December 15, 2020

T’was the weeks before Christmas

This blog was written by Noel MacNamara, Executive Manager of Research and Policy at The Australian Childhood Foundation.

‘Tis the season to be dysregulated Fa la la la la, la la la la!

Christmas is a very special time of the year for so many of us. Despite our heartfelt desire to provide fun and memorable experiences for the children and young people in our care, the truth is that often the extra activity, excitement, lights, sounds, and smells can send some of our children right over the edge.  Not to mention having to deal with other people getting presents, extra sugar, later nights, school holiday activities and visitors (known and unknown).

It is amazing any of us make it out in one piece! Or at all!

Here is what we have learned over the years of working and living with children with varying needs, trauma and adverse backgrounds.

Firstly, be aware of the weight of expectations. When a child believes that they will fall short of the expectations placed on them, he or she may decide to just quickly sabotage things to get it over with. The naughty or nice list can bring about the very opposite of what is desired. Sometimes our desires for them to be happy and have a great Christmas can feel like expectations they cannot meet. Be kind. Accept limits. Remember their developmental age rather than their chronological age and be prepared for regressions during this season.

Save yourself the exasperation and save your children the struggles by limiting your events, activities, and expectations. I know, I know… this sounds like we are recommending you be like Scrooge (bah-Humbug)… but the truth is you will end up meaner than the Grinch if you insist on “fun, fun, fun” for your children who cannot tolerate novelty, disruptions, over-stimulation or who experience betrayal guilt.

Choose one or two activities and inform your children of them ahead of time. Surprises are most commonly a bad idea for our kids.   Let them join in on the decisions and offer a couple of choices you’d be happy with. Don’t make them stay longer or later!  If they can only tolerate an hour, then celebrate that hour rather than disappointed and embarrassed by their behaviour at hour two. Stay there to support them and develop a “special sign” with the child so that they can indicate when they need some support. Once it’s over, pack them up and do a calming night-time routine.

Build opportunities for quiet time and relaxation into every day. Videos, snuggles, games, popcorn, etc. We forget how much those things mean to children who haven’t had them consistently.

Sensory overloads can lead to meltdowns, tantrums, rages… no matter what you call them, they can be of the most challenging parts of caring. We’ve all been there. At the moment when your child has a meltdown, it’s hard to know what to do, particularly if you’re out in public and have to contend with public scrutiny. Here are a few things that help:

  1. Stay calm. There is no helping your child to stay calm when you are not calm yourself. Breathe.
  2. Water and food. Meeting a child’s most basic needs can help them to go from fight, flight or freeze mode to being able to access more of their cognitive functioning. This will bring the intensity of their meltdown way down. A healthy snack and water are particularly important for children who may have been neglected or gone hungry in the past, even if it was when they were too young to remember.
  3. Whether or not a child is experiencing a sensory meltdown, sensory input, particularly proprioception, or heavy work, can snap them right back into a calm state. I particularly like to offer them lavender playdough. They can use it to squeeze and squish and it provides immediate sensory feedback. Squeeze balls, mermaid pillows or pushing a laundry basket filled with books also work well. I always offer a big, chewy bubble gum piece as well. Great sensory feedback there.
  4. Children need connection. This can be achieved during a meltdown by making eye contact, help them to breathe. Breath in for 3 and out for 6. Provide continuous reassurance. Above all avoid saying “calm down”.
  5. Self-regulation. The ultimate goal obviously is to promote self-regulation so that a child learns to calm themselves. This usually works best when the other steps on this list have been already taken and those needs have been met. Remind the child of their calm-down strategies. It is best to have practised (and practised and practised) those strategies at times when they were calm. If you have a calm-down kit for your child, this would be the ideal time to pull that out.

In addition to sensory issues, be aware that holidays serve as memory triggers to many of our children.  During the holidays, triggers are everywhere. Smells, sights, sounds, memories of the past… the holidays can be a minefield to navigate. Special days they remember having or not having…events that went well with parents or that ended in violence and or alcohol or substance misuse…desires to have a perfect Christmas day that instead ended up lonely or neglected. These are the things that many of our children have been exposed to.

As much as we want to make a wonderful experience for our children, the truth is, this is a season charged with Hard memories and BIG feelings.  Our children experience the conflict of both wanting and not wanting their family of origin (many of the children in care are also separated from siblings as well), of wanting and not wanting to remember past Christmas’s, of wanting and not wanting to enjoy you and the big day.

Pay attention to the feelings of betrayal guilt that result from enjoying Christmas in your home (it may not matter how long they have been with you). Often it is experienced as betrayal to the family of origin to have a great time. Be prepared for sabotaging experiences to ensure NO ONE has fun, so they don’t feel shame for celebrating. Give the children permission to be sad and make time to process some feelings. Help them understand that is normal and that you are available to talk and be sad together. Practice lots of ‘time -in’ if things go wrong.

Finally, be compassionate to yourself! This Christmas may not look like the one you envisioned but it can still be meaningful and special.  Create new traditions that honour your children’s limitations. Give yourself a break and don’t expect too much out of them or out of yourself.  At the end of the day, we want Christmas to be about children, family, building happy memories. Small is often best.

We wish everyone a safe and happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year!