Resources: Holiday Survival Guide for Families with Special Needs
Parenting Kiddos Who Sabotage Big Days by Jen Hatmaker
You Can't Lose Christmas, Ralphie by Christine Moers
Parenting Kiddos Who Sabotage Big Days by Jen Hatmaker
You Can't Lose Christmas, Ralphie by Christine Moers
Between scary creatures and a sugar rush on Halloween, the start of many schedule changes with Daylight Savings Time, family gatherings on Thanksgiving stirring up feelings about family members not present (including bio), and feeling judged to see if you’re naughty or nice… there is no shortage of potential trauma and upset during the holiday season. For parents of children with trauma and special needs, the holiday season, birthdays (theirs and others), adoption and TPR days, and other "traumaversaries," can create significant disruption and spark some serious trouble.
“Around here we usually hold our breath in October and don’t exhale until January,” says Barbara Streett, a parent of one special needs child, 10, and two neurotypical kids, 7 and 5, respectively. “If it’s not one thing at this time of year, it’s most definitely another.”
This is a great article about why our children act the way they do on holidays. The following is a paraphrased excerpt from this article:
WHY: Adopted children have been abandoned causing deep shame and feelings of being unlovable and unworthiness of anything good. This has nothing to do with the reality that they are now in a safe, loving family. So they sabotage to gain control of what they know will be inevitable disappointment and if they trigger us into anger then it just validates their beliefs.
WHY: "Big Days trigger Big Feelings. No matter the extreme (good or bad), it is all INTENSE and triggering."
WHY: Holidays rarely have routine or structure and they are full of expectations and surprises (what is in the package? did she get something better than me? will I get what I desperately want? can I handle that?). The stress is overwhelming and scary! Children react to feeling unsafe by going in to fight/ flight or freeze mode (meltdowns, shut downs, attempting to totally control the situation which is impossible...).
WHY: "Big Days are a reminder of what should have been but wasn’t, all that was lost, all that will never be."
- Limit the "runway." Downplay the hype and discussions of expectations as much as possible. Avoid things like decorating for Christmas as long as possible. Not letting a child know you are leaving for a trip until the day before or even the day of prevents them angsting over it and sabotaging it.
- KISS - Keep it simple! Keep things as lowkey as possible, don't make elaborate plans, instead schedule lots of downtime and avoid overwhelming/ overstimulating situations whenever possible (like shopping or parties).
- "We cast simple, manageable vision for Big Days: this is what we’ll do, this is who will be there, this is what we won’t be doing, this is about how long it will last."
- Use calming techniques when you see a child getting overwhelmed or ramping up.
- Acknowledge and talk about the child's "Big Feelings." "We assure them that whether they get a handle on it or not, they could not possibly make us love them less, and if the worst thing that happens is they have a bad day, then no big deal."
- Remember that we as parents are human too! "We’ll just keep working, keep trying, keep loving, and keep forgiving ourselves when it all goes sideways. You are not alone, know that."
Christine Moers says one of the most important things to remember, "YOU CAN'T LOSE CHRISTMAS!"
"Trauma has jacked with the brains of our kids. In a stressful moment/week/season they get stuck in a part of their brain that was meant to only be visited on occasion, in extreme circumstances. Our kids also find themselves regressed emotionally and developmentally in those times. They can be, quite literally, a three-year-old in a 12-year-old body.
Imagine a three year old kicking and biting and hitting two days before Christmas. Throwing toys and scratching up the family dining room set. Having a massive tantrum. Would we take Christmas away? Nope. That's crazy talk. A three year old cannot understand the magnitude of what they're doing when they feel out of control. We would redirect in the moment. When they are calm, we would reconnect with them and give them an opportunity to do the same. That is how we heal and guide young children. Our kids need the exact same thing. There is a reason they do these crazy things that are just so beyond description. They are camped in a part of their brain that wanted to kick them out long ago.
Family celebrations and holidays are an opportunity to imprint into their minds and hearts: you are a part of this family. Period. Finito. You can never lose that. "The challenges associated with holidays like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s, Gotcha Days, and birthdays can be overwhelming for a family with special needs, but with preparation and awareness of the individual family member’s needs it can be done!
A few minor tweaks to holiday rituals can go a long way.
- Instead of big family gatherings with lots of expectations, try downsizing!
- Instead of big family gatherings, try spacing out visits with one or two relatives at a time. Have some quiet activities for the child in case they become overwhelmed.
- Try to stick closely to your child’s usual schedule - regular nap time, bedtime and meal times are important!
- If you are visiting, try sending family members a letter beforehand with some suggestions about how to make the child feel most comfortable (See appendix for sample letter.)
- Set up a safe place in the house for your child to go if he or she just wants to be alone. Stock this place with a few soft toys, a quiet activity or two and some books, maybe an MP3 player filled with soothing music.
- Take electronic gadgets AND the chargers. There are inexpensive converters that can be plugged into your car allowing you to charge items that normally plug into the wall or even USB.
- A personal DVD player or laptop stocked with movies and/or games.
- Pack a personal back pack for child with new dollar store items, include a few favorite toys, pencils, snacks etc.
- A bag with new or rarely used items – like travel games and snacks, that can be introduced at various intervals throughout the trip.
- Small heavy blanket, for sensory kids.
- Travel pillow and soft toy/lovey.
- Ask flight attendants and hotel about accommodation’s available to make your trip a family success.
- Plan for frequent stops to move around (look for places with playgrounds). Think about traveling at night, but if you travel during the day, try to stick as closely as possible to routines – especially mealtimes and bedtime.
- Visual pencil box for travel and helping child understand sequence of events. These are simple pictures, stored in a pencil box, with Velcro dots on each picture. The box has 3-4 Velcro dots (the soft side of the Velcro) on the outside. Pictures are placed on the box so the child understands the order of activities. For example: a suitcase (to show packing), a car, food (to show will eat lunch), then a picture of the destination (ex. Grandma’s).
- Think about putting your child in respite and going without him/her! Just be sure it's not treated as a punishment for the child (it can be a low-key fun time with a family friend or relative). Trips can be just too overwhelming for some kids and can ruin the experience for everyone else. "Re-entry" (coming back from time away from your child) can be super hard, but if it gives you some respite and a chance to recharge then most trauma mamas agree the re-entry meltdowns are worth it.
Remember, every child is different, and there is no flow chart for how this works. The overarching goal: Be flexible, and remember that no tradition is more important than the comfort and happiness of your kids.
Holidays and the like are supposed to be special times for the whole family. Most of us grow up expecting them to be memorable and fun. When we have children, we experience these dreams and expectations even more acutely. It’s perfectly natural, then, to experience an emotional roller coaster when presented with the challenge of navigating holidays with a child with special needs. One key to managing this inevitably frustrating situation is learning to let go. Set realistic expectations and be flexible.
“You have to be willing to modify certain traditions, or forget them all together,” says Barbara Streett, parent of a child with autism. “What you want or envision may not be the best thing for your child, so you have to change your plan accordingly.”
- Holidays are about the kids, but a successful holiday doesn’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell painting to make the kids happy.
- Remind yourself that it’s OK to let go of certain traditions that just won’t work… for now.
- Allow yourself to be frustrated and anxious; there’s no shame in that. When you feel frustrations welling up, take a step back and focus on what you’re doing.
- Frequently remind your child that there is nothing they can do to lose Christmas. This is frequently such a source of anxiety for children that they sabotage it rather than take that chance. In the long run this “naughty” behavior will usually stop as the anxiety decreases.
- Remember what your child’s “currency” is and use that to interact with him or her.
- Streett is careful to add that especially at holiday time, the definition of a family meal should also be flexible. “If your child doesn’t want to eat with everybody else, that needs to be OK; if the child needs to take a break, let him go,” she says. “The sooner you stop fighting the fact that these kinds of traditions must be set in stone, the more enjoyable the holiday will be.”
- If your child tends to destroy gifts (very common when they don’t feel they deserve gifts or for now aren’t able to accept what they mean). Try inexpensive gifts from the dollar store. The bigger the better.
At our house (2 siblings adopted as teens from foster care and 2 neurotypical biochildren), we realized our children were overwhelmed by the holidays so we started simplifying things with some new traditions:
Children of trauma can be both attracted and triggered by the gore and scary fantasy associated with Halloween (not to mention the sugar rush!). I love Halloween, but my kids just couldn't handle it. We chose to turn off the porch light and have a small family Halloween party. We ordered pizza and soda (a special treat), and I bought each child a bag of their favorite kind of snack size candy that was just for them (explained as, "This way you don't get a bunch of stuff you didn't like!"), made Halloween shaped sugar cookies they could decorate themselves, and watched a non-triggering Halloween movie (usually the "made for TV" Disney movies). As they got a little better about handling the holiday, we left the porch light on and the kids took turns handing out treats to the little Trick or Treaters. When they hit their tweens and young teens we dressed up and did a quick trick or treating walk of the block as a family. They were allowed to have one or two friends join us afterward for a small Halloween party. By their late teens they were told they were "too old" for Trick or Treating, and we went back to having a small party and handing out treats.
Our Christmas Traditions -
For us, Christmas is very low key. We have several traditions which seems to help anxiety levels, because the kids know what is coming next (helps them feel safer).
Jesus’ Birthday party –
To alleviate some of the building of stress and anxiety of waiting for Christmas and change the focus from the gifts, we celebrate Jesus’ birth on Christmas Eve with a birthday cake and Jesus gifts, which are similar to New Year’s Eve resolutions (everyone writes on a piece of paper what they are going to give Jesus this year, usually something we think he would want us to do – like spend more time with the family or give more time to those less fortunate. Each person can choose to read theirs aloud and then we put the paper on the tree. Then we read last year’s gifts and see how we did. Afterward we all eat birthday cake (helps my antsy ones sit through this, knowing there's cake when it's done!).
Christmas Eve presents -
Before bed, we open our Christmas Eve gift - usually a pair of PJs, and a book or stuffed toy – depending on the child’s age. This helps the younger children wait (and makes sure everyone looks nice for pictures in the morning!
Three Gifts -
A few years ago we decided to start only giving 3 gifts to the kids on Christmas morning. (It was good enough for Jesus!). It has helped me out in many ways (the kids are not quite as fond of it). Usually at least two of the three gifts that the children get are “themed” gifts. So it’s more than one item in the package. The cost of the gift seems to be largely unimportant – the most envied (meltdown inducing) gift was a box of highlights that one daughter got and the other (RAD) daughter didn’t.
• Taken some of the focus off of gifts and put it back on the “reason for the season.”
• Reduced some of the pressure to get the exact same number and equivalent gifts for each of my 4 children (I remember my sisters and I counting gifts on Christmas Eve – cost wasn’t as important).
• Decreased the clutter. My adopted children can’t handle too much stuff in their rooms or lives.
• Reduced the cost! Christmas is expensive enough with 4 kids.
• Made shopping easier. It’s HARD to find presents for teenage boys (assuming that like us you do not want to buy expensive electronic stuff he’s only going to break or lose anyway and/or can’t handle).
• Less wrapping!
• Less time sitting watching everyone open presents (better for my kids with ADHD).
My biokids (7 and 10) still believed in Santa when the older kids (11 and 13) came in to our home the month before Christmas. We made it very clear to all the kids that if they said they didn't believe in Santa then Santa wouldn't bring them presents. My insistence that Santa is real (HE IS!) caused some issues with Kitty, because she decided that made me a liar). Santa used to bring the best present, but we changed that approach when we realized we didn't want him getting all the credit! We wanted the kids to know that we were supplying the gifts that said, "We know you, we love you and we are giving you these things because we want to show you how we feel." Santa still brought stocking gifts (although the kids knew we added to those), but he started bringing "family presents" - gifts for the whole family to enjoy rather than for each child. Over the years, Santa has brought, a dog (a red husky named Scarlet Claus), a big screen TV, a Wii, a Clearplay DVD player with a bunch of movies they hadn't previously been allowed to watch...
Even the bio kids start to go nuts about 2 weeks before a birthday and for about a week after. Not just their own birthday, any family member's birthday. When the biokids were little, I used to throw big parties with the whole neighborhood invited. We had balloon animals (made by a friend) and two homemade cakes (weird family tradition - long story!), costumes, activities, pinatas, slumber parties... we learned that this wouldn't work for our kids with trauma issues at Kitty's first birthday party with us. She spent the entire day in her (walk-in) closet with one friend (the youngest at the party).
New tradition! Birthday parties are usually dinner out (child's choice) and include extended family (aunt, uncle, first cousins, and grandparents). If the child has a party (sometimes they're not in a good place - like just out of a psych hospital), then it's usually at home with maybe 2-3 friends. If it's to be a slumber party then only 1 friend. May sound harsh, but it was all they could handle. The biokids are introverts so they're usually ok with it too, but we have arranged to have all the siblings stay with the grandparents doing something fun while the child who can handle a bigger party has one. For the parents, we have a quiet celebration with family and then do something on our own without the kids.
"Gotcha Days" -
We've never celebrated Gotcha Days. I feel this day is too traumatic. Yes, they are getting a new family, but it also symbolizes losing the old one. On the actual day of their adoption, we had lunch or dinner at a place of the child's choosing. Coincidentally, our kids' "Gotcha day" falls right around their birthday (2 weeks before for Kitty, and one day after for Bear) - another good reason not to have another party. We do celebrate the day the kids moved in with our family, but usually just with sparkling grape juice or cider (Kitty loves this stuff so reminds us every year) served in our fancy crystal champagne glasses.
Life Changing Events (moving, change in caregivers, new siblings added to the family, sickness, death or loss of a family member, foster care, adoption...). -
Even positive changes add stress to our lives and our bodies don't know the difference between the two, plus our kids tend to have a Low Tolerance/ High Overwhelm. Stress can lead to physical illness as well as acting out or acting in (Dysregulation and Meltdowns, Handling Child Stress, The Spoon Theory)
"We often think of stress as being a largely mental state. After all, it seems like we can stress out about things we only imagine. But stress is more than just a thought in our minds. Stress is a physical response in our body to a perceived threat. Thousands of years ago, this stress kept us alive by flooding our bodies with cortisol and adrenaline in large enough amounts to escape attacking animals or tribes. In modern times, our most stressful life events are much different. Our bodies respond the same way, though, and sometimes that can lead to illness." Top 10 Most Stressful Life Events: The Holmes And Rahe Stress ScaleUse calming techniques when you see a child getting overwhelmed or ramping up.
Starting or Ending School -
School holidays like Winter Break and Spring Break - any major changes in the child's schedule and routine can be terrifying for the child and trigger Dysregulation and Meltdowns. (School )
There are lots of triggers for feeling unsafe that we as rational adults totally miss - food is a huge trigger for my kids. So if he suddenly lashes over a snack, it may have brought up a memory (smell is a BIG memory trigger). A lot of times our kids don't know how to react to big feelings so they get overwhelmed and drop in to fight/ flight/ freeze mode. Triggers to watch for is HALTING US (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Ill, New - changes are scary!, Guilty, and UnSafe, ). Calming Techniques.
Top Toys for children with special needs: http://www.abilitypath.org/tools-resources/links--resources/abilitypath_holidaysurvivalguideforparentswithspecialneeds_2010.pdf
Modelmekids.com - Model Me Kids® videos demonstrate social skills by modeling peer behavior at school, on a playdate, at a birthday party, on the playground, at a library, at the dentist, restaurant, and more. Designed as a teaching tool for children, adolescents, and teenagers with Autism, Asperger Syndrome, and developmental delays, the videos are used by teachers, parents, and therapists. Real children model each skill.
Sample Holiday Visit Letter – Adapted from http://www.abilitypath.org article –
Holiday Survival Guide for Parents with Special Needs
Dear Family and Friends:
We look forward to seeing everyone for the holidays. I can’t wait to see everyone and celebrate together. Before we gather this year, I would like to share with you about ______________ and let you know how you can support him and our family.
My son is loving, kind, and very affectionate. He loves to talk about his siblings, ______________ and ______________, and camping. He likes to play Candyland, Legos, and with his iPod.
He also has (attachment disorder/ autism/ sensory integration disorder...).
Holidays are a time of year that ______________ looks forward to. However, the extended
family and friends, decorations, and festive noises that the holiday brings can be frightening
and/or overwhelming for him. They also cause him anxiety because there are so many new things happening that are different from his routine. He is hypervigilant about new situations, and it reminds him of traumatic things from his past. Please understand that this is not about his feelings about you or me.
______________ may need a quiet place to retreat to take in everything presented to him in this new and different environment. Please have a quiet room available for ______________ so that he can have time to himself to process everything. This room should be off limits to everyone but ______________ and me (mom). ______________ is used to routine and all these changes can cause anxiety. Once ______________ can regroup, he may be OK to return. However, if something changes, we may need to leave suddenly. Also, although we love being with family, we will need to leave at __pm to allow ____________ to stick as closely to his normal bedtime routine as possible. Please support us in this. It is very necessary to his well being.
______________ or I may appear bossy and controlling. This is to help him cope. ___________ needs structure, and often things have to be done in a way he is familiar with or else he may get stressed and frustrated. This does not mean you have to change the way you are doing things--just please be patient with ______________, and look to me (mom) to redirect this behavior.
People with (attachment disorder/trauma/ autism/ sensory integration disorder...) often have certain behaviors to help themselves feel more comfortable and safe. ______________ is not trying to be disruptive or deﬁant; he is doing this to regulate himself in his surroundings. Please be respectful of these behaviors and look to me (mom) on how to handle this.
_____________ often needs to get up and walk around (maybe even go to his quiet room) to regulate himself. I ask that you not give this a lot of attention and continue eating and conversing.
Please do not be critical of mine or my husband’s parenting skills. Remember that ____________ needs to be watched more closely than most children are his age. Like all parents, we do our best but are not perfect. Holidays are ﬁlled with new sights, sounds, and smells packed into a busy and often frantic household with a big tree plopped down in the middle of it. It is very hard work to incorporate (attachment disorder/trauma/ autism/ sensory integration disorder...) into this. I said it was hard – but it can be done. We have been doing this for ____ years, and although it is not perfect, it works for us.
We are excited to share this holiday experience with you and look forward to seeing you,
Dear Friend or Family Member Who Doesn't "Get It"
A Letter To Our Friends And Family During The Holidays (Things Adoptive and Special Needs Families Want You To Know)
Another letter to family and friends.