Surviving Holiday Anxiety

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

Holidays, birthdays and special occasions are great aren't they?

Well - No. Not for some children.

As a parent of  a special needs child, holidays and events like Christmas, birthdays etc may not be full of fun and excitement as you would hope they would be. 
It's a tough time for many families and children. Remember you are not alone - and no matter how hard it is - you will be amazing and cope with all that life throws at you.
Christmas, in particular can be a very hard time. A lot of children with special needs need the comfort of routine and things around them that are familiar.
Now, all of a sudden there are decorations, Christmas music and images of a man in a red suit everywhere. Not only that, there seem to be a lot more people around in the shops - all rushing around.
Then, there are the family gatherings. Lots of people coming to the house that you don't see very often having shared meals. Not to mention the sensory evils like balloons and tinsel and glitter everywhere.

Here are just ideas you might find help to make life easier

Find some quiet time before any holiday event like Christmas, birthdays etc. to talk about what is going to happen so that you can start to build up an understanding that things might be a little different, but that all will return to normal very soon.

  • If they are old enough, involve them in the planning. It might be helpful to show them photo and pictures from the previous years as a discussion point.

  • Always have a back up plan, and an escape plan that will allow you to leave early if you are at a family gathering or a show etc. if your child is getting way too stressed.

  • Identify the change in routine. You could use something like visual timetable cards for this.

  • Show them photos of where your going and what to expect.

  • Restrict the number of events that you might attend in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

  • If they have sensory issues, take along items that will help them feel more settled like a fidget toy, or noise-cancelling headphones.

  • Put up the Christmas tree early, so them have time to get used to it being there.

  • Use visuals. Have a countdown calendar. Advent calendar for Christmas, but you could make a countdown calendar for birthdays and other events as well.

  • If surprises are an issue, then why not discuss what they are getting in advance, show pictures. You could even put a picture of the gift on top of the wrapping paper.

  • Wrap up small surprise gifts like chocolate or small toys etc that are mini surprises

  • Be prepared to watch the same DVD over and over again.

  • Cut back on the gift list and be prepared for one gift to be opened and explored thoroughly until the others are even looked at or touched.

  • Spread the gift giving out over days if you need to.

  • Be ready for a negative reaction to a gift. When they give it back and say 'That's rubbish' they don't always mean what they say. It might be helpful to explain this to relatives and friends.

  • Don't be shocked if they want to know how much everything cost.

  • Don't place any gifts under the tree until Christmas Eve. You know the ability to wait is just too much to ask, and the temptation is going to be too much.

  • Expect some level of not understanding from family and friends. Sometimes no matter how much you explain, people really just don't understand. Have patience with them.

  • Let him or her wear themselves out (easier said than done). Hopefully they will sleep eventually.

  • Lower your expectations. Some of the wonderful gains made during the year might be lost during the holiday period. Tomorrow is always another day.

  • Make sure all your children have the same number of gifts. It will be noticed.

  • DO NOT forget batteries. Unless you want a meltdown.

  • Plan your day as much as possible and talk about your plans. Use visual timetables and anything else that you can think of to get some structure into the day. 

Above all try to enjoy yourselves. 

What causes a meltdown? At the most basic level, a meltdown is caused by a feeling of being overwhelmed and a sense of loss of control, the child is no longer able to cope and the behaviours are an attempt by the child to regain some control over themselves, those around them, their environment or a combination of these. It is most helpful if these meltdowns are understood as panic attacks, rather than wilfully naughty or defiant tantrums.

Although meltdowns are typically associated with children or young people with an ASD/PDA, the state of panic and acute anxiety that drives meltdown behaviour can still cause profound difficulty for adults with the condition as well. Whilst older children and adults may have learnt some coping skills and be better able to contain their behaviour, the potential for an internal meltdown to incapacitate an individual must not be underestimated.

Equally, although adults may be more robust and may have developed improved self-regulation, it is entirely possible for them to experience a loss of control that is so great, it causes them to explode outwardly with challenging behaviours. A meltdown is a state of mind and acute anxiety, rather than a description of a type of behaviour. The behaviour, when it occurs, is merely an external expression of this internal meltdown.

Parents Voice

I saw this on a post about small children at Christmas but have adapted it to explain all the worries Georges has written down this week about Christmas so it’s a bit of an insight as to why he finds Christmas so stressful. This is true for most of the children with Autism I know and their families.

Be kind to me this Christmas... from Georges point of view: - In the holidays I'm out of routine, I don’t know what I am supposed to do with the free time and I can’t just play - I can cope better with transitions when I know exactly what's coming next so please explain our plans for the day clearly to me. This can be simple or complex from what I should be wearing, who I will be seeing or what I will be eating. - The anticipation of Christmas can be pretty overwhelming and exhausting. I like the idea of Christmas and I like decorating but I don’t like anything different at the same time. My brain feels very confused and worried about this most days. Help me to rest by keeping to my normal bedtimes and routines not having surprises and keeping things as peaceful as possible. - My Autism means I have meltdowns when I can’t cope with things. Sometimes the reason behind this is unseen to many so if for example something happened one way before and it has changed, or I expected something in my head and it doesn’t happen that way I get very upset. This means things like making sure we have Ferrero Rocher at Christmas and Lasagne too are very important to me as this is what we have done before. I feel anxious and worried without these sometimes I may appear spoilt but it is these small things that help me to cope. - One of the hardest things to cope with is everyone telling me Father Christmas won’t come if I am naughty. I know I have Autism which means when I have a meltdown I get very cross, Mummy and Daddy tell me that’s ok and not too worry about presents but in my head, I think I am naughty. As this is everywhere I see this on TV, family and friends tell me this too, which means I am waking up early worrying about this and have periods where I just am fixated on this and it makes me really sad. - I have no idea about the value of money - if there's no way I can have a giant reptile aquarium for Christmas, then please tell me well before Christmas morning. I do understand things so don’t promise things that are not going to happen as it will upset me later . I'll have time to get over my disappointment and I'll learn to trust your honesty. - I really don’t understand the whole - some presents are from Santa and some are from the family business. They are all delivered while we sleep on Christmas Eve so even though the tag says it’s from family or friends, I can’t make a connection that it’s from family or friends so might have to be reminded. I am not ungrateful but I may forget to say Thank you without being prompted. - I know it’s supposed to be a surprise but I worry about absolutely everything I am going to receive for Christmas. Sometimes Mummy and Daddy will tell me a couple of gifts I definitely have to help me feel better. - I am super honest and I don’t lie because it’s important not too so if I don’t like something I can’t disguise it or say Thank you and Smile anyway. This doesn’t mean I don’t like or love you - this is just how I am. - I want to go to busy places like the market or to watch to watch my sisters and Xmas parties but I don’t like the noise and all the people. Sometimes this means I prefer to hide under a coat or chair or wear headphones. Please do not stare or make comments about me under your breath. It is already overwhelming with the noise, lights, and business, I just need a time out. I would give anything to join in and not be the odd one out so I may try really hard and have to leave early. I am trying my best even though what may show is an angry child. - Grown-ups find preparing for Christmas stressful and so do I. I have all these rules about Christmas which have to be right. I know you want it to be perfect for me so I'll have memories I can cherish forever. But I see you getting stressed, sometimes even before you do. I pick up on it and reflect it like a mirror. Please slow down, notice me & talk to me. That’s what I'll remember. - When I lose it, and I probably will at some point, please don't make me ashamed of my feelings by shouting at me. I never set out to deliberately disappoint you and I didn't try to ruin your Christmas. I'm just a little person whose brain deals with stress in different ways to yours. This is just me and I worry that I will make everyone else’s Christmas unhappy a lot too. Please let me join back in without judgment. This is why I love Charlotte my sister so much. - A kind word of reassurance or a cuddle or being able to rejoin when I have calmed down usually works very well to make me feel better.

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