help4yourfamily

Create the family you want to have

Tips for Gift Giving and the Child With a History of Abuse

English: Danboard holding a Christmas gift.

English: Danboard holding a Christmas gift. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

It is the time of year when many adults are on a mission to find just the right gifts for the special children in their lives. One issue that comes up in my practice around this time of year is that of giving gifts to children who have a history of abuse or neglect. While many adults would love to believe that this is the time of year when we can try to make things right, be it a child who may have missed out on many of the memories that make us misty eyed, or laugh out loud when we think about them. I have spoken with many a parent who wishes to restore the magical elements of the Christmas or Hannukah holiday season by showering children with gifts and creating special memories for children in hopes of replacing older more difficult memories.

To ease the way for adoptive and foster parents of children who have a history of abuse or neglect, I would like to give some food for thought as you decide what will work for your child this holiday.

1. Please be aware that for children who have been abused, gifts may carry a different meaning than they do for other children. Many times the cycle of physical abuse including domestic violence may include gifts from the perpetrator following the abuse as the abusers way of trying to apologize or bribe a child into staying silent. Additionally, a child who has been a victim of sexual abuse may have been offered gifts as part of the process of grooming the child for abuse, or again as a means to apologize or buy silence from the child. If you have a child in your home who has experienced this, or you are uncertain if a child has experienced the giving of gifts as part of a cycle of abuse, please be sure to check in with your child’s therapist to see what you might need to do to help re-write the script for you child when it comes to the giving and receiving of gifts. This process cannot be described in a post because it will need to be individualized for each child. If you are uncertain whether your child has this issue and they do not have a therapist, it is time to start looking for one.

2. When children have a history of abuse or neglect, they tend to miss the lessons we all learn (or don’t learn) as babies about emotional regulation. In other words, whereas the rest of us tend to learn over time that we all have highs and lows, sometimes even in the same day, and we learn to manage those highs and lows, children with an abuse or neglect history have not been taught this same emotional management systems so the highs can seem higher or more agitated and the lows can seem lower. Many parents describe to me that their adopted or foster child just can’t seem to stop when things are going well and find a way to get into trouble every time they have a good day. If you have a child like this, I would suggest that for the child’s benefit, you pare down your festivities to something that is more meaningful to them and which does not get them more over-excited than they already are. A few thoughtful gifts will be more meaningful and easier to manage than a tree that has many, many gifts underneath it.

3. Remember your child may not have learned about the same traditions you have around holidays and birthdays. I have had children tremble and shake in my office over the idea of “birthday spankings,” because they actually got painful birthday spankings in their birth family, or because a foster or adoptive parent mentioned them as a joke, but the child in question did not hear it as a joke but as a threat. Similarly, I have had children in my office who have had Christmas taken away as punishment for being bad, or had gifts given only to be repossessed by parents the next day. Some children have had traumas specific to a given day, for example, witnessing domestic violence at Thanksgiving or seeing a parent get hurt by another parent who did not agree with how much money was spent on a child’s gift. Children may have been given an internal message that all gifts bring pain of some sort with them, whether it is the pain of disappointment, physical or emotional pain, or the feeling of being unworthy of a gift. Again, if you are concerned that this is an issue for your child, the time is now to begin discussing it with your child’s therapist to see about recognizing and rewriting old belief patterns.

4. Consider whether your child may need you to walk them through the gift giving process in your family. Most of us do not think about it, but each family really does do things in a unique way. Letting your child know how this family does it, will be helpful to them so they know what is going to happen next.

5. Avoid labeling gifts as secrets, as in, “Don’t tell Mom we got this for her. It’s a secret.” Instead try something like, “We are going to surprise mom with this gift. It’s okay to keep this surprise until she gets it.” It may seem like a small distinction but for kids with the kind of history we are talking about I always try to teach the difference between surprises and secrets. Surprises= safe and good, secrets= unsafe and bad. As children grow and begin to feel safer in their day to day life, we can get less concrete about this issue.

6. Remember to receive any gift your child gives you with love and acceptance being extra sure that they do not hear critique of their gift as you receive it. Remember to that your child, for all of the above reasons and more, may have difficulty giving a gift to you as it may symbolize for them any number of difficult memories, or remind them of a relationship they have a major internal conflict about.

While I know this post may remind you of some issues you would rather forget during the season, one wonderful things I have seen over the years is how parents of adoptive and foster children work so hard to come up with the combination of experiences that best meet their child’s needs. If you are a foster or adoptive parent of a child adopted at an older age with a history of abuse or neglect, please feel free to chime in with any other tips you have. I would love to hear about things that went right and things you would have changed if you could go back in time.

November 21, 2012 - Posted by | attachment disorder, keeping children safe, mental health | , , , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. Wow I’d never even considered these issues and I have been in contact with many many abused children (in the capacity as a charity fundraiser who worked closely with organizations dealing with abused kids), I also fostered a young teen girl wen I was in my mid 20’s and of course we showered her with gifts. As someone with a young 5 year old girl currently living with us in an informal foster arrangement, who hasn’t been abused at all but has mainly received love just in the form of gifts, I’ll be sure to examine the idea and how we work it this Xmas with her. Thank you! By the way, I’m here from ICLW (although I’m already following your blog).

    Comment by pepibebe | November 22, 2012 | Reply

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I think it is so important that we emphasize connections with safe adults over things for all children, but especially this population of children and that we work to see the meaning behind the messages we send children through the eyes of the children. Thank you for following!

      Comment by help4yourfamily | November 23, 2012 | Reply

  2. […] Tips for Gift Giving and the Child with a History of Abuse (help4yourfamily.com) […]

    Pingback by Chronological Age vs. Developmental Age « help4yourfamily | January 5, 2013 | Reply


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