By Jennifer B. Theriault, MSW, LCSW CAA Special Education Advocate
The holiday season, more than any other time of year, is filled with expectations of joy, happiness, and excitement. For some, it is a magical time, but for many children (and adults) the holidays can be difficult; exacerbating an underlying depression, anxiety, or other emotional disturbance. Most of us can recall a time when we were “supposed” to feel excited and happy but in fact, our internal world did not mirror this ideal. Not only can children and adolescents with emotional disturbances (ED) feel the pressures of this hectic time in a more profound way, they may lack the emotional reserves and ego strength to manage feelings that are often antithetical to what they imagine they should think and feel. Further, they may not bounce back from these struggles as easily as their typically developing peers due to an already fragile sense of themselves and the world around them.
All children can benefit from structure, predictability, and routine in their daily life. Most parents can attest to the fact that late bedtimes, ever changing and busy schedules, and the constant excitement and stimulation of family and friends around the holidays, can wreck havoc on the entire family system! Such changes are inevitable in life, and especially so during the holidays. Part of our role as parents is to help our children to be able to accommodate to disruptions and changes in routine. In fact, part of the fun of the holidays for many of us is the sheer mayhem that occurs when we get together with friends and relatives that we may not always see. These special times can be valuable teaching opportunities to help our kids learn to tolerate and manage change; perhaps, even to look forward to it. But kids with ED need extra attention and guidance along with thoughtful strategies to be put into place during what is often a chaotic time of year.
Children with ED may exhibit obvious expressions of their internal struggles such as increased tantrums, becoming more combative, rigidity and inflexibility, heightened levels of anger and aggression, and the list goes on. There are more subtle signs as well, such as becoming withdrawn or disconnected, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and becoming tearful and sad. Parents will need to pay close attention to changes like these and to acknowledge them to the child. It seems simple enough, but in the midst of holiday parties, family gatherings, and numerous other activities, it can be easy to lose patience with sullen, angry, or acting out children. The initial reaction may be to ignore such behaviors, assuming that they will self – extinguish or at the very least not get any worse. Adults, who can open up a dialogue and allow for the expression of feelings in a safe and non-judgmental way, offer a valuable invitation to their children to own, understand, and tolerate feelings that may be painful and uncomfortable. It further gives the message that your children’s internal world is important to you and should be to them as well.
It is important to remember that the holidays often trigger emotionally charged struggles and responses to our own parents, siblings, and extended family. An awareness and mindfulness about this can be valuable in keeping emotions in check and clarifying whether ones own issues are being stirred up and addressed or the child’s. Extended family may not always agree about how best to parent and even well meaning relatives can be insensitive or opinionated about how to handle a child’s emotional issues. Ignorance and insensitivity about a child’s particular diagnosis can ignite a flame and historical family dynamics can add fuel to the fire. It is generally better to try and redirect conversations away from these topics in order to avoid unsolicited advice. A smile and a phrase something like “I appreciate your ideas and I am really going to think about them” will hopefully help to cue people to move the conversation along. If all else fails, a diplomatic exit – whether it’s to the kitchen or leaving all together – may be the best way to avoid further discomfort.
Some tips to preserve your sanity and to help your children, both those with ED and typically developing, to manage the holidays are:
- Share plans, schedule changes, and out of the ordinary events to reduce the stress that can accompany unpredictability. A family calendar where everyone can see what’s going on is a great tool. For younger kids, consider a visual schedule of activities that is portable and can be checked off together on long days.
- Discuss what is expected in terms of behavior and attitude. Make a list for review if necessary. Kids need to be reminded that expectations at Grandma’s may be very different than at home or even at friend’s homes.
- Use positive reward programs such as sticker charts to earn small gifts and rewards as incentives.
- Write simple social stories to help children understand what might happen and options for coping with stress. Be sure not to give too much information at once – think about what is developmentally appropriate so that they don’t become more overwhelmed.
- Develop cues that your child can use to let you know if he/she is struggling at a holiday event – maybe a wink, a tap on the shoulder, or a special word that let’s you know your child needs help. Attending to their needs proactively will help prevent a meltdown, so practice coping strategies in the car or before the situation and remind them again in the moment.
- Model coping strategies such as deep breathing and counting to 10 when stressed out. Try to understand how your child copes best and give them opportunities for self care such as quiet time, reading, a TV show, physical exercise, singing, etc.
- Opt out of some events. Don’t fall into the trap of needing to do it all. Events or parties two or more nights in a row, or worse, multiple obligations on the same day are recipes for disaster. Use your best judgment and take the opportunity to teach your children to have good boundaries for themselves. It is okay to say no in order to take care of yourself! This is a lesson we can all learn from!
Ms. Theriault is a special education advocate, as well as a licensed clinical social worker with significant experience working with children, adolescents and families with mental health issues.