Despite the festive cheer portrayed in the constant stream of holiday commercials, the “most wonderful time of the year” is for many a month-long sturm und drang of long-distance travel, in-affordable spending and testy family dynamics.
For individuals and communities with a history of traumatic stress, the holidays bring a unique set of challenges (“Hard holidays with your child of trauma“, 2012). Bruce Perry (2000) notes the extreme stress that the holidays can place upon children with a history of maltreatment, kids who function optimally in consistent and predictable environments. The hectic shifts in routine and increased social encounters that characterize the end of each calendar year can overwhelm and dysregulate such individuals, in childhood and adulthood too. Add in factors of loss or the anniversary of an adverse event (“Holiday Stress“, 2013) and the holidays quickly transform into a trauma trigger with bells on!
So how do CANY group leaders enter into the spirit of the season, honoring the trials as well as the celebrations? I invited CANY drama therapists, Heidi Landis and Meredith Dean to reflect on their experience of facilitating groups during the holidays.
Tell us about some of the typical themes that arise in CANY programs when the festive season rolls around each year.
Meredith: The holidays evoke a full spectrum of themes, in my experience. The intensity of the season in our culture at large is also reflected in groups. I run CANY programs at a number of city schools and while there is often a sense of excitement at this time of year, kids also talk about the loneliness they feel when parents are working over the holidays or perhaps are absent for the long-term. Other kids avoid their homes, reporting that the holidays are marked with family conflict. As group leaders, we work with what’s in the room. We might hone in on the theme of family, facilitating an exploration of feelings that surround these interactions, with the goal of fostering affect management in our clients.
Heidi: That feeling of loneliness is expressed in the refugee groups I run as well. This population, by its very nature, lives far away from family and friends and the holidays only underscore that sense of separation, a time so focused on togetherness. A theme that seems to connect group members throughout the year is their experience of cultural difference. Over the holidays, we use this theme to explore what it’s like for clients to experience holidays that might not exist in their cultures of origin or perhaps give voice to feelings around the extreme commercialization of a holiday that group members typically celebrate. In either case, group members are given a platform on which to embody their experience of feeling overwhelmed and on the outside culturally.
Meredith: The kids in the school-based mental health program that I work with also report feeling an intensified sense of “otherness” over the holidays but for different reasons. Unlike kids in mainstream schooling, these students are required to come in for therapy even though classes are on hiatus. As a group leader, I’m drawn to exploring this theme of difference with clients. Otherness is by no means a pathology and I’m interested in countering trauma roles and relationship patterns that can arise when we feel pushed to the margins of mainstream experience.
What are some of the ways that you employ drama therapy techniques to anticipate and respond to additional stressors that group members may face during this time?
Heidi: Let me return to the example of working with refugees. With the goal of honoring the diverse cultural experience of group members, we might ask clients to share a holiday which feels special to them and then explore, in verbal and embodied form, the unique rituals that characterize this celebration. From here, we have often created a new holiday, unique to the group, inviting participants to identify what should be celebrated as a community and the traditions that will make our celebration special.
The creation of that kind of community celebration sounds meaningful for individuals who have been separated or estranged from their culture and communities of origin.
Heidi: There is also a sense of safety created, because this is what the fictional container of drama provides, around what is known (familiar rituals) and the unknown (an unfamiliar culture). In this moment, clients are able to experience a sense of control in what often feels like an uncontrollable situation, that is the refugee experience. by utilizing the agency of the group, clients find that they are not alone in their varied experience of the holidays.
Meredith: Our goal is to investigate and foster the resilience of clients too, mining collective areas of strength, power and hope. There’s an ongoing sense of never having enough among our trauma-affected clientele and this theme of scarcity is particularly strong over the holidays. In one high school group of co-ed teens, a conversation around separation from loved ones during the holidays led to the creation of a drama about a family of Christmas trees who feared being chopped down and separated, only to be propped up in a stranger’s home to die. As group leaders, we asked the kids in role as the trees, to share a message with their future owners, allowing for an expression of their real life sadness, fears and frustration about their sense of isolation over the holiday period. The containment that role provides as well as the ways in which the fictional drama allows us as leaders to titrate exposure to difficult feelings and experience, moving clients toward an increased capacity for reflection, insight, and self-regulation.
And what do you two take away from your work as you end the year?
Meredith: Simple. I have the gift of a job that I love. Each day I get to work with people I admire, meet new challenges regularly and be inspired by the stories that I hear.
Heidi: I feel grateful that I get to engage in a creative process daily and work for an organization that deeply believes in the work that we do.
Heidi, Meredith, thank you! Here’s to a rich and meaningful festive season of groups.
Lucy McLellan, CANY Training Consultant
WE WELCOME YOUR OWN HOLIDAY EXPERIENCES! TO ADD TO THE DIALOGUE, LEAVE A COMMENT IN THE REPLY BOX BELOW.
Hard holidays with your child of trauma. (2012). Retrieved from http://gobbelcounseling.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/hard-holidays-with-your-child-of-trauma/
Perry, B. (2012). Maltreated Children: Experience, Brain Development and the Next Generation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company
Holiday Stress. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.nctsn.org/resources/public-awareness/holiday-stress