Children’s Anxiety at Christmas
Please stay safe and follow Government guidelines for Christmas 2020.
What to do when the festive season is a challenging time for your children?
The Christmas season is so exciting for many children, even with the unusual Christmas we can expect for 2020. For some children, where trauma has affected their early life experiences, it can be a particularly challenging time, as so much is unexpected and unexplained. We’ve put together some suggestions and a few ideas that might help you and your family this Christmas – whatever Tier you are in.
Talk to your children and identify what they look forward to the most, and if there is anything that they worry about or would like to do differently this year. It’s a good idea to plan how you will spend time together, but it’s also crucial to plan for time to yourselves and time apart doing separate activities or having unstructured down time so there is time to relax among the festivities.
Involve children in plans – with warning
Whatever festive plans you have arranged with your children – ensure they are given plenty of warning. Use the “countdown technique”. Most of you will be familiar with the scenario of counting down when leaving home or a friend’s house: Give them a 10 minute warning that you’ll be going soon, followed by five minutes, then down to two and one minute. Usually it doesn’t matter that the minutes are, in reality, a little stretched – it’s just a mechanism to allow the child to know what’s going to happen next.
Empathise with your child’s feelings
It’s as important as ever to make time to talk to your child about how they are feeling in the lead up to Christmas and over the holiday period. Recognise that their feelings are real and scary to them, and that you understand that certain situations may be upsetting for them. Share with them your confidence that your child is going to be okay and that you are there to support them, discussing your child’s fears calmly and rationally will make them feel supported, rather than reinforcing a feeling that they are ‘wrong’ ‘silly’ or ‘bad’ for feeling this way. If you share some of your child’s anxieties, it’s an opportunity to let them know that it’s ok to be anxious, reassure them that you get scared and nervous too sometimes and that you will get through it together.
Don’t force your child into social interactions
Depending on your Covid-safe plans this Christmas, if you are attending friends’ or family’s houses or have visitors to yours, let your child know beforehand that a simple ‘hello’ will do. Let them take something they are familiar with like a cuddly toy, book or something small and easy to transport. If your child struggles with anxiety over Christmas presents, you may want them to open one present in front of their extended family and then give them space and privacy to open others within a smaller group.
Try to keep some structure or recognisable routine in the run up to and the main days of Christmas (breakfast, lunch and dinner for example, bathtimes, dogwalking, feeding pets etc.). Allow children to enjoy new things in their own time and in their own way. Some routine can be helpful, ensuring it includes a little down time such as a Christmas day walk or time to sit down with the children and play. You might like to pace the presents over the day or a couple of days.
Whilst a little routine-stretching of bedtime is understandable and okay, bear in mind that prolonged lack of sleep affects everyone, young and old. It’s one of the major causes of meltdowns: children feel wretched and no one thinks clearly when suffering from a lack of sleep. Try to keep to regular bedtimes, to ensure your child gets enough sleep and is less likely to feel tired and overwhelmed throughout the day.
Try (your best) to do healthy activities
Whilst it’s tempting to binge on sugary sweets, cakes and chocolates throughout December, it’s good to try and moderate it so you can avoid sugar highs and lows which can effect behaviour. Plan some healthy activities to get into the routine of taking care of yourselves. Get your children involved with planning and cooking some healthy meals, going on walks and making sure you all get some fresh air, exercise and connect with nature.
Remember what the festive season is all about: spending time with family and making it a magical time for children. There’s no ‘perfect’ Christmas or celebration to be had, and everyone enjoys it differently but we hope that this helps to make your festive period memorable, safe and perfect for you and yours.
We’ve adapted this article originally written by our friends in the Special Guardianship Order team in Leicestershire County Council, with guidance from experts at YoungMinds and Anxiety UK. We’ve updated it in line with Christmas 2020 as at 18 December 2020.