Tuesday Toolbox: Using Family Traditions to Bond over the Holidays

December 9, 2014

by:  Gari Lister

Gari's iPhone Photos 2864For many traumatized children, the holidays are stressful — changes in schedule and expectations, less physical activity and, of course, lots of close family time. Plus we parents inadvertently make things worse — as we stress about how to wrap all the presents, cook all the food and make sure that our children behave in company, the tension in our shoulders spreads to our extraordinarily sensitive children.

So how to survive? We have learned to focus on the family traditions that matter – the ones that make our family different than most and help build bonds of attachment. We don’t go to every holiday party to which we are invited, or make it to every church function. We don’t do elf on the shelf.

Instead, we do the things that give our family a unique identity and help children believe they belong to that unique identity. These are the traditions that can reinforce the family connection. Here are some of our family’s traditions:

(1) We ALL (not just the children) wear matching pajamas on Christmas Eve. Even though they grumble, I’ve heard my too-cool-for-school 13 year old and even my severely attachment-challenged 23 year old describe the “tradition” to friends.

(2) We have a family motto — spaseba, which is our somewhat garbled version of the Russian word for thank you. And we have lots of matching clothes that are embroidered with “spaseba.” Not for Christmas card pictures — we wear our jackets and our shirts over and over again. Because every time one of the kids wears a sweatshirt with the family motto it is a reminder that we are grateful for them and that they are part of this “spaseba” family forever.

(3) Every year we get not just one, but TWO Christmas trees. Some years we make it to the Christmas tree farm; some years our trees are from Home Depot. What matters is that we have two, and that we pick them out together.

(4) We make gingerbread houses — each girl makes her own, and my husband and I share.

Our traditions aren’t necessarily the best ones, and they may not work for other families. What is important is that each family have its own unique set of traditions and rituals, and that we as parents build them even in tough times.
The web is a great resource of inspiration for other traditions — especially if you ignore the perfect Pinterest crafts. One we are trying to implement this year is treating the holiday books we have bought over the years as presents — we are wrapping them and trying to read one each night. Other neat traditions include making a new ornament every year, making a family dish together, and making gifts for neighbors together.

Now, I’m not naive. Christmas, for better or worse, is largely about the presents. And yes, I remember vividly the presents Santa brought me as a child – the trunk of clothes for my doll Margaret, the velour sweat suit popular long before Juicy Couture, and the games. But equally important were the “‘Lil Smokey’s” my father made for Christmas Day breakfast, or the point my mother made of inviting guests for dinner who did not have a family to spend the holidays. And my husband still insists on watching the Pope on TV hold Christmas Mass at midnight because his Dad did. And we’re not even Catholic!

So I encourage you to not just “get through” the season but instead make it work for attachment. Deliberately think about how you can reinforce your family bond through the little, special traditions that can leave a lasting, positive impression on your special children.

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