Some Advice About Communication with your Child around the Holidays
When you have a child in Wilderness Therapy, communication can be fraught with peril at the best of times. Many parents have told me they agonize over word choice, how to phrase certain things, and where to switch in their letters from casual interaction to addressing more serious topics. The holidays only add to this stress, as the feelings of separation, nostalgia, and even guilt can pile up in a way that they would not otherwise. This can result in letters or other communication that is not as effective as it could be. Conversely, it is easy for your child to read into letters looking for that key hidden bit that hints at your intentions for the holidays and potentially bringing them home. Below are a few simple tips that can help alleviate unintended miscommunication while allowing space for all involved to experience their own emotions. It is always important to be intentional with your communication, and arguably more so at this time of year.
Firstly, avoid saying anything along the lines of “you’re not missing anything here.” Whether that is due to COVID restrictions, or any other perception that the holiday is somehow less fun or meaningful, this is something that you would say to soothe you, but it doesn’t have the same effect on them. Objectively, the idea that they are “not missing anything” is also not true. The clients are missing both your traditions and you, and minimizing that sense of loss, even if doesn’t make sense to you, won’t help them move past it.
Next, the use of the phrase “see you soon” in the weeks leading up to the holiday (or really anytime) can lead to a lot of expectations that won’t be fulfilled, or that you never intended to create. Remember that as teens, their sense of the expansiveness of time is not the same as an adult’s. “Soon” to them is more likely to mean days or a week than any other longer timeframe. Additionally, avoid making any sort of promise of a reward after the program. It is likely that this won’t be able to be honored for a variety of reasons. Also, it detracts from the real purpose of everyone’s work, which is for the benefit of the relationship itself--not a trip or material reward. Again, be intentional with your communication. Be aware when you are saying something to make yourself feel better under the guise of something to make them feel better.
So, what can you do? Firstly, acknowledge your own feelings around not having your child around for the holiday and share them with your child. Many parents feel tempted to throw in some of the justification for the placement again here. I encourage you not to do that. “I miss you, but…” is not as impactful or meaningful for your child as the simpler, “I miss you.” Send a few photos of holidays past embedded in that week’s letter as a visual touchstone to the time you’re talking about. There is a unique opportunity here as just due to the time of year, it is likely that your child will be as emotional as you about the same thing, and there is an increased chance for a meaningful conversation and connection with your child about aspects of them and your family in the past that you would like to get back to.
Even if you do all this, there is a chance that the increased emotionality can lead to conflict and misunderstanding. Endeavor to send your letters in early so your child’s clinician can read them over and offer feedback to make sure that the message you want to send and the one you are sending are the same.
When I was field staff, I spent several holidays in the field, and I have always enjoyed the simplicity and the chance to process family relationships with the clients. We encourage them to both celebrate and dig a bit deeper into their own issues that day and offer the opportunity to write a letter home while they are in the midst of the feelings the day brings on. Remember, the power and magic of the wilderness does not wane during these weeks. Growth and transformation, soul-searching and self-exploration may even take on greater depth and dimension. Every chance they get to identify, connect with, and process their feelings—whether it’s through a letter they send or receive—is ultimately another step toward mental wellness and healing.