Updated: Apr 21, 2021
When I was working in a residential treatment center for older adolescents, we had a big Christmas party for the residents. I recall the reaction of a 21-year-old young lady who was a resident there. She had been adopted from Eastern Europe as a child. She had experienced significant trauma in her homeland, and unfortunately was a victim of numerous traumatic events in her adoptive family in the U.S. During our Christmas party, this otherwise gregarious and extraverted young woman became overwhelmed with emotion, isolating herself in the corner of the room as she began to tear up and shake physically. It was only when I went over and sat by her and spoke calming words to her that she was able to calm down. Christmas did not hold pleasant memories for her.
As I shared in my previous post, a “controlled” environment is vital for a traumatized child to heal. This control primarily involves safety and predictability. This does not mean there can be no spontaneity with your child, but spur of the moment activities should not be the norm, especially during the early days and weeks in a new environment. Over the years in my work with traumatized children and adolescents I have found that many of them do not respond well to surprises—even good ones. Last minute changes in plans or a sudden change in an important daily routine can send them over the edge. Even a planned event like the Christmas party described above can send them into an emotional tailspin if they’re not prepared for it.
Parents, as much as possible, keep predictability and repetition of routine the norm for your child. This may be a challenge for you if you have a naturally spontaneous personality. But don’t worry, there will be time for spontaneity. However, in the early days and weeks and months with your child, focus on predictability—“In ten minutes we will leave for school.”—“In ten minutes you can pick up your toys and then we can read a story together for ten more minutes before bedtime.”— “It’s now 6:00; tomorrow at 6:00 we will have some new friends coming over to visit.” If he or she has never had a birthday or Christmas party, describe to him or her well ahead of time what that event entails. Remember, your child is having to learn a new normal. Your child’s previous “normal” was possibly daily survival amidst chaos. His/her new normal is learning to live in a safe environment, something that will take time for him/her to adjust to.