By Debbie Zwicky

With signs of Christmas and the holidays already upon us, I am reminded of the many holidays I spent working in a residential treatment center. I can vividly recall my first year as a naïve youth care worker. At that time, I was guided by my own beliefs and experiences with Christmas and the holiday season. And for me, those experiences were filled with happy family memories and holiday cheer. However, that first holiday season there showed me that was not a reality shared by many of the families and youth in our program. Instead, Christmas meant recollections of pain, sadness, loss, and disappointment. It was adults getting drunk and abusive, parents promising gifts and visits and not following through, and the children dreading going back to school after the school break with nothing fun to share with friends and teachers.

Some of the parents and family members may have been trying the best they could, yet felt their best efforts still weren’t enough. I can remember a mother saying to me, “Please don’t do too much for my daughter at Christmas. I can’t compete with that and it makes me look bad to her.” Too much for Christmas?! In my world, there was never too much! That’s what Christmas was all about for me: giving as much as I could–especially to these girls who had too many Christmases in the past with next to nothing.

I had to step back and realize that it wasn’t about the gifts and decorations and food; it was about the connections we were making with these young ladies and their families. That is what they would remember. That is what they would need to continue to heal. It was about treating people with dignity by showing respect and being mindful of the five approaches to showing respect. I realized at that point that I had to shift my perspective to see Christmas from their point of view and not just mine. I had to learn to reconcile and balance my love of Christmas with an understanding and respect for the girls’ feelings about it.

The ask and explain why approach was important during this time. Nobody likes to be told what to do, especially adolescent girls, so asking them to do things was more successful. Also, taking the time to explain why things were being done the way they were, especially around Christmas, proved beneficial. Specifically, we shared the plan for the celebration with them. They knew there would be a sit-down dinner; then, opening presents in front of everyone; and lastly, Santa would come for a visit. We also explained the need to say thank you for the gifts that they received, even if it wasn’t exactly what they wanted, because that is treating other people with dignity by showing respect.

Much of this was very different and therefore, challenging for many of the young ladies. Eating a nice sit-down dinner or opening presents in front of others produced a lot of anxiety for some. Even having someone provide this type of holiday experience was foreign and uncomfortable for many. Some even felt they did not deserve the dinner/gifts due to previous behaviors or attitudes. There were a lot of individual discussions and reminders regarding behavior and the challenges each young lady may face. Holiday time was work for both the girls and the youth care workers who were supporting them.

We practiced offering options and letting them choose. We talked about the menu for dinner, attempting to take suggestions for a meal everyone would enjoy. We had some of the young ladies cook their traditional family favorites and had them select clothes for the occasion. The girls also chose their seats at the dinner table, so they would have support if needed.

We practiced giving an opportunity to reconsider and allowing time for them to make good decisions if they were struggling. Some young ladies needed to leave the room full of people and noise for a little while for some downtime. All the hustle and bustle made them nervous and anxious.

I had to learn to see the world through their eyes, where Christmas was a difficult and challenging time rather than joyous. The girls needed time and a safe space to express their feelings and hurt. We still decorated the unit, but we cut it back a bit. We began giving them a choice of whether to participate in activities versus making it mandatory. We exercised patience if they did not immediately say thank you for their gifts and gave them space to process being cared about by an adult. In the end, we let them enjoy Christmas on their terms and timeframe. This meant listening with all senses and paying attention to who was struggling.

Some years presented the opportunity to invite a girl home with me for Christmas. One such time, my guest was considered one of the most challenging in the program. She had multiple behavior issues and very limited social skills. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous despite the fact we had a good relationship and spent a lot of time “prepping” for the visit. When the time came to celebrate with my family, they, of course, spoiled her with gifts and food and the visit ended up going well. She enjoyed herself, and I enjoyed watching her interact with a family. It shifted my perspective to how it must feel to not have a family to go to for the holidays.

Without even knowing it, this was my first experience with trauma-informed care. This was an exercise in shifting my perspective and learning to look at the holidays through the lens of a person who has experienced trauma and is going through the healing process. Twenty-five years later, I still draw from the lessons I learned and the connections I made. Now, I recognize that not everyone enjoys the holidays, and many are struggling. It can be a valuable and humbling lesson, but it is very important to keep in mind this time of year as you are out and about and around many different families.