Supporting Children with Complex Needs at Christmas
Overwhelm, change of routine, excitement, the unknown, surprises, sugar overload and social demands, reminders of birth family or contact with birth family; it's a lot for any child let alone a child with complex needs who finds general day to day life difficult to manage. Please bear in mind that this blog has been written to meet the needs of both Autistic children and children who have been adopted, however it may be relevant to other needs, too.
Christmas is the prime time for our children to experience a rise in meltdowns/shutdowns and parents/carers report a large rise in CPV (child to parent violence). What generally underpins all of this is anxiety due to all of the above. It is so difficult when we're in the thick of such behaviours to respond with love and empathy. Imagine being subjected to the latest spit in the face or pinch and punch and knowing that what your child really needs in that moment is to be met with 'I love you, you are safe and I see you're having a really hard time right now'. But as ever, behaviour is communication, and whilst it is so challenging for us as Parents and Carers, try to keep at the forefront of your mind that your child is in pain - in one respect or another, and their behaviours are telling us this.
Reaction to meltdowns/CPV is not the aim of this blog, I want to share with you my tried and tested tips that will help you to keep the anxiety of Christmas at a more manageable level before it reaches crisis point. This way, hopefully your child doesn't spend too much of their Christmas struggling with dysregulation, pain and meltdowns and you don't spend your Christmas feeling at a loss of how to support them through it. It's about being proactive and putting in the work on the build up and throughout, even if it seems as though your child is coping okay.
So here they are, each one of my tips are tried out and will be implemented for a 3rd year running.
1) The Santa story - this isn't a debate on what story you tell your child, the truth, the story or the traditions. But please consider how you talk about Santa in regards to the magic key/chimney to gain entry to your home and if he is watching or listening for 'good behaviour'. This one is especially for adopted children but may be applicable to other children.
Your home needs to be their safe place. Grown up's are scary to our children. Strangers have been into their home in the past and taken them away (albeit for safety but they didn't know that). Grown up's HAVE crept into their bedroom and hurt them. Even if this isn't their experience, most adopted children and anxious children view the world as unsafe and the idea of someone being able to enter their safe place is terrifying for them. In our home, 'the story says that Santa leaves presents outside the front door'. Same goes for those Santa cameras that watch and listen. Please consider how intruding this is for our children who need safety and security in their homes.
2) Keep the routine - It may seem monotonous but at a time of everything seeming different - their environment full of decorations, finishing school or nursery and more time at home, our children need the routine more than ever. Each child will have a different tolerance level, of course, but think of the key themes of the day. Aim to keep meal times the same, bath/bedtimes and getting ready for the day at the minimum. We also keep snack times the same and the feel of the day the same so for us it's time outside, low screen time, lots of 1:1 reading and play and sensory activities.
It's easy to get carried away with wanting to keep our children up later to attend all the events or watch that new Christmas movie or change up meal times but please think carefully. All these seemingly small changes lead to the 'nothing even happened' meltdowns days later.
3) Avoid sensory overload - Carefully consider things such as the lights on your Christmas tree, instead of multicoloured can you have them white? Instead of flashing or twinkling can you have them still? Consider the smells that your new Christmas candles may linger; orange, cinnamon, cranberry are all powerful smells that your child may not be able to tolerate. If like us you really want them can you save them until the child is in bed and open windows the next morning to let the smell out? And shopping. At a time when everything is different, a trip to the supermarket may be the thing that fills up the last space in the tolerance bucket and spills it over leading to meltdowns. If you can't leave them behind, can you go during Autism hour or first thing in the morning?
4) It's okay to say no - Christmas is a time for gatherings, social interaction, fuss, surprise and excitement. While this year is a little different (thanks Covid), you still may feel the pressure from family and friends to get together for big gatherings, to change your child's routine and take part in things that you know your child just won't be able to manage. Hear me clearly, it's okay to say no. You owe no explanation, a polite 'thanks, but no thanks' is absolutely fine. Just because the MIL, or your Dad feels as though your child 'needs to learn to cope', this is not a reason for you to break your boundary. You know your child and family don't live our experiences day in and out. My thought is always 'what is more important? my child's wellbeing or not upsetting a family member?'. Of course, no one wants to hurt anyone's feelings but at the expense of your child's mental health?
However, if you do feel unable to say no, if you do want to attend a family gathering (safely), and you feel your child will enjoy it with some support in place for them then please utilise some of these tips coming up.
5) Cautiously approach gifts - Firstly, consider avoiding wrapping paper. The noise, the crunch, the shine, glitter and texture is sensory hell. We don't wrap Ella's gifts for sensory purposes and the surprise element, it's just too much pressure. Instead we use a sack and put her unwrapped presents in there. This way she can spend all day, two days if she wants to, taking things out of her sack when she feels able.
With family, I would suggest having a private chat about the expectations they put on your child. My personal recommendation is to ask them to leave the gift to the side and tell the child in private that their gift/s are there whenever they are ready. They could offer your child an empty room to open them together, or alone, or they can take them home and open them whenever they want. I'd suggest avoiding everyone overloading the child with gifts in one go and expecting them to open it there and then. I understand family want to see the child's reaction, but this is too much pressure for our children.
6) Think about meals - Ahh, the Christmas tradition, everyone eats the full Christmas dinner sat around the table. Maybe your family like to put everything in bowls in the middle for people to help themselves. And Christmas evening you want to put out the cheese and crackers for people to enjoy. All beautiful Christmas moments, but again stressful for our children and often food is one of the biggest triggers. Many Autistic children won't touch a vegetable, and find it too difficult to sit down long enough to eat a meal. The social pressure of sitting around a table where everyone can see the child eating is too much. And for adopted children, avoid sharing food from bowls at ALL COSTS. Many of our children have not been fed adequately in the past so sharing food is a huge trigger for them and they will constantly worry they won't end up eating. Cue food hoarding, stealing, hiding it under their beds for weeks.
-Let children eat what they usually do, if it's beige food all day every day let this continue.
-Let them get down from the table as and when they need, even at other people's houses. Or take a little table for them to eat at, or go into another room and eat with your child (our choice).
-Absolutely no sharing food. Plate up and plate equally between children. The last thing you want is your child melting down because their sibling has been given more roast potatoes than them. This will be a bigger trigger than you'd imagine.
- Keep to usual meal times where possible.
7) Have a quiet space - Both at home and at others homes. Our home is a quiet space generally, we have low stimulation throughout so everywhere feels calm to meet Ella's needs. If we have family over on Christmas Day then we ensure that either myself or my Wife will take regular sensory breaks away from family. If we visit family we also take regular sensory breaks where one of us will take Ella into a separate room without anyone else and read a book, or have a chat, even just to change her nappy is a break from the fuss. Regular breaks, at least one an hour are vital to slow down the load to the nervous system. Try to remember their favourite sensory toys such as a chew, a fiddle toy, ear defenders etc.
Christmas with a child with additional needs, like all other parts of our family life takes a lot more conscious thoughts and decision making. It requires difficult conversations with family and a vast amount of support. You may have read this thinking 'oh my child is fine with wrapping paper' or you may have laughed at 'no sharing food'. You may think they enjoy the surprises and the fuss. And while it may seem this way in the moment, it doesn't mean that they will cope overall with all the change and excitement of Christmas. I've spoken to many Parents who adopted their child, or many Parents/Carers of Autistic children who go all out at Christmas thinking that they cope fine in the moment and then wonder why they have almighty meltdowns that seem to come from no where, they aren't sleeping all of a sudden, they're irritable and have started becoming violent again. Our children are different to neurotypical children, their brains are physically different and it is our responsibility to make adjustments to support and include them in Christmas plans in a way that works for them and their additional needs.
Christmas needn't be boring, it needn't be the season that we dread in case of CPV and meltdowns. It just needs to be approached with caution with a bit of extra work in place to help them to enjoy it.