Ho Ho Hold the Meltdown: Focusing on the Merry in Christmas

“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.”

– L.R. Knost

I look forward to Christmas every year, because it is a time to rest, to reflect on the past year, and to catch up with family and friends.

But Christmas and the holidays are often a challenging time for children with special needs, like our son who has a prognosis of at risk for FASD and who struggles with emotional and self regulation. The holidays can be a challenging time for kids like T, because of sensory overload, over stimulation, large crowds, a change in routine (e.g. no school), and anxiety around Santa.

My hubby and I alternate Christmases with my family in Toronto and his family in New Brunswick, the latter of whom we celebrated with this year. This year was the third Christmas that T has celebrated in the Maritimes with his Grammy, “Dad Dad,” and his aunt and cousin.

While this year’s Christmas was filled with the usual moments that tested our patience, it was also filled with many positives. Here are a few things we learned from Christmas past and present that helped us focus on the merry in the holidays and to avoid the ghosts of Christmas future:

Weather the Meltdowns

I’d like to say I’m better at anticipating T’s meltdowns – usually when there is an unexpected transition in task – but sometimes they just come without warning. Like when we asked T to stop playing with toys and to get ready for bath, he went into a full blown screaming fit, pulling the cloth off the coffee table and throwing toys at my face – all in full view of his grandparents.

One tried and true response my hubby and I have learned about meltdowns is to not throw fuel into the fire by admonishing him in the moment, but rather let the storm pass. Walk away or pick him up and move him into a quiet space away from the crowd if we have to. And it will pass. When he’s calmer, use the opportunity as a teachable moment to explain what happened.

Rethink Santa

This video above was released this Christmas from the National Alliance on Mental Health. It’s told from the perspective of Santa Claus and challenges us to rethink how we reward or reprimand “niceness” and “naughtiness” and how this could create mental health consequences.

This year was the first time that T grasped the concept of and became excited about Santa. The daycare staff helped write a letter to Santa that we mailed and received a prompt reply from the North Pole for. This was a nice contrast from the first time we took him for a Santa photo in 2016 and he had a meltdown because the bearded red-suited man terrified him.

I will admit my hubby and I used Santa this year to encourage or discourage behaviours. We also downloaded an app that lets us receive a call from Santa and we used it to let T know that if he was not behaving, we would let Santa know and he would not get his gifts on Christmas Day.

I noticed the anxiety and the real tears that emerged when T thought that Santa was not coming, because of something that he did. I will admit being amused by it, especially by how much he believed that there was a real Santa.

In hindsight, I think about the token economy his teacher uses to help shape behaviour. It focuses on the positives and no tokens are taken away for undesirable behaviour, because children like T will inevitably exhaust the tokens and what happens when there are no tokens left to take away?

To be clear, I’m not advocating that we bubble wrap our children. But we will rethink Santa – and how we position rewards and punishment – in future years.

Think About Less is More

We arrived at T’s grandparents at night after a 8-hour drive that T did very well at. No meltdowns and we only had to give him Netflix for 30 minutes when he was getting squirrely at the end.

T was on full blown charm offensive with his grandparents. We played a board game. Not only did he sit still and focus, instead of throwing game pieces up in the air like we expected him to, but he surprised us by winning the game of Topple. Maybe this was going to be an ok trip, I thought, but we celebrated prematurely.

The second his seven-year-old cousin arrived the next evening, he went into overdrive mode and there was no turning back. Started running around the house excitedly, because he had been looking so forward to seeing her for the past week. This was further escalated on Christmas morning when he opened his many gifts. We could just not calm him down.

We’ve learned over the years that kids like T don’t do well with over stimulation and regulating their emotions – even positive ones, like excitement – when they are overloaded. They can go from 0 to 360 in seconds and have a hard time coming down without crashing into a meltdown. The holidays can be especially triggering, because of all the excitement (or anxiety) of visitors and gifts – and managing T’s emotions then becomes challenging.

I’m always torn between indulging T during the holidays and with going with less is more.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

As I’m finishing this post, I’m sitting on my in-law’s dining table trying to get a hyper and distracted T to finish his dry bowl of Cheerios, which had been put out two hours ago. Every few seconds, he’d get up and run around with his spoon. His Grammy sat with us and tried to coax him to finish as I tried not to lose my shit. At the rate we were going, he’d finish the bowl when he turned 16.

The change in environment and routine has thrown T completely off. Hard-built structure and his ability to transition in tasks and to comply to simple requests have gone out the window. Simple things have become trying battles that often resulted in tears and tantrums.

During these trying moments, I reminded myself to shrug it off. We were on vacation. Who cared if I wasn’t going to win the Parent of the Year prize. We would readjust when we got back home.

And in addition to not sweating the small stuff, I reminded myself to amplify the positive moments, because there were so many and as parents of children with special needs, we often let the good get drowned out by the moments that make us want to poke our eyes out.

And here was my favourite positive moment: On Christmas morning, T got up at 9:45 a.m. and thus letting us sleep in (a Christmas miracle). He went to look at the tree and ran into our bedroom and exclaimed with glee, “Santa came! Come look at the presents under the tree!” His large open eyes, the excited inflection in his voice, his open body language. Thank you for these merry blessings.

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