

Get more tips on how to communicate father to son through John Davis’s “Extreme Pursuit: Winning the Race for the Heart of Your Son.”

Depending on your child’s communication style, it can be useful to ask him or her if they have hopes or fears leading into the holidays together…this can be a dinner topic or fireside chat over a board game.

If your child is coming home on a break, it is important that you create a plan with the current treatment providers that includes appropriate structure.  If you want tools and guidance for this and you do not have support already, Lifestyle Agreements are a specialty of ours at Solutions Transitional Support and we are happy to help!

Act Natural

Remember to BE YOURSELF!  Approach the holidays the way you do naturally while also being mindful of the emotions that others around you are experiencing, so as not to minimize their experience.  Do not ask your child to stop feeling their emotions because, “c’mon, it’s the holiday season for goodness sake!”  However, remember that you can validate their emotions without allowing them to take yours over.

Set up for Success

Make sure you are not over committing or letting “obligations” run the show.  With a child home from treatment, some things need to be different and the community who is a part of your supported system needs to understand that.  You will not make every event, nor will you even try.  Be clear and consistent with others about your needs and limitations and do not let guilt or judgment from extended family run your life.  Be the confident captain of your family’s ship (Susan Stiffelman, Parenting without Power Struggles).  Be aware of your expectations both of yourself and of others….cut out half of your to do list, delegate, let go of things being done a certain way and pay attention to where the voice comes form that tells you it needs to be done “this way”.  For your child who is home from treatment, getting something done part way rather than all the way can be helpful…if, for example, helping with the dishes feels daunting, let her know that she needs to get some of them done to help out OR ask her if she is OK with you helping her out and you can do them together.  You do not need to let her get away with doing nothing, but flexibility can go a long way.

Down Time is a Must

Whatever you do, make sure there is time for everyone in your family to have some rest and relaxation, both together and apart, where nothing needs to get done.  Everyone needs time to recover and some folks need to be with people for this, while others prefer to reboot by themselves with a book.  Make sure your kids see you having down time in ways that don’t include a screen so you can role model this for them…sit on the front porch watching the world for 10 minutes with some eggnog or tea; read a book; do a crossword…something you enjoy.

Be Novel

One of my favorite childhood holiday memories was when our dishwasher was broken or something…I don’t actually remember the cause of it all but, I do remember going outside with my mom and spraying the dishes down with a hose to get the majority of the food stuff off.  This was a massive shift from out OCD-esque typical lifestyle and as such has become a moment that defines me, as I try to incorporate unexpected approaches into life with my kids, just to keep us laughing.  Above all, if you are generally aware and dedicated to learning, you can know that what you are doing is enough and that you and your family will thrive during the holidays.

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