Tuesday Topic: Sabotaging Holidays and Other Fun

It’s been far too long since we’ve had a Tuesday Topic, and I always enjoy them because I get to hear so much more from you.  This week’s question comes from Karrie, who wrote:

Why do our children from traumatic pasts sabotage holidays, birthdays or just something fun? And how can we help them get through this?

I’m sure this is familiar to many of us. What do you think?  Why do our kids struggle with these special events?

How do you help your child enjoy holidays and not ruin them for himself and the rest of the family?  What works before, during, and after holidays?

I’m quite sure that many of you have a helpful idea, or even something that failed miserably that you would not recommend.  Let’s hear from you!  No idea is too simple or obvious – it may be a brand new thought to somebody reading.

Please take a moment to leave a comment.

We are hosting our church small group tonight and when I told the little boys, they were excited.  They immediately went outside and began making bows and arrows for all of the kids – I’m not quite sure what the other parents are going to think of that.  Eby and Little Man have an elaborate game planned that involves a monster, good guys with weapons, and Princess Ellie.  Nothing is boring at the Qualls house.

Have a good day, friends.

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

0 Comments

  1. Amy
    September 11, 2012

    There are a few things we have done in this regard. First, if a special event is coming up we don't tell anyone until it within a few hours of happening. This way, the sabotage window of opportunity is minimal. Second, for the birthdays of our children with attachment issues, we usually only by needed items. Any time we have deviated and bought toys or 'fun stuff" those items are destroyed within 24 hours. If we buy clothing or bedding, towels, pillows, etc… the children tend to want to hold on to those things, I suppose because they didnt have them before. Third, we do not do birthday parties – too much for attachment kids to handle. For our children with no attachment issues, we make the day special for them by taking them out to dinner or the like.

    Reply
    1. rebekah
      September 11, 2012

      Same regarding letting the kids know what's happening – I used to notify far in advance and use a family calendar and such, but realized it just gave one particular kid more time to stress and feel anxious. And birthday parties – we are headed in the direction of barely doing them. Too much anticipation and anxiety. I'm actually considering NOT telling the kids when my birthday is until after, just so I can enjoy it.

      Reply
      1. Mom-2-6
        September 11, 2012

        Yes! I thought I was the only one to do this! For children with anxiety issues (attachment disordered or not) special days are filled with tension. Mine are older now but used to worry that the store would run out of the toy they desired as a gift. Worries about how a party would go (would friends show up, would friends have fun, would the party honoree make a fool of himself) made having a party almost pointless. For the sanity of the whole family, we scaled back. It’s kind of sad for me, because I used to enjoy throwing parties. But the children definitely did not.

        Reply
        1. Joelle
          September 11, 2012

          Good insight into why special events might be sabotaged. I would have never thought about worrying that the store might run out of what I want, etc.

          Reply
  2. sleighs79
    September 11, 2012

    A bit of an addendum to this question: The word 'sabotage' to me indicates 'on purpose'. I'm interested to hear how many of you feel your kids do this purposefully vs. subconsciously. I don't sense from my son that he ruins events and fun things on purpose as much as he just doesn't understand how to handle it at all and reacts in a negative way that is familiar to him. He's only five – is that because of his age? Will purposeful sabotage perhaps occur when he's older? For our part, we do try to prep him for fun events, but I know from talking to other moms that they choose NOT to prep because that gives their kids more time to sabotage.

    Reply
    1. adwiti
      September 11, 2012

      I dont believe the kids sabotage purposely parents feel that way because they ve expectations. I think it is the anxiety, excitement and insecurity that spills over as behaviours which are hard to handle. secondly at an event we are also stressed out and so we feel it more deeply as friends and family are their and we wonder what they will think.
      Thirdly when you have been through too much pain, you feel guilty at the experience of joy and so you do actions which reflect your pain and bring it back , making you feel secure.
      Fourthly kids with sensory issues might find it difficult to process the extra inputs.

      Reply
  3. Cat
    September 11, 2012

    I think there are a lot of "whys" and some kids have many. For us, the first couple years included sabotage that seemed due to a (1) confusion and (2) worry about a lack of routine. Someone's birthday? Well, one kid getting gifts isn't routine at our house. Christmas – full of disruption (lots of parties, events, etc). We tried to talk through as much as we could. Reminding them what to expect. Sometimes this seemed to help. Sometimes not so much. But seemed better than nothing. As the years have passed, there is less jealousy over a birthday (understanding that they will get theirs eventually too…) and less comparing Christmas gifts. One of our children suffers lots of survivor's guilt and holidays, etc can really bring that out – it's hard to have fun when you remember those that AREN'T. All we have been able to do is talk it through, remind her that it is okay to be happy, etc. I guess we just talk a lot 🙂

    Reply
  4. Deb
    September 11, 2012

    I wish I could understand this phenomenon as well – but wanted to share this insight…… they do NOT knowingly do this – they do NOT consciously do this. I can state that with certainty because I have witnessed this behavior – in myself.

    When married to my ex I lived across the country from my family and got to celebrate VERY FEW holidays with MY family. My family was large, loud, active and Holidays were a big deal, and FUN. His family was small, quiet, reserved….. Holidays were tense and anxious (keep the kids from messing anything up, keep the kids from breaking anything, keep the kids from making too much noise – you get the picture). Without fail and without conscience intent, my ex and I fought on every holiday….. hideous screaming obnoxious fights that miraculously never happened on those (rare) times we were with my family for a Holiday.

    Reply
    1. rebekah
      September 11, 2012

      I totally agree that this is something we all contribute to, to some degree. Holidays come with baggage and mostly it is unconscious. I want flexibility with our holidays, which we need because of our kids, and my mother in law wants us at about 5 large gatherings over 4 weeks. If we don't show up, she reacts in an extremely childish way, which makes the whole holiday even more difficult for us. My husband, in turn, feels a lot of anxiety as the holidays approach because he knows he will let his mom down and she will let him know it. Honestly, I want to spend the last two weeks of December on a beach.

      Reply
  5. Deb
    September 11, 2012

    It was ME…….. I didn't do it on purpose, and I didn't do it to ruin the Holiday (I certainly ruined it for myself as much or more than for anyone else). I cannot explain it, but I now believe it was a gutteral, almost primal, reaction to my overwhelming sadness at NOT having this day with MY family, my traditions, my comfort zone, my way. As an adult who is now conscious of this situation I STILL struggle to keep my Holiday emotions in check (I am STILL across the country from my family). But this awareness of "lack of intent" helps me have patience with my trauma kids.

    Reply
  6. Traci
    September 11, 2012

    Our daughter has only been home since March. Although we haven't shared many holidays with her, we do see that large groups of people can bring negative behavior. Mostly, for K, her attention seeking behaviors go into overdrive in larger groups or in situations that are not normal or comfortable.

    We are planning a Forever Family party for her in early November. I'm eager to hear answers from all of you in hopes of helping her to regulate during this event.

    Thank you, Traci

    Reply
  7. Bramfam
    September 11, 2012

    When our adopted daughter was little, she just couldn't handle not getting a present on someone else's birthday. It just set off too many deprivation feelings… So she got one too. Now that she's almost eight, she doesn't need it, but it's still a little hard for her.

    At holidays, she's very aware of Even Steven. I think it's just the roots of rejection, loneliness and early neglect in an orphanage that bring on these painful reactions. It can be willful in the moment, but is more a response to underlying pain.

    Reply
  8. Marissa
    September 11, 2012

    I think there must be a million different motivations for this and it's unique for every individual. My oldest son does this, but not on holidays that everyone enjoys. He does it when something important is going on for someone else. When it's not all about him. It can be as little as one of our other kids' school open houses. I have theories on why he does this. I think he feels a sense of rightful injustice over what has happened to him in his life and it angers him to see anyone else get attention. Sometimes I think it's a conscious choice and other times I don't think it is. It's really, really complicated and I don't think I'll ever understand it. At the core there is one thing I'm sure of, it's an unhealthy way to deal with real, understandable, valid feelings.

    Over time, we've taken the approach of "you don't get to destroy". If you are going to destroy someone's special event, you don't get to partake. It's as simple as that. We of course have compassion and empathy for his feelings and we validate them, but that doesn't mean that we will be manipulated. Before the event, we try to talk about it. We say kindly, "Here's your chance to discuss your feelings. They might be irrational and silly, but they are real and okay. Let's find a healthy way to deal with them so you don't hurt yourself and others. If you opt not to let us help you, you are responsible for your actions."

    We've come along way in this area by standing firm.

    Reply
    1. rebekah
      September 11, 2012

      We also do this! It seems to work be helping in the long run.

      Reply
    2. Anna
      September 11, 2012

      Same here… we do this too. Our little guy is only 4 but his level of manipulation and control is AMAZING. We try VERY hard not to "fall" for it and still hear his feelings out. We are gaining ground, slowly, as it's been 1.5 years but even baby steps are better than nothing!
      Being very firm (while still hearing him out) has been the best thing as far as "getting somewhere". I agree that it's not always intended, BUT I believe as a parent it's our job to help the child recognize sin for what it is and give them tools to deal with it. (Not that they always choose too, that's where the concequinces come in)
      Good topic! I look forward to hearing more!!

      Reply
  9. rebekah
    September 11, 2012

    Ok, I am so relieved to see all these answers! This has been a big issue in our lives and it's making every birthday and party and holiday stressful. People without adopted kids don't usually get it and the pressures to participate in things is huge. I am just so glad for your Tuesday Topic!! Thanks.

    Reply
  10. debbie
    September 11, 2012

    I think sabotage is due to anxiety, past memories and fear of the unknown. I had a foster child who we learned could do pretty well if we practiced different situations ahead of time. He just needed someone, honestly, to tell him exactly what to do. When we practiced we could also talk about past holidays and get the memory thing out of the way. Then when the holiday came, there were not many surprises and he felt confident he knew what to do. It eliminated a lot of acting out. I do this now with my adopted daughter who is very emotional, although I don't think her issues are adoption related.

    Reply
  11. findingmagnolia
    September 11, 2012

    Our five-year-old hasn't done holiday or birthday sabotage, but she does sabotage other fun things, and I just realized today (after two years together) that she does this when she is stressed about not knowing what to expect. With holidays and birthdays, she knows we won't alter those due to poor choices, so she doesn't try to sabotage them because she knows she can't. But when it comes to how many books she gets to have read at bedtime or if she gets to do a special thing on a Saturday, instead of trying to get the good thing or the extra books or whatever by making good choices, she will immediately make poor choices so we take the thing away. Then she knows what to expect. This is a total light bulb moment for me, so thanks for bringing this up, even though my little epiphany doesn't have to do with holidays or birthdays per se.

    Reply
    1. rebekah
      September 12, 2012

      I just had a huge epiphany with your comment, Mary, about our other child. It had been muddling around in my brain but now it's concrete. Thanks.

      Reply
  12. Karen
    September 11, 2012

    I too think that there are/can be a million reasons "why" from overwhelming stimulation to their feelings. I think we can all understand fairly easily the overwhelming stimulation that aspect but the feelings is where it can be tricky, I think, and I think being able to determine the difference in your child is even trickier! For me, it seems easier for me to prep my kids for overwhelming stimulation through talking about feelings, what to expect, and perhaps even a bit of not telling them too much until it's closer. I can also coach them through that experience more easily–staying close by their side, holding hands, having them sit in my lap, etc. One thing I do when holding hands in a situation like this is to take my other hand and securely close their hand in mine, almost like you do if you hold the outside/backside of someone's hand while shaking it, and then I'll take my other hand off. It seems to send the signal more clearly that I want your hand and my hand to stay together.
    I think that they do not feel that they deserve to be part of the celebration, that they are "bad" and that they need to attempt to ruin it since they don't deserve it. And then, if they ruin it, then you as the parent might not like them as much which is helping to achieve their overall position of "I'm unlovable and I'll keep working to push you away!" I think someone else getting the attention can be part of it too and so acting out/sabotaging it will put the focus back on them and away from the original celebration. It's negative attention, sure, but it's still attention.

    Reply
  13. Pat
    September 11, 2012

    This used to be a big issue for us, but not so much anymore. Siblings birthdays were the main culprit. I simply had them take naps on their birthdays which helped minimize the drama. Our first Christmas home when our adopted two were ages 6 and 3 was absolute JOY! They had no expectations and were giddy and gleeful over every part of the celebration. Watching and remembering the joy of their first Christmas was enough to make all the difficult times so worthwhile.

    Reply
  14. Katie Patel
    September 11, 2012

    I too, am glad to see so many folks post about struggles with this. It's so hard to try and 'make sense' of this behavior, at least it is for me. I really struggle with the "WHY" (they've been home one whole year, I thought they could handle this better, they didn't do this at the last birthday, etc) and I have to keep my reactions in check, or it just makes it worse. And i totally find myself asking how much of this do they know they are doing, and how much is just a reflex action that they aren't even aware of? I have two that are very adept at manipulation and control, and birthday parties, particularly, can big a powderkeg waiting to go off. Special events too, even family vacations, but as others have said, birthdays are the worst. So we too have scaled way, way back, which can be a bummer because the bio kids then kinda wonder why birthdays are so boring now. But i do notice that at least for the whole family things (Christmas, Thanksgiving, vacation, family in town)it is getting easier. I think birthdays, with the concentrated attention and control on one specific person, are just going to be hard for a while. So for us its cake, pick a place to go out to eat, two presents, and we're done til next year!

    Reply
  15. Leah
    September 11, 2012

    Our family attachment therapist constantly reminds me that the "why" is not important in most cases. I want to know why but what I really should be focusing on is how to help.

    Things that help our most challenging kiddos –
    1. no notice or pre-warning of "special" ever. For those things like Christmas and Easter that everyone talks about for months on end we try to stick with same, same. Often for our calendar readers we will celebrate one day early to avoid issues.
    2. routine even when there is a fun thing. For example, if there is a birthday celebration we celebrate first thing in the morning as soon as everyone wakes up. The celebration is sweet, simple and THE SAME every time. Same signs, same food, same songs, same – same. This helps the OCD ones and that attachment challenged ones. Then we make sure to assume our normal routine right after the celebration. For our typical kiddos we celebrate on parent dates and with play dates when others are otherwise engaged in their routines.
    3. We give very few gifts during celebrations. Needed items and toys or other things are just given randomly outside of celebration times. For Family Days (adoption day) and birthdays one very small gift is given usually something that everyone can share. For christmas we open on present for each of the 10 days of christmas (something everyone can share).
    4. We use respite care givers when sabotage is likely. Keeping the kiddos that cannot handle celebration away to allow those that can handle it is best for our family. For example, if we are planning a family vacation our most challenging kiddos would be invited for two of the 7 days. Another example is we would celebrate a birthday at breakfast together and then one kiddo would leave for respite for the next two days to cool off. We've positioned respite as a healing tool not a punishment. It works great of us.

    Thanks for sharing all your ideas!

    Reply
    1. Rebekah
      November 17, 2012

      Are your kids adopted or foster? And who does the respite care? I am afraid if we pulled the respite card now, our two adopted children would know we needed this break from them. I don't want to create attachment issues that aren't there. That is why we take them despite the sabotaging. It has been a difficult 2.5 yrs in that regard. They were foster to adopt, so they know the respite routine as they were in respite a lot with their previous foster placement. Would love for some more details on this. Thanks!

      Reply
    2. gobbelcounseling
      December 26, 2012

      The 'why' is important!! It helps how we view the children, the behavior, and how we react. And it allows us to work toward healing that 'why,' which will decrease the behavior eventually. If we don't know the why it will take soo much longer to achieve healing. These ideas are awesome for in the moment, but the why is still very important!

      Reply
  16. Amy
    September 11, 2012

    My son has almost outgrown this behavior now…he was particularly bad about this when he first came to us 8 years ago. We managed by appointing one of our teenagers to be the "remover" in case he couldn't cope. So wherever we went, whatever we did, if he couldn't control himself, the remover just took him and waited in the car…or some other quiet place where he could sit alone and keep himself calm. (The remover was always handsomely rewarded of course $$.) Our removers got a lot of extra reading or homework done while sitting with him and he learned that he could not ruin everyone's fun time and that if he wanted to enjoy the fun, too, he had to control himself. It wasn't a quick lesson…but he did finally figure it out. He still tends to get upset when others are getting gifts…but we talk about the gifts he will be getting soon or some he recently received and he can finally use those sorts of thoughts to keep himself in check.

    Reply
  17. Jenny Bulthuis
    September 11, 2012

    Hi Ladies,

    I'm not an adoptive mom (yet) but I've worked and been a part of my friend's private foster home for teens the last 5 years, where she's hosted literally 300 parties for youth. For many of these awesome teens, they often say "I've never had a birthday party before!" and others have never been to a Christmas party (or any holiday for that matter) that isn't a drunken binge.

    Considering those back stories (which are of course different for all your kiddos) and knowing the extra stress, noise and such that surround these times and can be difficult for kids with all of the sensory processing delays…. Is it any wonder they cannot process everything and regulate themselves?

    One boy for the 8+ years I've known him makes a point of ditching out of every big event surrounding himself and his family/friends. And then all of a sudden he showed up to my baby shower with a smile beaming from cheek to cheek because he knew he had done something remarkable for himself! He and I both have talked about that event many times since.

    Remember that for some kids, a cake, one or two presents is SO much more than they've ever had. What's boring to us is overwhelming to them. It's a loss of not having their bio family present, as well as previous memories flooding their minds, focused attention on them (or off of them) and a change from their everyday routine. And on top of all that, for the kid who isn't used to gifts, it's a socio-ecionomic shock!

    Reply
  18. Michelle
    September 12, 2012

    This was not something I understood last August when we got our daughter and every holiday through mothers day was horrible. I know it wasn't intentional but when she sabotaged our 9 years old birthday, it was devastating. We have thought details overwhelm her so we have tended to not tell her what we are doing through the summer holidays. Her 18th birthday is coming up and the issue of being 18 alone has brought up so many struggles. Was thinking a surprise party but now thinking that is wrong? Do we let her plan every detail? It is probably control for me to limit details because she excessively worries or talks ENDLESSLY about things. Her birthday is the worst (was so thankful for the post on endless chatter about birthdays, never experienced anything like it). I honestly want to avoid they day with everything in me. I feel like we are barely surviving right now and the thought of her birthday literally makes me cry.

    Headed to TN for the ETC conference this weekend. Thankful for God's timing and will use it to remind me of the privilege to parent our daughter.

    Reply

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