How the Grinch Stole Christmas Because of his Childhood Trauma

Last weekend I saw The Grinch at the movie theater with my nephews and family. Everyone knows the historic tale of the Dr. Suess book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Grouchy green guy steals Christmas from innocent town in an attempt to make his own pain go away. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work, and the kind hearts of the Whos in Whoville show the Grinch that the spirit of Christmas comes from their hearts and not material goods.

I guess this was the first time I watched The Grinch in sobriety with a trauma-informed lens because all I could think about was now I know exactly why the Grinch Stole Christmas: because of his childhood trauma. Childhood trauma refers to traumatic experiences that occur in children and can include an event, series of events, or a set of circumstances that a child might find physically or emotionally harmful and threatening. Children are especially vulnerable to trauma because of their developing brain. When a child is exposed to chronic trauma, such as abuse or neglect, their brain remains in a heightened state of stress. Staying in this state can change the emotional and cognitive functioning of the child to ensure survival. Over time as the child ages, these traumatic experiences can impact a child’s future behavior, physical and mental health, and emotional development.

In the film, flashbacks are shown to the Grinch’s parentless childhood. He is an orphan who longs for a family and a set of parents who care about him and his well being. He is seen observing other children’s holidays that include family fun and love, while he has neither. His childhood void of love and security results in a grown up Grinch who has embodied his loneliness and depression. He has isolated himself from the world and developed a hatred of Christmas because of what he saw as a child. Christmas brought families together for a season of love and giving, while for him, it proved he was unworthy of love and belonging.

The trauma the Grinch experienced as a young boy led to his adult isolation, his disdain for Whoville and the holiday season. He goes around tripping people, crushing their snowmen, and cheating in simple games like chess.  It even motivated him to try and steal the love, belonging, and connection he couldn’t receive himself, from the peaceful people of Whoville. He devises a plan to dress up as Santa Clause, enter the homes of all the Whos and steal their Christmas decorations and presents. The plan is perfectly executed, although foiled by the infamous Cindy Lou Who. The Grinch ends up utterly surprised when the people of Whoville are unfazed by his vicious Christmas-stealing plan, and still have every intention of celebrating the beauty of Christmas.  

The Grinch has a change of heart, literally. He can’t believe the Whos of Whoville are kind to him and Cindy Lou even invites him to Christmas dinner, despite his previous criminal activity. At the end of the movie, the Grinch apologizes for the actions motivated by his trauma saying, “It wasn’t Christmas I hated, it was being alone.” The townspeople rejoiced and all was well. The Grinch then makes a toast with his final words being, “To kindness and love, the things we need most."

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, one in four children and adolescents will experience at least one potentially traumatic event before the age of 16. Numerous studies have shown a correlation between trauma exposure and substance misuse in adolescents. Although the Grinch did not show outward signs of substance misuse, it’s clear that his childhood trauma immensely impacted his life and could be determined to be the cause of his pain and subsequent criminal acts.

To me, this story shows that our best angle at substance misuse prevention in youth and crime later in life, is limiting their exposure to trauma and providing trauma-informed recovery approaches if they do experience it. I also think it’s the key to viewing humans with substance use disorders as human beings, rather than the stigmatized view they are often given - that they are bad people with something wrong with them. I truly believe the way people act and the choices they make are a result of many factors which involve their own trauma and the survival skills they’ve developed because of it.

Just like the Grinch we were all children once. We are all products of our environments, circumstances, and genetic codes. And just like the Grinch, proper support and love can heal us all from the mistakes we’ve made and help us create a future we are proud of.