Saturday, December 6, 2014

Christmas for every kid

Hi everyone, remember me?  Long time no blog! :)  I've missed writing, and have a lot to say, but I've been soooo busy with work and school.  I'm back today because I have something I feel needs to be shared.  I've had multiple people come to me lately asking for help and ideas for their kids who struggle with the holiday season.  I struggle big time with holidays, as do most of the kids I work with (residential treatment center).  I'm realizing that what is just a part of life for me is helpful insight for others who are struggling to make the holidays work for their kids.  Since it seems like a useful topic, I thought I would make a list of some ideas that have been beneficial to me and to kids I've worked with.  It's pretty general, and obviously not every suggestion will work for every kid, but maybe it can give you some ideas.  Please feel free to share it with anyone who may find it helpful.  I really do love being able to use my experience to help families and children in need.  Now we no particular ideas and suggestions! :)

1. Give your child a “safe space” that they can go to at any time with the understanding that parents can come check on them/talk to them, but they can stay there as long as they’d like.  I’ve seen many well-meaning parents tell stressed out kids “It’s rude to ignore guests,” or something like that.  This just leads to increased anxiety and feelings of isolation.  For some kids a safe space might just be spending time playing in their room.  For others who are stressed out by crowds, noise, etc. may like a very specific place…like a cozy corner with a comfy chair or a special fort they’ve built with toys that help them calm.  For a child that is not able to express well that they are struggling, this can be an immediate signal that they’re having a hard time and need help.  It also teaches coping skills by recognizing the need for a break and finding a way to take it.  Obviously different kids will need different levels of help and guidance with this (in my experience some love the idea while others don’t understand it’s purpose and need lots of reminders to use the space).

2.  Set a schedule.  Holidays can be hard because they’re a change in routine.  Make sure your child knows what is coming up and what to expect.  Talk to them beforehand about who will be coming, what activities might happen, etc.  You may want to write it for them, or use a picture schedule.  The feeling of predictability will make the lack of routine less scary for them.  Be careful with too much “just hanging out” time.  It might be what seems natural for you, but for some kids it’s scary and overwhelming to fill the time themselves.

3. Be careful with transitions.  Remind your child of plans before they happen.  Give them a chance to ask questions, and then give them “countdown” type reminders as it gets closer.  The amount of time will vary depending on the kid, but things like “We’re going to see grandma in an hour,” “Make sure you have your shoes and coat ready, we’re going to see grandma in a half hour,” etc. will also add to that feeling of security.  Depending on the child’s age, you can add in additional details, i.e. “We’re going to grandma’s in a half hour, and when we get there we’re going to have dinner with her and then play a board game.” 

3.5. These transitions are equally important if not more important after the fun has been had.  There are many reasons why the return from a fun holiday event can be fun.  Kids who have been through trauma and have other mental health issues often lack the ability that others have to calm their emotions.  Most people can get excited about something, but then settle down again once the excitement stops.  But these kids can’t do that.  Think about playing a fun, active, laugh filled game with a 2-year-old.  They’re excited, engaged, and want to keep playing and playing.  Now imagine you were to suddenly stop playing the game, put the child in bed, and tell him to go to sleep.  Probably wouldn’t work too well, right?  In this way, these kids are much more like two year olds.  Though it may be hard to see on the outside, they still have the fun emotions going crazy inside but the fun activities have stopped, leaving them without a way to handle it.  Since it’s hard for them to settle their minds down by themselves, they often end up acting out as a way to get the energy out.  So, make sure activities have a wind-down time afterwards, as well as some sort of re-entry activity into usual routine.  For example, “In 20 minutes our guests are going to leave, and when they do you and me can read a book together just the two of us.”  Focus on something simple and enjoyable that you and your child can do together.  Having a calm presence with them can help them to settle themselves more easily.  

4. Another issue that may cause upset feelings after a fun activity is the let down afterwards.  For someone who does not regulate emotions well, emotions are felt on a roller coaster.  My analogy is that some days I’m a roller coaster, some days I’m a river.  When I’m the river, the good and the bad come together to change the flow slightly and add some bumps here and there, but mostly the river keeps flowing.  When I’m having a roller coaster day I feel super high highs that are almost always followed with super low lows.  I get involved in doing something that makes me feel amazing, which is great, but unfortunately it is almost always followed by the low drop.  So I’m not saying don’t have fun, but make sure some of it is calming fun.  Depending on what your kid likes, maybe some extra cuddle time, a quieter game, etc.  If you’re go go go all the time, you’re bound to have a crash at some point since that’s obviously not sustainable forever.  Also, keep in mind through all of this that being upset after an activity doesn’t mean that they didn’t like it.  In fact it could very well mean the opposite.  They may have had such a great time that it’s confusing to go back to the normal. 

5. Keep expectations small.  This is important for both you and your child.  For you, you probably won’t have that picture perfect Hallmark Christmas that you see on tv or read about online.  That’s something you have to accept.  Of course no one’s holidays are perfect, but when you’re dealing with a child with emotional/behavioral issues, your chances of a flawless day are even less likely.  Focus on making good memories together without worrying too much about the bigger picture.  Don’t miss the beauty that is there because you’re too busy worrying about what isn’t going right.  For your child, helping them understand simple expectations can make the day smoother.  They see the same pressures you do to make the holiday just right.  Most likely, they want to please you and they want to make you happy.  But that puts them in a very scary place.  In their eyes, they have to do everything right for you, and if they don’t they’ll have to wait a whole year before they have a chance to try again.  This is definitely enough to raise the anxiety of an already anxious child, and for some it’s enough for them to sabotage from the start because they can’t handle the stress of trying to be perfect.  This pressure is even more intense for foster kids, who may feel like they have to be good to be accepted by the family (especially if there’s more family around than they’re used to, or if they have traumatic memories connected to the holidays).

6. Keep it simple.  Christmas doesn’t need to be a multi-course meal, or celebrated with every extended family member.  No one needs a giant stack of presents, nor a million different activities or decorations.  Focus on the main goals of togetherness and fun, and be realistic about what your child can handle.  Maybe that means a smaller tree.  Maybe visiting with some relatives on different days.  Who says you can’t have a Christmas dinner in January?  Or maybe it’s as simple as changing the time of an event so there’s more rest time in between.  If you’re not sure just ask yourself: “What’s more important, that my Christmas contain ______ or that my child is able to be successful?”  It’s ok if someone needs to bring that child late, take them home early, etc.  Just do the best you can.  Christmas won’t be ruined if you take out some pieces.

7. Foster/adoptive kids might miss their families, even if they don’t know them.  For some kids, like me, holidays were an extremely traumatic time.  They brought out the worst in my parents, and also gave them a tool to use against me.  Something like Santa is a dream come true for controlling parents.  One year Santa skipped my house.  In hindsight my parents probably got drunk and forgot, but at the time I was crushed.  In my mind, I was such a horrible person that not even this wonderful, loving, caring, mythical man wanted to give me anything.  It’s not that I spend the holidays sitting around thinking of the bad memories, but a lot of different things trigger stress and anxiety…often without me even realizing that that’s what’s going on.  I have less extreme memories with other holidays, but let’s just say anything family focused is tough when you have a family that’s struggling. 

But even for a kid that doesn’t have traumatic memories of the holidays, the holidays are still a reminder of what a family “should” be.  For a kid who is uncertain of his future, the idea of family is painful.  Even kids who were adopted at birth and never knew their biological family may spend time wondering what things would’ve been like with their birth family.  They may not even realize they’re doing it, they may just be feeling a bit of extra emptiness that they’re not sure how to fill or what it’s from.  Unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do on this one, except just to be aware.  Give them time to feel sad if they need to.  Let them help invent new holiday traditions, especially if you know they’ve had trauma around the holidays.  Creating a whole new family tradition that they’re involved with from the start gives them a new focus, helps them create new memories, and best of all gives them a sense of belonging.  It’s possible they’re feeling like your traditions are yours, not theirs, and they’re just floating on the edges no matter how much you try to include them.

8. Give them a break, but not too much of one.  Understand that some of their behaviors are out of their control.  They likely aren’t feeling like themselves, and might be having a hard time with things that are normally easy for them.  Approach this with compassion and understanding, and try to talk it through with them if they are able.  If they’re not already aware, start pointing out to them how their behavior is different during the holidays…not in a punishment way, just helping them to be aware.  Talk to them about what might be causing it, and what they might like to do differently to help them get through the tough times.  Sometimes kids are impressively wise once you help them start to make the connections.  But don’t take away rules/expectations all together.  Be understanding that they might be more likely to slip, but routine is important and they also need to see that you believe in them and their ability to be successful.  Giving them expectations and the focused help they need to get through when they are struggling shows that you believe in them and you are with them through it all. 

9.  Give yourself a break.  If something doesn't work out the way you'd hoped it's not a reflection on you.  Your child is struggling with issues that are outside of your control.  Take a deep breath.  You didn't fail.  It will be ok.  I promise.

10. Have fun!  I don’t want this list to be entirely dreary.  It takes work, but you can have an amazing holiday time with these kids.  It may look different than what you imagined or what you wanted, but it can be done.  Be creative.  My kids at work struggle with understanding giving and the meaning of Christmas, so we go on secret kindness missions.  We make Christmas decorations together and then go on secret missions to decorate the office, classroom, etc. of people who work with the kids and that the kids appreciate.  We go all out with the secret mission, taking back routes along the grounds, tip-toeing strategically and hiding when needed, and decorating as fast as we can while someone acts as lookout.  (Of course, if necessary I will go in as “distraction” first to give the ppl a heads up to not be in their office, but don’t tell the kids that! J  They actually really like coming up with ideas of what to tell the people to get them away from their offices…so I pass that along too with the distraction).  Anyway, that’s just one idea, but so far it’s worked for us.  The same kids that didn’t understand why they should give someone a present are now begging for more missions and suggesting various staff that they’d like to surprise.  And best of all, it’s helping them to feel good about themselves because they’re starting to understand that their actions can have a positive impact on someone else.  Non-traditional, sure, but it works for us.

That's all for now folks!  Please ask questions if you have them, and I'm happy to offer suggestions on specific issues if you think that would be helpful.  I know there are many of you out there working hard every day, and especially over the holidays to be there for these kids and give them positive memories.  In case you haven't heard it in a while, THANK YOU!  Your efforts are appreciated, even if your kids are not able to tell you that right now.  I'm thankful for you, and I believe very strongly that your kids are or will be too.