The holiday emotional spark
As we waited in line at the at the drop-off point at school, I felt a sudden rush of
emotion. I noticed my son’s left hand tapping on his leg while he was singing the chorus from Katy Perry’s song “Firework.” As our turn came up at the delivery point I suddenly grabbed his hand and gently squeezed it. “I love you buddy. Enjoy your time with your mom.” He turned and looked back at me with a scrunched-up brow and tilted head. Then, seeing me fighting tears, his forehead lifted, exposing his blue eyes gently comforting me. “I will, and I love you too,” he said. I heard his car door open and felt the winter breeze break through the blast of the car defrost. I watched my son throw his backpack over his shoulder. As he closed the door and headed into school, I watched the neon-green tassel on his hat bounce like the flame on top of a very tall skinny candle. Eventually the flame disappeared behind the glass of the school doors, and I noticed a silhouette in my watery eyes motioning me to get moving. I drove away with a deep sense of sadness. This was not our normal morning drop-off routine.
This was the morning before Christmas break, which meant that my middle-school son would be getting picked up after school by his mom, my ex-wife, to spend the holiday break with her family. This happened every year; and every year I would get this same sense of deep sadness, which would linger throughout the holidays. For the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on a reason for it. I would explain it away: I must sad because I miss my son. But this feeling is different. Of course, I do miss him terribly when he is away, but this feeling is much deeper than that, more internal.
A developing brain at Christmas
After years of working through trauma from my own childhood experiences, I can finally understand the deeper reasons for my feelings. When I drove away from my son’s school this year, I realized something new. It wasn’t watching my son leaving to go to his mom’s for Christmas that was hitting me so hard; it was like watching the middle-school version of me. When I dropped my son off every year, I was seeing myself as a child walking from love and safety into the chaos and danger of the holidays. It caused a very deep sense of loss.
Because of what I’ve learned about how trauma affects brain development, I understand why I feel this way. Our brains are in a constant state of growth from pre-birth through adolescence and even into adulthood. Because our brains are still changing, adverse childhood experiences dramatically affect our ability to regulate our emotions as we get older — especially when it comes to reacting in our relationships.
The sense of loss and sadness I felt when I dropped off my son was what I used to feel as child, split between families for the holidays. The contrast between my two households was harsh. Just as I was feeling safe with my father, I would have to go back to the manipulation and abuse of my mother. The holidays for me were something to get through, an ordeal that left me feeling as though I did not fully belong anywhere. That was how my brain developed.
For a long time, the holidays were torture for me — but that time is gone. I have learned that my feelings do not make me defective: they make me human. Given what I went through as a child, while my brain was developing, it only makes sense that I would feel such profound sense of loss and sadness at Christmas, even now.
Learning to be merry
Today, I’ve learned new skills to get through the rush of emotions when they happen — at Christmas or any other time. The skill that helped me with this particular feeling is called reparenting. Since I am the only who can feel the wounded, childlike part of myself, I am also the only one who can provide him love and care. So that’s exactly what I did right after I dropped off my son this year. I pulled my car over, closed my eyes and allowed myself to feel. As soon as I felt that young part of me pop up, I envisioned giving that beautiful little boy a hug. I told him how much he is loved: by me, by his parents, by his wife, by his children, and by all his family and friends. I told him that he deserves the full life that we have today, together, and I thanked him for helping me get here.
Nurturing this little boy, who has so badly wanted to feel safe and loved all this time, is an ongoing process. It wasn’t easy to learn, but it was worth it. Reparenting helps me get through moments of strong feeling that can be unexplainable and allow me a new way of coping with them instead of by way of rage or addictive behaviors like drinking. Later, I’ll talk to my therapist to help me work through these feelings. But for now, I feel better.
Like many people who’ve been through adverse childhood experiences — men especially — I used to believe I had to buck up and get over any troublesome feelings I might have. I worked so hard at not being a victim that, paradoxically, a victim was all I had become. Thanks to therapy and the willingness to use the tools I’ve gained, I have a real connection with my son. I no longer have to seeing him as a reflection of me. Learning to Authentically love and care for myself has opened the door for me to love others and receive their love. Today I thrive in life: I don’t endure the holidays, I enjoy them — especially with my children. If the holidays are as painful for you as they always were for me, there’s hope and you too are worth thriving.
For resources and help with your own needs around trauma please visit: https://www.mntraumaproject.org/resources
Tyler Reitzner is the Executive Director of MN Trauma Project. He is also a speaker, writer and advocate for trauma informed systems. He shares his own experiences in dealing with ACEs and Developmental Trauma to help create pathways for thriving.