Protecting the Holiday Cheer When Your Child Is Overwhelmed by It All
It’s the most wonderful time of the year…right? The baking and shopping and advent preparations are like caffeine to me. But parties for hosting and much mistletoeing don’t always make for happy children. The oldest of our 4 children is a real lover of everything Christmas, but his struggle with chronic anxiety and sensory processing issues can easily turn us all into Grinches. For him, a holiday full of crowded family celebrations and quintessential surprises can be literally crippling. And when he’s having a hard time, we all have a hard time. Unable to make decisions about gifts to give his brother and sisters. Tears opening gifts. Hesitation and tantrums at family dinners. All the joy of the season that he anticipates from Halloween on can so easily be lost.
Every year, we learn a little bit better how to best preserve that joy for him and, subsequently, the whole family.
Whenever we can, we limit the choices he has to make. Choices are stressful. My husband has all too often been on the receiving end of texts while I’m shopping trying to decide what color scooter or Lego set to buy. For a child with chronic anxiety, choices are even harder. If we can ease some of that by taking some of the gazillion options away, we do. Let’s buy a gift for your sister! Do you want to give her this toy or that toy? That’s it, A or B. Even better, we show him the two options online so he can think about it and click with our help when he’s ready rather than have the pressure of standing in a store and having to decide on the spot.
Receiving gifts can be hard as well. Smile and say thank you. Even if you have it already/don’t like it/didn’t want this one/etc., act happy and say thank you. That’s what we teach our children, right? My second born is great at this. But, my eldest is not; he can’t take the pressure. We’ve learned to let him move at his own pace, opening a gift without all the attention focused on him and then allowing him to enjoy it before moving on to the next one too quickly. He may not be thrilled with the particular gift he got, but when all eyes aren’t on him and there isn’t the pressure to respond right away, he’s usually able to show some gratitude even still.
For better or worse, he’s got a lot of folks to show gratitude to. 50 people for Christmas dinner is festive and fun but not the best scene for our son. We used to fight it, trying to make him play with his cousins and be a part of everything. Come on, why can’t you just go have fun with everyone else? We now give him space. If he is able to have a room to retreat to when he has had enough noise and chaos, he does a whole lot better. As he’s gotten older, he’s gotten better at telling us when he needs a break, and we’ve gotten better at making provision for him to get that break. Yeah, our son might be the one drawing by himself while we’re all playing charades. But, we’re cool with that because at the end of the day when all those crazy cousins have collapsed from their sugar and wrapping paper high, Evan’s able to smile and tell us how much he loves Christmas.
And that makes this mama sigh a happy sigh and remember that even if the scene doesn’t exactly look like what I pictured, it is the most wonderful time of the year. Bring it on.
Kelly Raudenbush is a mother to four children and cofounder of The Sparrow Fund, a nonprofit committed to encouraging and equipping adoptive families. Learn more about her family's adoption story, how she's been changed by it and what life for as a parent to four children with all sorts of unique needs and gifts at My Overthinking.