It’s that time of year when the festive season is in full swing. Christmas can represent an exciting and fun time for children. Many kids love to write to Father Christmas and visit Santa’s Grotto, then wait in anticipation for presents and seasonal surprises. However, the busyness, unpredictable events, social interactions and sensory overload of flashing lights and information can, for some children be an overwhelming feat to process, particularly those with autism and other additional needs. Christmas is therefore, not always a welcome time.
So what can be done to support anxious children in run up to the festive season?
Inform your child that Christmas is coming
Reassuringly talk to your child about how far away (or near) Christmas is, why people celebrate it every year and that it’s okay to find this time of year difficult. Draw pictures to depict what happens on Christmas day, and then discuss what has been drawn in detail. This may seem obvious, but many adults just skirt around the subject of Christmas, then all of a sudden the festive seasons appears like a whirlwind of non-stop activities. By giving the child the time and space to mentally process and discuss the occasion beforehand, they may feel more informed in the approach towards Christmas.
Create a Visual Timetable
Whilst change is unavoidable in life, a timetable will visually help your child feel more in control of their schedule and less anxious about how busy things are during Christmas time. Reassure your child that every day is a brand new day and everything happening takes place one step at a time. A calendar or visual timetable can help pinpoint all the dates where festive events and activities will be taking place. I recommend decorating a calendar to your child’s tastes. Give your child the opportunity to tick off events as they occur, draw symbols and have fun with the calendar. Depending on your child, you could also make a ‘gift list’ with them and schedule Christmas shopping trips to buy items on their list during quiet times for retailers or for online shopping. The more relaxed, creative and organised you are the better for your child.
Develop emotional intelligence
Christmas can be an emotional time for children. Whether they experience feelings of glee or frustration, all emotions are valid and many children find it hard to share how they are feeling so they tend to bottle them up. Bottling up our feelings during busy periods like Christmas is unhealthy and often results in meltdowns and sudden bursts of anxiety.
To help children understand their emotions, I recommend the Zones of Regulation. The Zones puts children into 1 of 4 distinct colour zones to determine their emotional state. If a child is in the RED Zone, they may be experiencing intense emotions like anger. If a child is in the YELLOW Zone they feel anxious or nervous. If a child is in the GREEN Zone, they may feel calm and ready to learn. Lastly, if a child is in the BLUE Zone, they may feel sad or tired. Each zone is valid and never to be frowned on by an adult, but ultimately the idea is for the child to get back to the GREEN Zone, when they feel ready.
The Zones can help children alter their emotional state related to Christmas, with self-regulation tools like deep breathing, movement breaks, sensory activities or cognitive problem solving. This is a wonderful way for children to develop emotional intelligence and gradually learn how to express their feelings.
Make a Social Story
A social story can visually help a child come to terms with the transition into the festive season and informs them of the strategies they can use if they ever feel overwhelmed by all the changes. Strategies can include talking to an adult, taking a break by going for a walk, using a sensory or fiddly toy and any other suitable tools I have agreed with my pupils. Bear in mind that a social story could be made by a parent, but essentially should make use of consistent language the child can easily understand, be short, positive and offer clear reassurance that it’s okay to have feelings about the changes.
Use Creative Games and Role Play
Using Christmas themed art, drama and games either 1:1 or as a group, is a great way to help any child prepare for the festivities. Examples I have used based on the kids’ suggestions, include children miming the opening of presents then pretending to play with them, whilst other children guess what the unwrapped the presents are. We have also made Christmas scrap books, played ‘crimbo pass the parcel’, memory games and had silent Christmas parties.
By bringing calm, but fun drama activities into the mix during the run up to Christmas, it can help a child with additional needs feel more present and relate to the fact that although it’s a busy time, it happens once a year and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways.
Lastly, I hope this inspires you to adapt some of the tools above, because with your patience and perseverance, it can make a huge difference to the life of any child struggling to cope during the festive season.
Miss H ♥