Holiday Blues, ACEs and Embracing Gratitude: A Talk With Bob Sege

Holiday Blues, ACEs and Embracing Gratitude: A Talk With Bob Sege

Thanksgiving is a time of family celebration and gratitude, but for some people, it can also be triggering. Perhaps the family was the source of our childhood trauma, or political differences are making the holiday more loaded than usual. Maybe we’re far away from home and feeling lonely and isolated. Dr. Bob Sege, a pediatrician and professor of medicine at the Tufts University School Medicine who studies ACEs and resilience, discusses ways to make the holiday more meaningful and gratifying.

Stress Health: For some people, Thanksgiving can be painful because of memories of childhood trauma,  or they feel lonely or they can’t afford a holiday feast. In your research on the Health Outcomes of Positive Experiences (HOPE) project,  you’ve found that positive experiences can help counteract the impact of childhood trauma. What are your ideas of what these parents can do to make Thanksgiving a more hopeful and deeply felt tradition?

Dr. Bob Sege of Tufts University School of Medicine

Dr. Sege: The first thing to understand is that to have a positive memory of Thanksgiving, you don’t need a greeting card memory. For Thanksgiving, almost everyone has something to be thankful for. In many communities, if you don’t have enough money to pull together a meal, your local church, mosque or synagogue may offer a communal meal. Some families do community service on the holiday — kids learn to associate the two, and participating in community events also gives kids a strong sense of belonging and connection.

Parents shouldn’t worry too much about the holiday — children are really good at being in awe of the world. It’s not too hard to create positive memories of Thanksgiving for children to carry into adulthood. I have fond memories of my mother’s food, which honestly wasn’t the best (laughs), but it was special to me.

Stress Health: During this time of political discord, some parents are nervous about potential conflicts  with their extended family at the Thanksgiving table. How might people with a history of ACEs deal with a Thanksgiving dinner where tensions over opposing political views threaten to derail the holiday?

Dr. Sege: I think to the extent possible, it might be good to agree not to discuss politics at dinner — to make a part of the day that’s “safe.” But since there is conflict in the world, each of us has opinions and beliefs. I honestly believe that if children can see people who love each other can disagree and still love each other, that is really powerful.

Stress Health: What you think about the first-person stories on the internet in which people are refusing to go to Thanksgiving or cutting off their families due to different political beliefs?

Dr. Sege: We’ve heard those stories and they are troubling, but I think they’re outliers.  You know how it is — when a dog bites a man, that’s not big news. But when a man bites a dog, it is.

Stress Health:  Gratitude is a big part of the Thanksgiving celebration. What do you think parents might do to increase the sense of gratitude in their children?

Dr. Sege: For me, gratitude is part of my religious and spiritual life and practice. There’s a spiritual discipline of training yourself to see what’s good in the world. In the horrible tragedy at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed, we had police risking their lives to rescue people. The local mosques donated an amazing amount of money. Mister Rogers always said to look for the helpers, and we can teach our children to do that, to look for miracles…We can certainly find things to be thankful for.

I have a cousin who had the worst time: For 10 to 20 years she was caught up in a war. You’d think she should be an evil, pessimistic, paranoid person, but she is just a warm, delightful person. Close your eyes and think of someone you know who had real problems during childhood and is a wonderful adult. The more we learn about resilience, the more we can help our children heal and be resilient.

Stay tuned for more talks with Dr. Sege in upcoming blogs.