Managing Christmas Meltdowns
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
As the end of the year seems to be closing in, it brings with it a bombardment of change and great anxiety for a lot of children. There are school concerts, Christmas decorations everywhere, school holidays, Christmas and then we have to start a whole new school year again. It is exhausting for most of us to even think about but it can be completely overwhelming for a child, particularly one with anxiety, Autism or kids with sensory processing difficulties. From October we are inundated with Christmas decorations and festivities. Unfortunately this can have an adverse effect on children who struggle with change and sensory overload. The stress of it all can build up for a child. They may not react straight away and it can show up several days later as difficult behaviour. This behaviour is easy to label as "naughty" or "defiant" but this time of year can just so overwhelming that we need consider the impact on our little people. Blinking lights, glittery objects, sound making trinkets, changes in routine, these can wear down the senses over time without anyone even realizing what it was.
Making it through this time is never easy but there are things we can do to make it bearable or hopefully enjoyable; have a routine, give as much warning as possible when there is change, be really prepared with calming activities, allow for even more wind down time and have a plan. Then when the meltdown does happen (and it probably will), try to stay calm yourself so that you can help your child regulate and work through the emotions.
It may be impossible to have a strict schedule during the Christmas season but you can develop a loose “routine” for the holidays. You can make some events at predictable times such as when we put up our tree, when you will see certain relatives, Christmas eve and Christmas day activities and even meals. As much as possible keep your usual routines like sleep routines, meal times and other regular activities. It gives a stable setting to rely on when things get a little unsteady. If plans do change, be sure to let your child know. Not knowing what is happening from day to day can cause so much unnecessary anxiety.
Make sure that you are also scheduling in wind -down periods where your child can rest and “recharge”. You know your child best, what do they need when they are overwhelmed? Do they need time on the trampoline after school? do they need quiet time each day before bed. Even in this busy season, we need to recognise that calming activities are just as important and if we want our child to be regulated then we need to make time for them.
Other People's Expectations Kids are not the only ones that need to be prepared for what to expect over Christmas. Others may need to be told in advance that your child may not want to hug them, much less give them kisses, to get their presents or treats. The first person they have to reluctantly hug for something in return may be the trigger that makes the rest of the night unbearable. You can ask your child to say please and thank you but that’s it, no one should expect more than that. A child should never be forced to show affection to someone to get a gift. This is sending the wrong message to our children and increasing their anxiety. It may be hard for relatives to understand this but if you make it clear that the rules of your family are that you never force a child to hug or kiss someone, then at least this won't be a surprise on the day and hopefully won't cause offence.
Have a Plan
If you do have Christmas at your house, discuss ‘safe zones’ with your children. A place they feel safe, it’s quiet, comfortable... set up some toys or anything else they like so that they can retreat when they need to. Make sure that your guests are aware that if your child goes to that place that it means that they need a break and should be left alone.
If you are going to someone else’s house to celebrate, you can still have a safe zone. Arrange it with your host beforehand to see if there is a space. When you arrive, make sure that you show your child where the space is and go through how they know when they are feeling overwhelmed. Don’t make it a "time out" zone, it is NOT a punishment, it is just a place to get away. Have some calming acivities ready, take with you their favourite music and headphones, ipad (this is not my first choice but sometimes you have to do what you have to do), drawing, fiddle toys or anything else they may need to help ease when they are overwhelmed. Have a plan with your child of how they will tell you when they need a break, they could say something, a hand signal or anything that works for them.
Look for Warning Signs
When a child feels overwhelmed their “thinking brain” switches off and they go right into “fight" or “flight” reactivity, where they can’t think straight or control their own behaviour. You are the expert at reading the signs that your child isn’t coping. Does their body change (tense) are they snapping at people or have they withdrawn? This is when you use your planned early intervention that is likely to help your child regain their calm.
E.g. Excuse yourself from the group and spend some time with your child, or go for a walk, or go to the quiet place for them.
Keep yourself Calm
It’s easy at times like a family gathering to feel judged or embarrassed by your child’s behaviour. When you allow those thoughts in, you’re far more likely to lose control, and become reactive. Challenging moments are when your child most needs you to stay calm so you can help them calm. This is really hard at times but this is why it is so important that we look after ourselves too. Make sure you are finding time for yourself and remember it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of your family, you know them best and you know what they need. Your child's behaviour is not a refection of you, it is just what they are capable of at the moment. They are still learning and developing, eventually they will have the tools to manage emotions but not yet.
When a Meltdown happens
Lets face it, you can do just about everything to avoid a meltdown, but at some point it will happen. Once you have met your child with calm, let them understand how hard it is to feel that way and wait it out. They can't talk to you, you need to let the meltdown pass. If you are calm, just being close by will eventually help them calm, offer a hug but don't force it. This is how co-regulation works. Eventually their nervous system will match yours. That's why it is so important to stay calm ourselves.
Once they have calmed a little and they are able to think clearer, invite them to problem solve with you. What can we do? What could we do next time? Make sure you are letting them do most of the problem-solving, this is not time to lecture them, they will just switch off.
The holiday period is still a lovely time of the year but will be even more special for you and your child if we remember that it can also be really overwhelming. But if we can be prepared to make some adjustments and have a plan then hopefully we can minimise the emotional overload and meltdowns. Merry Christmas everyone!!!!