All children misbehave around the holidays, but the extra excitement (and sugar) can wreak havoc on children with PANDAS, Autism, Dyspraxia or any other learning or behavioural difficulty.
In my 15 years of experience as a mumma, I’ve learned that the best way to survive (without meltdown after meltdown) is careful planning.
Yep, I’m saying that you can control some of the things that lead to bad behaviour, meltdowns, and flare-ups! And once you get proactive, then even the worst tantrums won’t seem so bad because you know you did everything you could to protect and support your precious baby.
Stress-free holidays are within your reach!
Let’s start with a brief look at what causes tantrums and bad behaviour so you know what to look for. After that, I’ll share with you my tried-and-true tips for making magical memories that focus more on the smiles than the tears.
Why the holidays are so stressful for our kids
All kids have a knack for picking up on our stress.
Kids with autism, PANS, PANDAS, Dyspraxia, and other autoimmune or encephalitic conditions just happen to come with extra-sensitive stress antennae.
If we’re stressed, then they’ll be stressed too. One way to keep our children calm is to keep ourselves calm.
(Keep reading for tips on how I fill my own cup and keep my own stress to a minimum, no matter what buttons my darling children try to press.)
Another source of holiday stress for children happens at school when extra pressure is added to meet deadlines before the holiday break, bring gifts to school, plan parties, and the like. Be mindful of everything they’re dealing with at school and maybe relax some of the pressure at home to compensate.
If I know my kids will be dealing with added pressure at school (year-end exams for example), I give them a week off of their chores so they have the extra time to study without feeling overwhelmed.
Children with learning difficulties need extra time to do things that other kids barely think about. They’re not stupid, they just have a lot going on in those amazing minds of theirs.
I find that taking a few things off their plate helps them get it all done without feeling overwhelmed.
Changes in routine
For children with learning difficulties, autoimmune conditions or encephalitis, a change in routine can be severely disruptive. My kids get attached to their daily routine like most kids get attached to a favourite stuffed toy. Even a minor change can send them into a tizzy!
And nothing throws a wrench in a routine like school parties, vacations, travelling to spend time with family, and all the other things we’d otherwise look forward to.
If disruptions in their routine weren’t enough, there’s usually a whole lot of other changes to deal with too. The kids might have to stay at Grandma’s while Mumma is at work, there might be new parks to visit, new shops to explore and new people to get used to.
Changes in diet
And then there’s food. Particularly if the holiday is a special occasion like Christmas or Easter, there are usually lots of sugary temptations around such as chocolate and fizzy drinks. You’ve probably noticed by now that sugar levels dramatically affect flare-ups and tantrums!
What causes bad behaviour
Although it might seem like it, meltdowns don’t happen for no reason at all. They’re not a sign of boredom or a cry for attention. Something triggers or overwhelms our little ones’ body or mind and they simply don’t know any other way to cope with what they’re feeling. Luckily, some triggers can be avoided and eliminated with smart planning.
Sensory overload is a common culprit and comes from bright lights, loud noises, chemicals and general overexcitement.
A trip to the cinema for example, which is a common holiday activity can be a nightmare for our kids.
That potpourri which smells so delicious to you could be causing a severe reaction in your child.
Some children are more sensitive than others. Some react to smells that we don’t even notice, others feel blinded by simple sunlight, while still others feel like a loving hug is an attack. It’s hard when you don’t know what is causing the reaction, so you may have to play the detective and consider things that seem perfectly harmless to you.
We spend a lot of time visiting other people and locations while on holiday and we don’t always know what chemicals are in the air of other rooms and environments. Our kids can also pick up on the excitement of others which can stir up feelings they don’t know what to do with.
And that brings us back to the sneaky and sinister grinch known as sugar.
It’s hard enough for adults to pass up, never mind our kids.
A little sugary Christmas treat seems so tempting, even when we know it’s going to give us the mother of all meltdowns sooner or later!
Tips for avoiding meltdowns during the holidays
So far we’ve looked at why the holidays can be so hard for kids with learning difficulties and we’ve seen what some of the causes can be. Now let’s look at ways of lessening the tantrums themselves and avoiding them altogether when possible.
Help them feel safe
The number one way to avoid a meltdown is to help your child feel safe. Safe from people who mean well and don’t understand how their good intentions could be misunderstood. Safe from bright lights, strong smells, and holiday music. Safe from anything that feels overwhelming or abrasive.
All these tips are essentially ways to help your child feel safe without missing out on all the fun.
Pick and choose which invitations you accept.
Homes that your child is familiar with or that you know have less environmental triggers are best. And if you have to go shopping, leave your child at home. Just don’t put them (and you) through it.
If you can’t leave them at home, consider letting them stay in the car with an older sibling or your spouse. Taking turns shopping means you can both get all your errands done without the added time of dragging someone kicking and screaming. You may find it saves you time overall!
If you have more than one social occasion on your calendar for the week, choose one or limit the amount of time you spend at each. Better to enjoy 1 hour at a party and leave gracefully than spend 2 hours and rush out the door in embarrassment.
Try making an appearance at each party but only for an hour each. You can still go, just limit the time you spend there to limit the chance of sensory overload. And make sure to give your child ample time to decompress and recharge their batteries in between times spent outside their comfort zone.
Reduce your kid’s sugar intake.
This is another good reason to limit how many different events you and your child attend. If you spend half an hour at a party, make sure it’s before the cake comes out or after your kiddo has filled up on a healthy GAPS dinner.
You can also bring your own sugar-free snack. If you follow the GAPS diet, you’ll know that there’s usually an alternative to most treats.
When we know we’ll be eating a big, rich dinner with family on Christmas Eve, I make sure that all our meals at home for the 24 hours before and after that event are a little more strict.
No fruits or juices (sugar), no preservatives (chemicals that lead to behaviour problems), no food colouring, etc. Just good old fashioned-meat and low-sugar veggies so the kids can pig out with Grandma and Grandpa.
Holiday Travel tips
Of course, many holidays involve a bit of travelling which can also be problematic when you have children with challenges. The car can be a very small space at times but there are a few things you can do to help keep everyone calm while you’re on the road.
I like to use my SUV as a decompression zone in between school, home, errands, and wherever else we need to be. The car can become one of your child’s comfort zones so that they’re able to relax in between stress and more stress.
Essential oils are great for creating a relaxing atmosphere and for cleansing the air of toxins in between visits and events. Calming music can also be helpful, but only if it’s something your kid responds to well.
Be mindful that your child isn’t going to be ready for excitement right after a long car ride (or other travel).
Give them some time and space to adapt at their own pace after arriving at your destination. If they want to spend 10 minutes inspecting the bushes between the car and the front door, join them and don’t rush them. (It’s a lot better than spending 30 minutes in meltdown mode later,)
What to do when a meltdown happens
No matter how hard you try, there will be times when even your best efforts aren’t enough to stave off a meltdown and it often happens at the most embarrassing time possible.
It’s ok! You’re not a bad parent. Everyone (kids and adults) gets overwhelmed at one point or another so don’t beat yourself up about it. The best thing you can do now is to make the transition a little easier.
Here are my favourite tips for minimizing the damage:
First, try to find the most calming space possible. A quiet room where you can lower the lights or a bathroom will do the trick. Not because you’re trying to hide your child, but because you want to help them feel safe and eliminate as many triggers as possible until they can control their own emotions.
Then grab your bottle of lavender doTERRA essential oil and rub a couple drops onto the back of their neck.
If they want to cuddle, hold them close. If touching adds to their stress, then just be in the room with them.
Now is the perfect time to practice calming yourself in order to calm your child. Feel free to practice your favourite breathing exercise to physically relax your body.
Once I’m calm, I like to recite one of their beloved bedtime stories in a low voice. Eventually, they’ll realize that their screaming and crying is preventing them from hearing the story and they’ll start to quiet down because they want to hear it.
Voila! A calmer child who feels safe and loved.
Continue you like this as long as it takes for them to build up a resiliency to whatever triggered them in the first place. If you try to leave the safe place too soon, it may start the cycle all over again and make it harder to perform in the future.
Once they’ve calmed down, give them enough time and space to readjust to the place that triggered the meltdown. Now might be a good time to say goodbyes and make a graceful exit instead of a screaming one.
When the holidays are over…
Eventually, things will return to normal again and you’ll all go back to your usual routine. There will be another adjustment period but after that, it’s back to business and you’ll have some lovely memories to look back on.
I also highly recommend rewarding yourself for the extra effort and new skills you’ve developed as a parent. For me, it’s a spa day, but for you, it might be buying a new book, fresh flowers, or some other treat.
Remember – your little ones soak up whatever you’re feeling, so you deserve to feel relaxed and beautiful!
What tips would you add to this list? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!