Many children with anxiety see Christmas as a negative thing.
The last 2 years have been far from normal, and last Christmas was quite different for many of us. As Christmas draws closer, we are bombarded with imagery of happy, contented families without a care in the world. However, it’s rarely as ideal or as perfect as portrayed, and for parents of children with anxiety, it can be a challenging time.
we are bombarded with imagery of happy, contented families without a care in the world
For some children the build up to Christmas is often overwhelming with increased anxiety and a whole host of other problems such as anger. Having worked as an anxiety therapist for almost twenty years, I often think the word anxiety should be replaced with anticipation. Excitement, anxiety and anticipation trigger the same responses and feelings in the body and mind. If you are a child who has spent the year struggling with anxiety, then feelings of excitement in the build up to Christmas may feel just like anxiety and remind them of the most unpleasant feelings they have battled throughout the year.
Social media adds to this pressure with families filling news feeds with stylised pictures of their own Christmas build up and preparations.
Christmas and the whole month of December is often a tough month for children with anxiety. Many parents tell me every December that From the moment the decorations went up their child’s anxiety increased or behaviour deteriorated. As a parent, this can feel really disappointing or confusing; surely their child should be happy? However something as simple as a Christmas tree going up can be hard for some children.
Many children, including those with autism, struggle with change. A decorated house completely changes the environment from a child’s perspective and can be overloading. Add in the flashing lights and music, it can be even harder. Many children with anxiety talk about the pressure of Christmas and see Christmas as a negative thing.
Parenting a child with anxiety is never easy and Christmas is no exception, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier.
Ask your child what is making them nervous or anxious. Sometimes this will surprise you. Often we can assume where the anxiety is coming from, but when we talk it surprises us.
Also having open discussions with your child about how anxiety and excitement feel identical and allow them to focus this feeling of anticipation on the bits of Christmas they like; such as presents, slowly they will begin to associate the anxious feeling with the positive aspects of the Christmas.
Christmas can be hectic for many of us and often even more so for our children. School plays, Carol services, Christmas fairs coupled with many schools adding in end of term assessments and tests can start the season with lots of anxiety-provoking situations. Aside from school, there are likely to many visits to and from family, community activities and other invitations. Obviously, not every event is optional, but it is really helpful to be selective, not feeling you need to do everything and considering what your child can handle.
Listen and observe
Before a child with anxiety hits a crisis or a panic attack, meltdown or tears, they usually give us signs. Each child is individual and varies in how self aware they are. If your child is showing signs of being overwhelmed allow them to make choices of what they want to do. Try to make time in the schedule to cool down, relax and enjoy the things that bring them comfort.
Stick to routine
For children with anxiety, routine is important knowing what to expect, and familiarity brings security and comfort. There will be days when meal times and bedtimes will be disrupted, but whenever possible, keep things to a predictable schedule really helps. Where possible, even sticking to the usual morning routine of getting up and dressed at a familiar time can be comforting.
Talk and prepare
Change can be so unsettling for children and Christmas is inevitably different to the rest of the year. Before activities or visits, talking to your child and explaining what you will do helps a child mentally rehearse. One activity I do with my own children is to create a Christmas calendar. Writing down all the key activities and dates during the holiday will help your child plan subconsciously. Making the calendar visual can reduce stress and anxiety, and many children find this planner a great opportunity to talk about and express feelings.
Manage your own expectations
As a parent we want to give our children the best Christmas imaginable and create as many memories as possible. One fear I have this Christmas is that this will be amplified as we all attempt to overcompensate for the isolated year we had in 2020. Social media adds to this pressure with families filling news feeds with stylised pictures of their own Christmas build up and preparations. Each child is unique and has different experiences of Christmas. Whether it’s choosing to have less decorations, making fewer family visits or just doing things a bit differently, what matters is giving your child the right Christmas for them. Choosing to do what is right for your child may mean you have a different kind of Christmas to the ones shown in advertisements, but that’s ok.
What matters is giving your child the right Christmas for them!
Stuart Thompson, originator of The Still Method, has worked for over twenty years as an anxiety and addictions specialist. He works with adults and children to help them beat anxiety and find their happiness again. Stuart studied Social Work at Bretton Hall College, University of Leeds. Stuart is from Sedgefield and lives in West Mersea.