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Helping children who have or are experiencing trauma work through difficult emotions this holiday season

For many, the holiday season is a joyful one – the popular song “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” comes to mind – but for children who have or are experiencing trauma, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve, and other celebrations represent a season of emotional pain.

The barrage of festive sights, sounds, and smells meant to evoke magic and merriment can prompt anxiety, loneliness, and grief in children. And the social pressure and messaging focused on happy family time can be a source of distress for them, either because they may have lost one or more caregivers, or family members have caused them trauma.

Understanding how the holiday season can surface some of these emotions and integrating this knowledge in trauma-informed and responsive practices can help child-serving organizations and professionals support children and families for whom this time of the year evokes difficult memories and feelings.

Watch for these holiday triggers

The following characteristics of the holiday can produce dread in children who have or are experiencing trauma:

  • Gatherings and traditions – Behaviors, rituals, and locations can elicit pain for children suffering traumatic grief, abuse or neglect, or the absence of loved ones who are incarcerated or suffer from severe mental illness or substance use issues. Children experiencing homelessness can feel a deepening sense of loss.
  • Hectic schedules and disrupted routines – Festivities derail routines, causing anxiety and depression. Shifting meal schedules can evoke fear and worry in children who have experienced food insecurity.
  • Seasonal sights, sounds, and smells – Large groups, loud noises, new foods, and smells can lead to anxiety and sensory overload. 

Children affected by the holidays may be more withdrawn, isolate themselves, be more irritable, or show signs of changes in behaviors. Some may become sensitive to the personal touch, while others may act differently around food or experience changes in appetite.

How to prepare children and help them cope

During the holiday season, professionals working with children can apply a trauma-informed and responsive (TIR) approach that, among many skills, enables them to help children feel safe to freely express their feelings about the season. The approach encourages the use of validating language in the physical environments people share during the holidays and promotes practices that minimize discomfort, e.g., not forcing children and families to participate in holiday events.

Child-serving organizations and professionals can look to the TIR Framework and its Guiding Principles to maximize physical and psychological safety and mitigate factors that contribute to trauma and re-traumatization in children during the holidays. Some principles are listed below with an example of actions to take:

  • Safety: Provide a nurturing environment that considers the ways in which a child’s trauma history might impact their sense of safety or safety needs. For infants and very young children, this includes considering how physical contact may help establish a sense of safety or trigger a possible traumatic response.
  • Healthy Relationships and Interactions: Pay close attention to what children and families say and ask intentional questions to understand their perspectives; this includes talking with children and families about trauma and potential reactions to it.
  • Empowerment, Voice, and Choice: Understand that children who have experienced trauma are not just victims – they have strengths, capabilities, and talents that can help support recovery and healing. Include children and their caregivers in decision-making around holiday celebrations.
  • Equity, Anti-Bias Efforts, and Cultural Affirmation: Economic and housing insecurity are among the most reported traumatic experiences and affect more than one in five children in the US. The holidays bring these factors painfully to the forefront. Listen and learn from children and families about their experiences and the values, resources, and strengths they derive from their cultural background and self-identification.

Anxiety, loneliness, or grief needn’t make experiencing joyful holiday moments impossible for children who have or are experiencing trauma. Child-serving organizations and professionals working with children can be supportive by remaining mindful of how children are expressing their feelings around this time of the year, providing opportunities to work through their pain, and creating safe, nurturing environments and experiences. By using the TIR framework and principles, the holidays can be made more “jolly” for children, and that’s worth singing about.

Additional resources and support

Organizations such as The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, The Grief Center, The Trevor Project, The Children’s Room, and Jeff’s Place offer services and resources focused on grief and trauma support for children and families. The Center on Child Wellbeing & Trauma provides information on trauma and healing and prevention strategies, as well as resources and training as part of its commitment to helping individuals and organizations support children. Please contact our center with questions or comments.


Sources used throughout:

SAMHSA: Recognizing Holiday Triggers of Trauma

NCTSN: Supporting Children and Teens During This Holiday Season

Heart to Heart Family Counseling: Tips for Caring for Children with Trauma during the Holiday Season

Upbring: Holidays Can Be Challenging. Trauma-Informed Care Can Help

Thrive Global: Discovering Ways to Take a Trauma-Informed Approach to the Holidays

Nurturing Change: Surviving the Holidays

Guidance Center: Staying Trauma-Informed Through the Holidays

Children’s Room

Jeff’s Place

The Grief Center