For any family Christmas can be stressful, however if you are a family who has a child with additional needs, ‘special occasions’ can often be even trickier, Christmas included and for us it is no different!
The Build Up
When my youngest daughter was smaller, we used to have at least a three month build up to any ‘special occasion’! This was not only emotionally but financially draining!
I remember one year, in particular, where she was meticulously planning Christmas and we would have list upon list of ‘who would be coming and when’, ‘what needed to be bought’ and ‘what needed to be made’! The latter actually became a big issue as I ended up spending a fortune on crafty bits for all her creative ideas, not least when things would go wrong and had to be redone. This particular year, amongst everything else, we ended up with dozens of bin liners full of home-made paperchains and then the dilemma of where to hang them all.
My daughter loves buying presents, often excessively, however the added challenge came when it was time to wrap everything up. We had many a meltdown over the wrapping of presents, you see everything had to be just right! She wouldn’t, or more to the point couldn’t, allow me to help her and when things went wrong, if it wasn’t ‘perfect’, it would all be ripped off and the present launched.
This couldn’t go on and I had to come up with a solution. It was too stressful for her and in turn too expensive for me. So the solution I came up with was, to use gift bags instead! Why it had taken me so long to come up with this simple solution was beyond me! But simple when you know how eh lol!
Why even writing a card is tricky
Writing cards has in fact become more stressful the older she has got. When she was younger the difficulties were more about ‘getting it right’ and not making a ‘mistake’. If a mistake was made, however small, it resulted in the card being ripped up and the pure frustration exploded!
Nowadays, the difficulty has become more about what to write in a card. She appears to have a compulsion to write lots and lots of, what I call, loveliness! Which is great I hear you say, however the difficulty is that she will not be content until she is sure that whatever she has written will ultimately result in the recipient being so overwhelmed that it brings them to tears.
Careful consideration has to be given when I am writing gift tags
This actually broke my heart a little bit when I first realised that I really needed to think about, and be mindful of, what I wrote on gifts that I was giving. It was approximately three years ago when I first realised that I had to write the exact same message on everyone’s gifts with no deviation.
The reason I had to do this was so that my youngest didn’t feel any less loved or any less appreciated than her sisters or her Grandma. She would quickly pick up on if, for example, I’d written ‘love you to the moon and back’ or ‘all my love…’ on someone else’s tag and had only written ‘lots of love’ on hers. She would see this as I loved that other person more than I loved her.
The reason it broke my heart was because it was yet another stark reminder of how different our lives are and that I had to consciously think about EVERYTHING, even down to what I wrote on a gift tag!
Is this an OCD thing?
Not sure whether this is an OCD thing or not but my daughter certainly appears to be obsessive about buying things, not least presents. A million thoughts running though her head, including ‘have I bought enough presents for X, Y and Z?’, ‘what if they buy me a present and I haven’t bought them one?’, ‘what if I haven’t bought them as many as they have for me?’….the worries were endless.
I recall one year, not so long ago, where this had really got out of hand and I had to pull the reins in and almost pull back some reality. This particular year my daughter’s Christmas list, for who she wanted to buy for, reached a whole new level and totalled 67 members of staff at school! This of course was not feasible, not least for financial reasons. It was tricky to manage but she did eventually realise that this was indeed extreme and certainly not necessary or expected.
I used to be a big Christmas person, I would go full out on decorations, be very protective about how everything looked and not even allow the children to decorate the main trees etc! I used to like everything just so. However, these days, whilst I still love Christmas, I do have additional things to consider when it comes to decorating the house.
Are the trees going to remain upright? Are the ceiling decorations high enough not to be pulled down? When to decorate the house in festivities as in reality, how long have we got before the risk of destruction increases? How many times am I going to repair or replace something so it’s as I would like it to be for the big day?
These are all my thoughts, however when the inevitable happens, I then have to deal with a distraught child who emotionally beats herself up for the damage that has been caused and which then sends her self-esteem plummeting.
The anticipation of receiving gifts is just too much
It is not only the giving but also the receiving of gifts that is another huge challenge for us.
The uncertainty of what gifts will be received often becomes too overwhelming. Again, a million thoughts racing through her head, ‘am I going to like it?’, ‘am I going to receive what I have asked for?’. ‘what if I don’t like it?’, ‘what if my reaction is not appropriate?’, ‘what if it’s something I don’t like but I don’t want to appear rude?’. All of these, and some, cause anxieties to sky rocket!
The build up to this one specific day can be stressful for adults let alone children and even more so for children with additional needs.
So what do we do now? Well, something that initially went against the grain lol. I’m sure we all have our own little routines on Christmas day. For us it used to be waking up, doing stockings (this used to be my ploy to gain an extra half an hour in bed whilst my daughter’s older siblings did stockings with her), making a cuppa, opening all presents and then having breakfast.
However, this was causing anxieties which needed to be reduced. So now what we do is talk about what she could expect to receive, yes traditionally that means spoiling the surprise, but hey if it helps then why not? I also allow my daughter to open a number of presents in the week or two running up to Christmas day, so it’s not so overwhelming for her on the actual day.
Some additional challenges of Christmas is the change in routine. We are not used to having a house full and having to consider other people’s needs and sharing my attention.
As the host and parent to a child with additional needs, it can be really tricky trying to manage everyone’s behaviour and emotions. Sounds crazy that I should even need to think about this, but if you are a Special Needs parent you will get this. The fear of someone saying something wrong and it all exploding. Keeping a watchful eye for any slight change in mood or possible trigger. It can be exhausting!
There is also the additional mess and chaos of Christmas. The pots and pans everywhere, wrapping paper strewn all over the floor, the piles of gifts sat here there and everywhere etc. It’s worth remembering that any or all of these things can trigger an overload for your child.
Don’t be afraid to mix it up!
Christmas is a time for rejoicing (so I hear lol) but there are so many factors that have to be thought about and put into place, to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible. This is actually a time, for a parent anyway, that can feel like nothing short of a military operation! But don’t be afraid to mix it up! Traditional Christmas, pah what’s that?!
If your child is struggling, down tools and do whatever is needed to support your child. Ask family members to help and share the load. You don’t need to be the one doing it all. Ask others to peel the veg, have a tidy up or play a game with your child – this shouldn’t be an additionally stressful time for you and it’s okay to ask for help.
We mixed it up a bit last year as my eldest took my youngest down to my mum’s yard to feed and sort animals. As a PDA’er, mixing things up a bit appeared to help (on this occasion). It gave my youngest something to do, out of the ordinary, whilst I then had uninterrupted time to prepare breakfast and of course the big Christmas dinner without having to keep a watchful eye.
On the note of Christmas dinner, if your child struggles with having the traditional roast, then cook them their favourite instead. Whilst others may frown upon this, what is the harm if your child isn’t eating the same as everyone else?
It is also paramount for you and others to allow your child some space. If your child needs to take themselves away and play on their Ipad or whatever they like to do, that’s perfectly okay. Do what is best for your child and not what others expect of them.
If you have relatives that you know ‘don’t get it’ or you have identified things that could go wrong, then it may be a good idea to write or speak to them beforehand explaining what they can do to help ie remain quiet, not get involved in any situation that you may need to manage etc. If they are unable to respect your wishes then, as harsh as this may sound, it may be worth reconsidering inviting them?
Don’t ever feel bad to mix it up and do whatever is needed to support and help your child regulate.
A calm and content child will hopefully mean a calm and enjoyable Christmas for everyone!