The holidays cometh. Stores are stocked with gifts galore. Colorful, twinkling lights adorn windows, eaves and trees. Lists are made and checked twice. Families once again plan to share their own special time-honored traditions. Giving reigns above receiving. And in stores, Andy Williams once again croons, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."
But if you're a parent whose child is away from home in treatment, it may not feel overly wonderful. Though grateful for the help they are getting, you may be struggling with loss, emptiness and even guilt. You wonder how you'll ever get through this holiday season without them home. Your commitment wavers and you might even start rationalizing about bringing them home early. You cry new tears and at times resent the holiday joy going on around you.
Stop! You do not have to go down that path. Doing so will not lead to anything good or productive. Step back and look at the Big Picture for your family. Yes, it will be different this year. But that doesn't mean it can't be a wonderful, joyful, gratitude filled holiday. Is your holiday glass half full or half empty? Start with a dose of reality.
This is a good time to revisit why it became necessary to seek 24/7 help for your child. Write down all the reasons you had for making that most difficult decision for placement. List all the fears you had for your child and all the chaos and trauma going on in your home at the time. Do this to remind yourself of the necessity of your decision and of your responsibility to act in the best interest of your child. Now reflect back on how you felt once you knew your child was safe and being cared for, guided and instructed by dedicated, caring professionals who are completely focused on your child's well-being. Remember how it felt to finally have hope again?
Though this holiday season will be different with your child away, it not only is possible to make it a joy-filled time, it is vital that you are determined to do just that.
For starters, you deserve joy and happiness. A short while ago things were looking rather grim for your family as you watched your child spiral out of control. But today your child is safe and working toward his or her future. There is much to celebrate this season, not the least of which was the courage and commitment you demonstrated by getting the help your child needed. It is critical to your family healing process that you take care of yourself and give yourself permission to be joyful.
Next, as parents, it's your job to set the tone and the example for your children. While their friends may play an important part in their lives, you are their role model. They look to you for clues on how to navigate through life. Ask yourself this, "If my child were to duplicate my attitude about how I feel about the holiday season, would I be okay with that?" Are you modeling attitudes of depression, sadness, loss and anxiety…or happiness, joy, hope and gratitude? How would you want your child to feel and behave?
Are there other siblings at home? They likely have taken a backseat to their program-sibling for a long time. Those at-risk teens have a way of throwing a family's balance way out of whack. The other kids deserve to have the focus put back on them. Pay attention to how much focus is given to the child who is away from home vs. the children still at home. Is it fair? Is it balanced? Are they feeling as important as their sibling who's away? Don't they deserve to have a fun-filled holiday season? The same thing holds true for your spouse or other dear friends and extended family. Focus on enjoying your time with them. Open up dialogue and find out how they are feeling and what they'd like to do to make this time special. Find out what their needs are and determine to create a tighter bond with them.
Do you have a family holiday tradition that you're finding hard to face this year without your program-child at home to participate? Putting the emphasis on those at home who look forward to that special holiday tradition can create a shift towards an "attitude of gratitude." If it still seems insurmountable to you, then put that tradition on hold for now and create a new one. Maybe something that represents the forward growth for your family. Find a way to be in service to someone else. Perhaps there are shut-ins in your neighborhood or church group…lonely people, whose families are not nearby. Find a way to include them and make them feel remembered and special this holiday season. Nothing cures emptiness faster then being in heartfelt service to someone whose day you can cheer.
Be supportive of the holiday policies and procedures of your child's program. They have been established with purpose and reason, i.e., from the limited space at the facility, to teaching values, such as the spirit of the holidays and the value of family vs. the materialism of our society. If your child has had a "sense of entitlement" attitude, pay attention to how you have helped set that up in the past. Also, be mindful of how violating the guidelines sends your child a message that it's okay to break the rules. It's neither something that's worked well for them in the past, nor will it when they return home and are expected to abide by the rules and structure in place. Again, model the behavior you want them to emulate.
Re-focus on your family and facility's long term goals and commitments. Make sure your choices are truly in the best interests of your child. There's obviously not a set standard, industry wide or program to program regarding holidays gifts, but if what you send is in direct violation to your school's guidelines as a means to compensate for your guilt, then intentionally violating the school's policy will not make matters any better. If buying your child's love and respect was a solution before the program, they wouldn't be there today. Also recognize that if you bring them home before program completion because you miss them, then that is about your needs, not theirs. For two-household families, work in concert with each other. Co-parent for the benefit of your child and work as a team with your school.
And for those parents who are considering placement now . . . if it is needed, do not wait. If your child is in crisis mode, then so is your entire family. If that child were in need of an appendectomy, you wouldn't postpone doing it till after gifts were unwrapped or some other family tradition celebrated. You would do it when it was needed, before the crisis intensified. Postponing placement so you won't have to be without them at the holidays, is again about your needs, not theirs. As a parent, you have the responsibility to make decisions based on their best interests. Be realistic. If things have already deteriorated to that level, it is unlikely you would be having the Hallmark-holiday you want anyway.
Make this a meaningful holiday for all of your family members. Yes, it will be different, but it doesn't mean that it can't be wonderful. You get to decide. Choose to create joy and gratitude in all that you do. Find new ways to capture the spirit of the holidays. Approach this season determined to look back with pride on this time as a bright spot in your family's history. Because of your child's program, you have new reason to have joyful hope and anticipation for the future. These are all definite ingredients that make up "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year."
About The Author: Glenda Gabriel is a strong advocate for parent's rights and the parent-choice industry. In addition to being the mother of a program graduate, she's worked for many years developing vital parent support services for structured residential boarding schools.
Thank you so much for your wonderful article.....I am the parent of a program graduate and I remember how challenging it was during the first holiday season she was away. But we did just what you suggested in your article.....we supported the guidelines of the school and felt really good about that.....we continued with our usual traditions and enjoyed our holiday. Yes, it was different and it really pulled at my heart strings but we maintained focus on the long term goal.....such a critical thing to do during the entire process. That was 12 years ago.
Thank you for supporting families and the work you do.
So, for me today, the article was especially helpful as my husband, who had a cardiac arrest in August, is in Southern California in a brain rehabilitation program and here we are in the midst of the holiday season and we live in Northern California. As we looked at trying to do Christmas in the usual way as well as doing Christmas with Gil in Southern California, it seemed overwhelming. So, we are doing Christmas at Disneyland this year!! We're just creating a different and fun-filled holiday celebration. I do have to admit that I have been feeling pretty down over the last week or so and your article was such a good reminder for me that I choose how I'm feeling....and, I can be joyous.... and the holiday can be different but that doesn't mean it's not good!!!!