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At-risk kids weather the holidays better with caring adults

Date: 12/16/20

Growing up can be tough. Kids have little say in where they live and who they're around. Then, puberty hits. An unexpected layer of uncertainty, confusion and embarrassment can rock even the most well-adjusted teen.

But for kids who have ACES — Adverse Childhood Experiences —things can get extra bumpy quick. Why? They must navigate the usual perils of growing up and also the traumatic events caused by adults around them. These range from divorce and substance abuse to violence and mental health issues.

Many types of ACES can even affect brain development. This then affects how a person's body responds to stress as they grow. In 2015, Nadine Burke Harris, now the California Surgeon General, hosted a TEDTalks on the subject. View below:

So, with the holidays upon us, you can help reduce stress for a child with ACES. First, know the signs:

  • Trouble concentrating and sleeping
  • Tantrums and acting out (risky behavior)
  • Avoids adults and appears anxious
  • Poor peer relationships and social problems
  • Feeling hopeless or talking a lot about past events

As an adult, you're in a position to help. Whether you're a parent, teacher or coach, these tips can help a child weather the holidays.

  1. Provide general activities. Things such as a parent not showing up, gift disappointment, or abuse for acting a certain way on holidays are all things that can trigger flashbacks and strong emotions. Don't take for granted that kids live in a two-parent home or that everyone gets a stocking or a nice meal. Keep activities general and provide options and choices.
  2. Keep your own expectations in check. You may put a lot of effort into a holiday craft or game to make it fun, but a child with ACES might react negatively. Don't add to their stress by being disappointed or upset. It doesn't mean the child is ungrateful for your effort. Let the negative moment pass, and re-direct to something different—even if it's not what you had planned.
  3. Look toward the future with a child. Talk about fun things coming up after the holiday break. Plan something positive to look forward to so they won't feel hopeless during periods of stress when you're not around.
  4. Meet with patience and love. Don't underestimate your role as a caring, trusted adult. If you're a parent living with a spouse who has mental health challenges, you can make a difference in your child's holidays by being consistent, caring and loving. A teacher can provide a struggling student stability and patience. A coach might take extra time to help a child master a skill on the field so the child gains confidence.

The holidays come every year. For some kids, they're joyful. For others, it's counting the days until they get through the holiday pressure, stress and disappointment. As an adult, you can make a difference in a child's life just by being aware. You can never go wrong with patience, kindness and love.

Last Updated: 07/14/2021