10 Steps in Avoiding Holiday Upsets in Children
The holiday season is upon us, and for those of us who have a child with a disability, suffers from anxiety or sensory sensitivities it can be everything but the most wonderful time of the year. But despite the challenges that may lie ahead, there are characteristics that can serve as precursors in identifying possible causes of anxiety and overstimulation.
– A child who exhibits a more mature than their age psyche yet lacks the communication skills to express their feelings or the self help skills to comfort themselves.
– A child who suffers from social anxieties, who is most comfortable within his own schedule and routine
– A child who demonstrates certain sensitivities to sound, taste, touch, smell or sight at a much more intense rate. They find themselves anxious because they are never sure what to expect . They are apprehensive about unknown environments, smells and noises.
– Children who find Interpersonal relationships difficult. They are sometimes fearful of unknown expectations and social environments.
– Children who often display extreme behaviors or meltdowns.
The Christmas holidays are often filled with great excitement and fun for everyone; but children who demonstrate any of the above mentioned characteristics it is more likely to be a time of distress. In order to decrease the likelihood of disappointment and stress, here are a few suggestions to help your child have the best holiday possible.
1. Prepare your Child…..
When a child suffers from a disability, anxiety or sensory processing disorder it is very important that as the parent you are upfront with them regarding upcoming events and the emotions that may come along with them. Discuss the possibilities of heightened emotions and anxiety because of the excitement of receiving gifts, seeing Santa, the possible nervousness or uncomfortable feelings due to over crowding, noise levels, new foods, and changes in their routine and the feelings of dread or disappointment with life after the holidays.
2. Use of Visuals…..
Children who have anxiety, ADHD, or Autism often need as much notice as of upcoming evens as possible. They will also respond positively when expectations and requirements are shred. Some respond best when tools such as charts, calendars or social stories are used to provide a concrete version of the holiday events that will be occurring especially those with severe anxiety, ADHD or Autism.
3. Provide Details……
When possible, provide as many details for the event. How many people will be in attendance? Will there be a gift exchange? Will they be required to sit down at the table for the meal? A buffet style? Just snacks? or no food…. How long will it lasts? Will Santa be there? Do they have to participate in the games? Is it a kid only party and you will be leaving?
4. Ensure a Safe Spot…..
For many children who become overwhelmed it is helpful to have a safe spot. A safe spot is a location for them to go to regroup when feeling overwhelmed such as a bathroom, the front porch or a bedroom. It is a place that is quite and will allow the child a chance to pull himself together and calm down. Before the event, check with the family member, or hostess ahead of time where the best place would be and then talk it over with your child. Your child should be aware of its location and if they begin to feel overwhelmed by noises or smells or just begin to feel anxious they can go to this room without seeking you out for permission.
Throughout the festivities yourself and others should keep a watchful eye in case they seem to be escalating and need assistance or escorting to the approved location. This step alone could make all the difference in allowing your family to continue to be a part of the holiday activities.
5. Maintain a Routine/Schedule….
During the holiday season it is more vital than ever to keep your child’s routine as close to normal as possible. For many children a having a routine that is not intact causes a large amount of anxiety. On special occasions such as holidays it is more important than ever to maintain some sort of order. Although bedtime may vary in time, keep the routine of going to bed the same… such as a snack before bed, bath and brushing teeth. There will be many things that are not in your control but for the things you can control do so. For instance, just because it is Christmas, Thanksgiving, or July the 4th you can’t expect your child to “not do the same” activity that he does every other day. When we visit my parents house, it is routine for my son Will to eat toast and wienies…. to expect him to eat turkey and dressing just because it is Christmas, or grilled hot dogs just because it is July 4th and deprive him of his regular diet and Mawmaw and Papaw’s would not fly…..
Children with anxiety, ADHD or other special needs, it is very important to have the same expectations through out the day as a school day to some extent. Specifically the morning and bed time routine…. although occasionally they may miss there bedtime because of travel, school age children should not be allowed to stay up late every night during the break and then be expected to adjust back to their school routine……The morning routine despite the activities scheduled for the day should include eating breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth, making beds and other assigned chores. It is real easy for any student to get out of the habit of going to school….. especially when they have had few responsibilities or expectations during break making it equally difficult getting BACK into the routine more difficult….
6. Watch for the Signs….
As parents, we know our children better than anyone. We can often discern a problem before it is even recognized by the child. Throughout the special occasion or holiday watch for signs signaling your child is possibly becoming overwhelmed or stressed by the situation or environment. Listen to the signals they may be demonstrating….. Is their behavior becoming more outlandish, or they squealing, flapping, rocking or covering their ears? Are they crying, sassing, or standing by the door? Although we may do our best to prepare them for all environments and even going the extra mile by providing calming strategies, picture cues, quite corners and social stories, they may not be able to cope in all situations or environments. if you begin seeing these signs it would be most beneficial to place yourself close to them in order to encourage the use of the strategies. If you see that the interventions and strategies are not working you must intercede. Holidays will not be a viable excuse for your child’s behaviors in others mind’s if you chose to ignore the warning signs. If the inappropriate behavior continues to the escalate, the parent must but the child’s needs above all others and an early exit might be in store.
7. Keep your Emotions in Check….
As parents or siblings of a child who suffers from anxiety, sensory issues, adhd, autism or other special needs, we must keep watch on our own emotions. A stressed out parent or sibling will only lead to our children being that way. As many of us have learned our children are like us, good or bad…….. They watch us and mimic our behaviors. If everything is okay with mom and dad than many times things are okay with them. Teach yourself to take breaks, learn to say “no” and stay calm, even if you are screaming on the inside…. Remind yourself that you don’t have to accomplish everything and it doesn’t have to be perfect…. Learn to enjoy the holiday for what is was created for…. being with family and celebrating the birth of Christ. Too many times we get so concerned with what others think we forget the real reason the holiday exist. ( and yes, I am right there with ya…. still trying to learn this one myself.)
8. Bring Comfort with you….
Many adults have their comfort items they rely on to bring calmness and peace in stressful situations. For some, it maybe cigarettes, coffee, or chocolate, yet others may calm themselves by playing games on their Iphone, a brisk walk or a hot bath. Our children are no different. If your child has that special blanket, toy, or other age appropriate item that brings them comfort diminishing anxiety, due yourself a favor and allow them to take it to holiday or other special occasions. Other items that have proven to be life savers include sensory items, such as squeeze balls, visual schedules, weighted pals, movie players, video games, or ipad’s.
Sensory bags, boxes or suitcases are a great thing to keep together for all out side the home trips. Sensory bags, boxes or suitcases often contain items such as noise cancelling headphones, fidget toys, bubbles, chewelry or tubes, calming music or preferred music on an ipod, hard candy, play dough and essential oils infused in rice pouches. Other sensory things which help to calm are joint compression’s and brushing, however, only those who have been trained in these areas should attempt these measures. These items provide a calming effect and will help sooth your child when anxiety rises. it is also recommended that the child is able to place a few items of their choice. Many children or unable to identify their own warning signs…. By having these items close by and in one location, you’re prepared to help your child cope with whatever the holiday season may bring.
If you have never created a sensory bag, you and your child are missing out on one of the best interventions or accommodations that can be found to meet your child’s needs both at home and abroad……The most important factor in creating this kit is to customize it according to your child’s preferences and needs. Take notice in your daily lives of certain activities, toys or items that your child take notices of…… do they like touching everything? listening to certain noises, find solace in smells? These are the things that should be placed in their bag. The purpose of this bag is to create a method in which they can pull out activities as needed….. This bag of tools should provide them with interventions and strategies to manage their anxiety and overcome the feelings of stress on their own.
Depending on the developmental age and stage your child is in will play a large part in the items they prefer in their bag. But here are some of the items that have been in Will’s sensory box over the years…..
- suckers or other sensory smart snacks
- snacks in general….(bribery foods is what we call them lol)_
- stress balls
- spinner toy
- fabric strips
- play dough
- essential oils (on cue tip or cotton ball to smell)
- perfume (on a cotton ball to smell)
- sound machine
- calming lotions
- massager (for face, head or back)
- relaxation prompt cards
- a small fluffy pillow
- an iPod with headphones
- pictures of loved ones
- an iPad with games that are repetitive and calming
- Rubics cube
- a favorite book
- a favorite blanket
- a preferred stuff animal or doll
- their favorite toy
9. Plan an Exit Strategy….
It is also a good idea to prepare for a quick exit in case things get out of hand and you need to leave. When their are siblings involved and it is possible taking two vehicles or arranging separate transportation is recommended in order to not disrupt your other children’s fun. Many times are our other children are sometimes recipients of our child with special needs anxiety attacks, behaviors, or meltdowns and sometimes going the extra mile for them is beneficial to keep things on even footing.
10. Set Realistic Expectations
As parents or caregivers we want the best for our children; but sometimes our expectations is what we have seen in holiday movies….. The portrayed perfect family holidays where children are perfect, the dinner looks catered, families of 25 are seated around a table with china and the men our in suits and the ladies in dresses……. As the family gathers around the tree to sing,” O Come All you Faithful” the snow slowly begins to fall…. Yea right my Christmas is just like that isn’t yours…… Mine usually includes one kid forgetting to brush their teeth before we leave to go to Memaws, my hubby and I having a fight before company arrives, and burning the food, oh and don’t forget the dog peeing in the floor during the meal……. Right??? And forget the dress clothes, I am just praying my son with autism keeps his clothes on……. Because all of our lives are REAL and unfortunately not based on the Hallmark station our expectations often become unrealistic. I know mine do…..
So when the holidays don’t go as planned we get stressed and often loose patience with our kids. It is unrealistic of us to think that just because it is a holiday that our children are going to be perfect angels, use all their manners, sit still and smile for pictures and not run through the house or squeal with excitement or of the age of all mine (teens) roll their eyes. Despite the holidays, our lives remain real…… as parents of children, those with issues, or those without, we must keep our perspective clear. If not, we can quickly fall prey to letting our expectations of the perfect holiday become more important than our children and the true meaning of Christmas.
May you and your family have the best Christmas and holiday season possible….. Celebrate the birth of Christ and love your family…. Because at the end of the day that is ALL that really matters……..