Tips for Reducing Christmas Break Anxiety
by Chynna Laird, SPD author, blogger and momma
Jaimie checks out the new things I’ve written on our kitchen calendar to coordinate with what’s on the one in her bedroom. She sees the big ‘Yay!’ sticker I put on the 17th indicating the last day of school before Winter Break.
“Does that mean Christmas time starts on 17?” she asks.
“Well, it means that your break from school starts on that day,” I say.
Jaimie pauses, her face goes blank. “What are we going to do?”
I give a few suggestions as she scribbles them all down in her notebook that she titled, “Plans For Christmas Break”. She puts everything under either Plan A, Plan B, or Plan C headings. Then she worries we won’t have enough to do and comes up with a few other back up events. I’m exhausted just talking about everything! But I’ve gotten used to this because, as odd as it sounds, it’s calming for Jaimie to know what’s coming ahead and having a plan helps her get through these changes thrown her way.
Jaimie’s tremendous anxiety was what made me realize something was truly wrong. And I noticed it as early as weeks into her life. Jaimie changes when she’s anxious—not just physically but her overall ability to function. She’s extremely reactive, fearful of most experiences, people and events, her sleeping patterns were poor and she obsessed about things. Not just things going on at the time but things that might happen. Her body gets rigid, her shoulders hunch over, she walks around on her tippie toes (more often than usual), she rocks, her face goes pale…stoic…and she completely introverts. Yes, many of these are signs that her body needs some sensory input too but there are times when she is still anxious even after I’ve filled her up with a good sensory diet and squishy massages. Why? Because although anxiety and SPD are synonymous for many, not every child with SPD will have anxiety and certainly not to the level Jaimie experiences. Each child is different.
What most of us don’t realize is that anxiety isn’t the whole enchilada; it’s a piece of the whole puzzle—a sign that something else is going on beneath the surface. Anxiety is a mixture of emotions like worry, fear and stress that, when mixed together with sensory issues, can cause an eruption of external behaviors such as the ones we see in our ‘sensational’ kids. Anxiety is what fires up that ‘fight and flight’ mode that our kiddos are already in most of the time. Then the sensory sensitivities become even more intense because the often unpleasant feelings of anxiety can ‘sharpen’ those sensory issues. And then not only is the ‘sensational’ kid completely disorganized, she is too scared to do anything to calm herself down out of fear she’ll get worse. This the vicious cycle we got stuck in during our earlier years with Jaimie.
But once we finally got Jaimie into sensory integration therapy with her OT (whom I refer to as our ‘angel on earth’) we were able to figure things out. In the earlier years, she wasn’t able to communicate what was going on: She couldn’t tell us that the Christmas lights we’d put on our tree for her that flashed and sang high-pitched versions of Christmas carols drove her insane. She didn’t have the words to tell us that the baking I did made her gag. She wasn’t able to express to us that putting the tree up, the mantle decorations, the lights, tinsel and piles of presents under the tree all at once were too many changes for her to deal with all at once. And we didn’t have the knowledge or the coping methods to help guide her through it all. My baby’s intense anxiety stemmed from a fear of her environment that we had no idea about nor was she able to tell us. Once we had all the right tools and strategies in place, we were much better equipped to guide Jaimie through the most stressful times, especially during the Holiday Season.
Last week, I wrote a post about basic tips to try through the Season’s festivities. Here’s another set of suggestions to help your ‘sensational’ family through some of the more stressful days:
Stick to the usual school bed/wakeup times as close as possible. Our bedtime routine is sacred and we stick to it even during holiday times, when Grams comes to visit or other excitement is going on. Not only is it good to have one part of the day your kid knows will be the same no matter what but it’s much easier getting back into the usual school routine.
Keep it simple. You don’t need to put up every Christmas or other Holiday Decoration Man has created and stuffed on the shelves. Put up those few things that mean the most, those knick-knacks that are your traditional treasures then leave out anything too flashy, loud, smelly or distracting. Most of the decorations we have on our tree are things the girls have made.
Pick the stuff you all really want to do then leave the rest. The Holidays are all about spending time with those you don’t get to see as much the rest of the year as well as those who mean the most. So, stick with those groups then leave the rest for other times.
Take your time. You don’t need to decorate the entire house in one day. We take over a week sometimes to get everything out. Then it’s not as overwhelming…for any of us! And you can even take the whole day (or a couple of days) to open gifts. We get a ridiculous amount of gifts and Jaimie goes crazy. We open a few then have a break. Open a few more then have lunch or go outside. Open more then play in the basement. Read your child’s signs and go with her sensory flow, so to speak.
Do lots of outside fun, weather permitting. This is so important. Even in the coldest of weather, kids need to get outside for that sunshine and vital vitamin D. Get your kiddos out in the winter weather, even if it’s just for a little while. My rule is we have to stay outside at least as long as it takes to get ready, with four kids plus myself that’s about 20 minutes minimum.
Talk, Talk, Talk. I get Jaimie talking and writing a lot when Christmas Vacation starts. (She also gets anxious with school being out for a few weeks—a change in routine!) This not only gives her a positive way to work through things but it helps prevent her from ‘stuffing’ feelings and worries to the point where she isn’t sleeping or eating. Writing is one of her strengths so I like working with her through that talent.
As your child grows, you’ll find things will get better because he’ll know what to do when he feels he’s had ‘too much’. Jaimie is now at the point where she can either tell me what’s wrong and what she needs to feel better (eg: “Mama? My body hurts. Can you please squeeze/rub/gently massage me?”) or she’ll say, “I want to be alone” and go to her ‘Quiet Place’. Even just a few months ago, she wasn’t where she could do those things yet.
Believe me, I know it can be hard getting through some days. The one thing I’ll leave you with is that helping Jaimie with her anxiety has really helped me deal more with my own. Without even knowing it, Jaimie has taught me what’s really important in life and to focus on those things. Today, there’s a lot more laughter than tears; a lot more enjoyment than stress; and a heckuva lot more fun! And there will be for you too.