The holidays are an exciting time filled with fun events, fancy decorations, and family traditions. They are also a time that is often filled with changes in routine, unexpected melt-downs, and unrealistic expectations. I took a continuing education course last year that talked about the pediatric brain, and all of the different factors that come into play when determining a child’s current state of alertness, regulation, and overall mood. Things like lacking sleep, differences in diet, and even changes in their bowel/bladder schedule can all have a significant impact on a child’s overall state of well-being. This change can be so significant that it can even have an impact their balance, coordination, and emotional regulation. I will notice that a child is acting different in a therapy session and I’m never surprised when I chat with mom or dad when I hear that they went to bed later than normal, went out to eat at a new restaurant, or haven’t had a bowel movement in a few days, as these are all very common factors that come into play when determining a child’s demeanor each and every day. As we age, we learn how to habituate and adjust to these changes, and we even learn how to cope and perform in spite of these changes, but children often need help being successful when these changes occur. I’ve listed a few strategies and tips that I’ve learned over the years to help your holiday season (hopefully) go over more smoothly.
Use a visual schedule or visual feedback tool whenever available: Giving children warnings and information in the form of visual input has been proven to decrease anxiety about that event as well as give them a second form of clarification that a change is going to occur. Sometimes simply telling a child about a change or event doesn’t provide enough feedback to prepare him or her for the event or change that is about to take place. With the increase in technology use, many children respond better to visual input and display an increased understanding when they can “see” the change coming rather than only hear about it. This might look like drawing pictures together about what you’ll be doing, showing pictures online or on your phone about where you will be going and the expected behaviors associated with that event, and even showing pictures of people they will be spending time with (family members you might not see frequently, children that will be at the work holiday party, etc.) can help alleviate anxiety and prepare a child for changes in routine that are going to take place.
Schedule sensory and “body breaks” frequently: Perform 10 jumping jacks together before walking into the mall to see Santa, hop from the car to grandma’s doorstep in single file line, or wheelbarrow walk down the hall and back when little bodies start to get fidgety in the middle of sister’s holiday play. These small breaks can make a BIG difference. Even if the child isn’t displaying seeking or avoiding behaviors, adding these small bursts of input throughout the day can actually prevent a melt-down or tantrum before it even happens. Ideally, enough sensory or body breaks will be provided throughout the day that those seeking or avoiding behaviors don’t have the chance to emerge.
Come prepared! Bringing a small bag or box of fidgets and other sensory tools and toys can make a big difference as behaviors and over-stimulation starts to emerge. I recommend small finger fidgets like an elastic bead string, a squeeze ball, or theraputty, oral motor fidgets such as gum, a chewee tube, or crunchy snacks, and visual motor fidgets such as a clear tube filled with alphabet beads, beans, and other “seek and find” objects, mazes, and glitter/sensory hourglasses. I also recommend keeping a few strips of theraband in this kit to tie around the base of chairs and allow children to either place their feet behind to kick into, or place their feet on top of to bounce while sitting, as well as to pull on if they are seeking heavier input through their arms while sitting. This is also a great place to keep a weighted lap band, headphones, and a wide-brimmed hat to put on if the environment becomes too loud or too bright. These types of objects can allow your child to be physically present in the environment while still escaping some of the sensory input that might be too much to take in all at once.
Try to keep as much regularity as possible: Sticking to a similar bedtime, similar nutrition when possible, and other similar morning/night routines will allow a child to feel “grounded” even when other daily routines are changing. This gives them something to expect and count on even when other changes are taking place. Even keeping a bag of preferred food “car snacks” can help with the familiarity as well as keeping nutrition consistent while on-the-go during the holidays. Know where to pick your battles and when it’s more important for the child’s presence to be the focus. If you struggle with feeding and mealtime on a regular basis, the holidays might not be the best time to present a ton of new foods and increase expectations associated with mealtime. It might be best to present accepted, preferred foods in order to keep anxiety low, in order to increase the child’s ability to remain present and engaged while also keeping meltdowns or negative behaviors low.
Come up with an escape plan: Discussing some of the changes that are about to occur is a start, but providing your child with a safe and acceptable “escape plan” can also decrease some of the fear and anxiety surrounding the new situations they are about to face. I suggest taking a picture of the child in various states of regulation, such as a picture smiling, a picture frowning, a picture crying or yelling, and a picture of them when angry or frustrated. From there, you can work together to create a list of tools and “escapes” to utilize when the child is feeling each emotion. For example, on the back of the angry/frustrated picture, it might say “take a 5 minute walk, listen to a favorite song, get deep pressure/squeezes, or have a snack” when the child is feeling this emotion, you can present them with the card and they can choose which escape they are needing at that moment. These cards can be kept with you for easy reference even after the holidays are over to make these coping strategies and tools become second nature.
Give yourself a break! The holidays are stressful—for everyone involved. Maybe you’ve always felt tension with your sister-in-law or dread playing referee to all of the sleep deprived cousins on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps you get in a fight with your wife every single Christmas Eve and the holidays bring out every ugly emotion your 4-year-old possesses. Regardless of your personal and current situation, the holidays are a time of love and connectedness, but they are also a time of sadness, expectation, disappointment, and unresolved issues. Giving yourself grace throughout this time is essential to finding joy throughout the holiday season. At the end of the day, it’s just a day. And if it doesn’t go as planned, you can always try again tomorrow. Try not to set so much expectation and worth on the outcome and, instead, enjoy the process. And as a last little reminder, nobody’s life looks the way it appears on social media. So let this be the season that you stop comparing your behind-the-scenes to someone else’s highlight reel.