That Familiar Holiday Rant – “You’ll Never Be My Real Family”

torn family pic

Six words.

For many vulnerable children who’ve experienced abuse or neglect, they give context to a complicated history.

But for the parents who’ve opened their hearts and homes to raise them, they cut to the bone.

The six words rear their ugly head, especially from Thanksgiving to Christmas – when family gatherings are the norm. High expectations raise anxiety. The unknown triggers fear. 

I know the sequence of events too well. After a decade of fathering six children – all of whom experienced early trauma, I thought we’d turned the final corner – and found the intersection of connection and emotional regulation.

There my children feel safe,

Trust our relationship, let down their guard, and accept the past,

Respond with rational thought, not over-the-top emotion,

Believe in the future and allow me be their father –

Without too many conditions.

christmas-2001But the devastating effects of trauma periodically reappear – even in the best of situations. A child, teen or young adult quickly becomes lost, with a diminished ability to self-regulate.  The us versus them mentality resurfaces.

At a recent holiday gathering with extended family, one of my sons truly wanted to have a good time. So did everyone else.

After years of trial and error, the events were predictable. And simple. The uncertainty was minimal. The food to his liking. Yet my son looked for the negative – and once again found it.

Instead of enjoying the moment, he wondered (again) about his birth father – a man he never knew. Then he immediately doubted the sincerity of everyone in the room.

Family but not blood, as he calls it.

In spite of my reassuring words about both of his families, he isolated – later complaining of being ignored. A no-win situation. Every time.

“You’ll never be my real family,” he uttered with frustration – which turned to anger amid his twisted perceptions.

But this time I was mindful.

Since he wanted me to react in an equally negative way – and prove him right, I did not. Instead, I remained calm.

Reacting hastily is a nasty trap, with me – not my son – being the person caught. To free myself, I would need to expend energy that’s needed elsewhere. Which always takes away from the fun. Mine included.

After a hard lesson, I refuse to never go there.

Sometimes I can passively immerse him into a family activity and deflect his fixation. Several aunts and an uncle know exactly what to say and do.

Most importantly, I never shame. And I never raise my voice or yell. The last thing I want is an escalation of his behavior – because of me – with symptoms that I know too well. 

I am the one in control, not him.

I give space – but not too much. I won’t enable him to put on a show.

At the same time, I choose my words and tone carefully – while casually asking for the support of family members. This reduces the chance of triangulation.

Over the years they learned with me. Some slower than others.

With a combination of time and patience, my son’s negativity wanes – as it always does. That’s when I show empathy. That’s when I give him the chance to start again, without the threat of punishment.

SnowflakeRather than my son ruining the family gathering that day, he saved himself – eventually returning to the fun, where he needed to be.

Quicker than the time before

And quicker than the time before that.

He saw for himself, “You are my family.” No better therapy than that.  DCP


Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s progress in writing a book about raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

To follow his son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page. Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold

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