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Coping with Christmas

Although it’s often referred to as the most magical time of the year, in reality Christmas is a stressful time for most parents. The preparations begin weeks, or even months, in advance. Going shopping and finding and buying the right gifts can be stressful as well as expensive. Add in the pressures of getting the house ready, having visitors and going visiting and maybe having to cook for lots of extra people, and it can feel like a meltdown is imminent.

When your child has long term or complex health needs it can feel particularly daunting and overwhelming. Christmas is an exciting time but it can also be an incredibly disruptive period and when your child has a health condition, it magnifies the pressure and effects of that disruption. For starters, there’s the build-up and uncertainty of not really understanding when Christmas is. Usual routines and plans change and the number of events, many of them new and unpredictable, start to take place. Visually it’s a confusing time and can affect sensory overload. The appearance of a Christmas tree in the house can be strange. Lots of different Santas appearing in various locations can trigger many questions, as can expectations that aren’t met (like “it’s meant to snow at Christmas – why isn’t it?”). Children may have some very specific ideas about the presents and activities they want and even not knowing what is inside a wrapped present can be a trigger.

Factor in all the extra social occasions where there are lots of people and noise, the unfamiliar clothing that children may be wearing, and the amplified sense of emotion you get at Christmas anyway and you can appreciate why it can become incredibly difficult for them to cope.  And of course, it can be difficult for you too as you try to handle all the additional Christmas pressures on top of the ongoing challenges you’re already dealing with.  

But there are steps you can take to manage and alleviate some of the pressures over the Christmas period so here are some suggestions you could consider.

Preparing for transitions 

  • Don’t talk about Christmas too early, try to limit it to December if possible. 
  • Basic routine and structure are important so keep them going where you can.
  • Use calendars, and other visual planners to keep on top of significant events and activities.
  • Try to prepare your child for any changes that might be happening. Make your child aware of beginnings and endings. Balance it with a need to avoiding ‘hyping’ those changes too soon.  
  • Use visual information to help prepare everyone beforehand. That can include sharing a written or picture plan with your child or looking at photos together of your previous Christmas.
  • Give plenty of quiet time to allow them to process information.

Reducing overload

  • Do you really have to do everything? Being selective can make a big difference. Choose activities carefully, ideally with the option to cancel or postpone at the last minute. It’s far better to do fewer things successfully.
  • Go online to check out new venues or events and to gauge how well they can cater for your child's condition. Click here to find out more.
  • If you’re concerned school activities are causing too much stress, share your concerns with school.  Between you, you might be able to plan alternatives that reduce stress rather than having to opt out completely.

Having visitors and going visiting

  • Prepare friends and family beforehand. Explain to them what they can do if a crisis or stressful moment happens. Perhaps they can provide a quiet space, or have some kind of distraction to hand like access to a computer. Or it might be explaining when they should discreetly leave the room to enable you to deal with a situation.
  • Practice social skills like hugs and kisses with your child beforehand so they have a better sense of what to expect.
  • Don’t push your luck. Have a plan about how long you are going to stay and who you are going to see and stick to it. It’s far better to leave on a positive note so you’ll feel more confident about doing it again.
  • Being around lots of people can feel overwhelming for both you and your child. Give yourselves the time and space you both need to recover.

Coping with the unpredictable

  • Surprises, even the nice ones, can be very difficult to cope with, so do what you can to reduce that sense of surprise. For example, consider not wrapping gifts. Alternatively you could write what’s inside on the label.
  • Spread out the opening of presents, maybe just one or two at a time.
  • To avoid possible confusion make clear who the presents have come from: Santa, you or a family member.

And finally, be aware of your own Christmas stresses. When we’re stressed we don’t process information well, particularly verbal information. And your emotions can be picked up on, magnified and mirrored back. So build in plenty of time for calm-down and chill-out breaks for everyone in the family to do their own thing. Also remember it’s very easy to fixate on what went wrong last time and what could go wrong this time. Make sure you bring balance by also remembering there were and will be good times this Christmas. You are not on your own, there are people around who will want to help so make the most of them, spread the load and give yourself permission to have some very special Christmas moments.

Written by Rachel Green