We recently received a message from a parent who is worried about Christmas for her six-year-old son.
“I am dreading this Christmas. My 6-year-old son, Oliver, gets anxious, is highly emotional, has sensory issues and if things don’t go the way he expects, then it’s meltdown city. Last year, school in December was a nightmare. Even when he held it together at school, he could have a meltdown when I met him at the school gates. So far, we have adapted Christmas around his needs, but this year we have been invited to stop over for Christmas day itself at my in-laws (it’s too far for a day-return trip). They don’t really understand high learning potential or sensory issues and my husband’s 3 sisters and their kids will be there as well. They have a very “traditional” Christmas – Church followed by dinner, present opening, 3 o’clock King’s speech, board games and a lot of talking. I can already feel a meltdown coming on. How can I make Christmas work for all of us?
Potential Plus UK's Advice
For many children with high learning potential or particularly with dual or multiple exceptionality (high ability with a special educational need or disability) the whole of the festive period can be one of stress, overexcitement and overstimulation. Here are a few tips we hope will help you to survive the festive period!
Christmas at School
December in school is a time of change of routine, loss of structure, overstimulation and over excitement and all of these can be triggers for meltdowns in children with high learning potential or dual or multiple exceptionality. Meet with your school to help them to understand that Oliver may be struggling and work together on what can be done to minimise problems. While seeing your child in a Nativity play or carol service may be one of the highlights of a parent’s Christmas time, to a child with high learning potential the lead-up is total boredom – they have learned everything during the first rehearsal and don’t see the point of practising, which can lead to misbehaviour – or for a child with sensory issues it can be overload – why does everything have to be so loud or overstimulating through lights, decorations, colourful costumes, props? For a child with ADHD, practise means large groups trying to sit still on the over-hard floor for too long, which just makes them ready to explode; while for a child with autism it’s an unwelcome change of routines – with the added upset for the dual or multiple exceptional child of extra maths lunchtime group being closed until after Christmas. It isn’t just performance preparation which can cause issues as it all continues on into the classroom itself. Some children may love the extra craft sessions Christmas brings, for a child with dyspraxia crafting can be a nightmare, while for one with touch sensory issues watch out for the glitter!
Work with your school to identify Oliver’s potential trigger points – ask them to create a timetable for each day which shows what regular lesson times remain and what different activities will take place during the festive period, so anxiety is lessened because there are fewer surprises. If rehearsal time is particularly difficult, perhaps school will let him attend fewer rehearsals and go into a higher class to do some project work or, if he is good with technology, be offered the chance to “work behind the scenes” or create PowerPoint slides for a special assembly. If the whole aspect of dressing up and performing is difficult maybe he could operate the sound or computer system on the day. Make sure that you know the daily schedule as well so that you are aware of which days you’re likely to face a meltdown at the school gate.
Trees, Decorations and Sensory Overload
If Oliver is easily overwhelmed sensorily or doesn’t manage change easily, the putting up of a Christmas tree and decorating of the house can create real problems. Twinkling multi-coloured fairy lights on the tree can create all sorts of issues – can he cope with a mono colour without the flashing or can you agree a short time of the day when you will have the lights turned on so that other members of the family can enjoy them?
If change is an issue for him, decide with him what decorations he might like and manage the change, adding just one or two a day and taking them down again slowly afterwards – minimalism for a year or two makes packing them back up again afterwards easier!
Is Oliver an ecowarrior? Many children with high learning potential can feel very strongly about what they consider waste. They don’t want artificial trees or plastic decorations, nor are they happy about trees cut down just for the sake of Christmas. If you are having a cut tree this Christmas, make sure you send it into a shredding and composting scheme when you are finished with it, many local councils now offer this service. However, a better way is to buy a tree with roots in a pot and if you have a garden plant it in the spring and then reuse it again the following Christmas. You can now also join schemes where live Christmas trees are rented to you and then go back to the Christmas tree farm. Once the tree reaches 7 foot tall it is planted out permanently in a woodland.
You haven’t said which sensory issues Oliver has, but if he is fine with touch and loves crafts, why not ask him to create baubles for the tree from clay or salt dough and then paint them, or look at creating paper decorations, or use orange peel, popcorn, pinecones etc. There are lots of great ideas for environmentally friendly decorations on the internet. Maybe he could also come up with a table decoration to take to his grandparents for Christmas day? When it comes to wrapping paper, perhaps he would like to decorate his own using either brown parcel paper or sheets of white newspaper (your local fish and chip shop might let you have a few). However, if he is scent sensitive, be wary of creating fruit decorations and as for special diffuser Christmas scents – just don’t consider them – and if his grandparents use them, maybe request that they be moved from the room while you are there!
Out and About
Who doesn’t love the buzz of Christmas shopping? Crowds, Christmas music, sparkly lights, shops full to the brim with lots of brightly coloured items to purchase…wonderful? Well not perhaps to a child who is easily overwhelmed sensorily or who needs routine. If you can’t leave Oliver at home, or he actually wants to be involved in present selection, then plan and manage the experience.
Make sure that you plan your visit and let him know what is happening when. Let him know when in the day you are going shopping (probably the earlier the better as he will be less stimulated overall and the crowds will be less), then make sure that he knows which shops you are visiting, in which order and approximately how long you will spend in each; perhaps agree the order with him, that will lessen his anxiety even further as he has some control of the situation. If you haven’t got a pair of ear defenders, now might be a good time to invest (to avoid some of the music you might want a pair as well!) and you need to be flexible because he can’t be. If you get to the second shop and it becomes too much, nip the meltdown in the bud by being prepared to abandon the shopping trip or take a snack break somewhere quiet. If you plan to visit Santa and standing in queues might be an issue, find a grotto where you can book a time to visit – or if overstimulation is likely, somewhere where they offer “relaxed” evenings, where Christmas lights and sounds are turned down or off.
Getting out and about in nature is actually a great way to help calm things down. Work out where there is a local park/country park near his grandparents and go for a postprandial walk or play if possible on Christmas day. Giving him the opportunity to run around and express his exuberance in nature is good for wellbeing at any time and will take some of the pressure of the day off for both you and him. Wellbeing and Nature – Indoors and Out!
Children with high learning potential are often deep thinkers, this can lead to questioning of belief systems, such as magic, the Tooth Fairy, Santa, God and religion, a lot earlier than you would normally expect. Parents of children with high learning potential need to be prepared to discuss this from about the age of 4 upwards. If Oliver is at that stage, think not just what you will discuss with him, but also about what he should be sharing, not just with his age peers but also with younger cousins.
You haven’t said when you will be travelling – perhaps on Christmas morning itself after present opening – or on Christmas Eve. However, if you want to attend church at Christmastime but don’t want to spend half the church service outside or in the glassed-off area in church, perhaps try an early morning service rather than the Christmas Eve service aimed at children, as that can be really crowded and noisy or consider team tagging different services with your partner and letting Oliver stay at home until he is older. If visiting church at his grandparents, let Oliver know that the church and service may be different to what he is used to. He may find it boring when all he wants to do is open his presents, so bring something quiet which can help keep him occupied, perhaps pen and paper to draw with or a worksheet of his favourite activities – and if incense is used at church, remember for a child with sensory issues the smell may be overwhelming and they need to sit right at the very back.
You mentioned that you normally adapt your Christmas traditions around Oliver but that you can already feel the triggers that stopping at his grandparents might set off. Anticipating elements, working out a plan to deal with them and managing expectations – yours, Oliver’s and those of his relatives – will take some of the potential heat out of a situation. While you can’t ask his grandparents to change all of their traditions to accommodate Oliver, there may be small changes that can be made which would make a difference.
Food is one such trigger. You don’t say if Oliver’s sensory issues include food aversion, but just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean that he is going to want to eat something different from normal. If he normally likes beige food, food that doesn’t touch on the plate, dry food etc. he isn’t suddenly going to eat sprouts and grandma’s special nut and dried apricot stuffing, slathered in gravy. Likewise you may have given Oliver a schedule for the day which includes when he will eat lunch, but so often the timings on cooking food go wrong or a relative gets held up so food gets held up so make sure that you have factored that in. Sometimes a child may surprise you and be happy to try something at a relative’s house or at a party which they would never consider touching at their own, but for the most part, be prepared to carry snacks with you that he will eat when at Christmas parties or ingredients to quickly rustle up an alternative on Christmas Day. Give Oliver the option of trying food that is different, but be prepared to place on his plate the same as he has had for the other 364 days of the year and don’t worry if the only thing that he will eat is the turkey – or a chunk of cheese and some bread – it won’t harm him not to eat vegetables for a day – even if he has enough room after all the sweets he will have already eaten! If Oliver tends to hyperfocus, especially likely on Christmas day because he has been waiting for so long for that particular toy, make sure you give him warning that he has to change activity and come to eat. Usually a countdown warning at 5 minutes 2 minutes at one minute is sufficient.
If you have travelled up to your in-laws on Christmas Eve, they may not be ready for the tornado who is Oliver opening stocking presents at 3 in the morning and he may not know exactly what is expected of him. Make sure that you let Oliver know well in advance which part of your Christmas routines he needs to keep (you might be an ok-to-stay-in-your-pyjamas-all-day kind of family, but his grandparents might believe in clean teeth, get dressed, have breakfast and go to Church before settling at home for the rest of the day). Outline a sequence of the day for Oliver (rather than a hard and fixed-time schedule, unless he absolutely needs that, as timed schedules then add more stress to you), so he knows what is expected and that he can open stocking presents (quietly!!) when he wakes up, for example, but that present opening from under the tree awaits the arrival of his cousins and takes place after lunch. Factor in the possibility of delays around Christmas lunchtime into his schedule.
A Quiet Corner
Create a quiet corner or a room with a few familiar things from home that Oliver can withdraw to at his grandparents’ house. It is very easy for Christmas at an unfamiliar house, with unfamiliar people, noise and unfamiliar customs to overwhelm any young child and as more and more relatives gather, ready for the dive under the flashing lights of the Christmas tree and the noisy, excited atmosphere of present opening, use that quiet corner, or perhaps outside the main room to sit and open presents together.
Presents and Surprises
While lots of presents under a Christmas tree can look pretty, for some children, particularly those with dual or multiple exceptionality, surprise can cause issues. If Oliver doesn’t like surprises, look at ways to help take some of the anxiety away – is he perhaps really worried that he isn’t going to get a specific present he has asked for? You may want to let him know it has arrived and is waiting for him, or if he asked Santa for it, that Santa has let you know that it will definitely be there and that he knows exactly where Oliver is going to be on Christmas morning so that he can deliver it. If bright colourful paper can overwhelm, reduce the stimulus by using plain paper, or reduce the strain of surprise with Christmas cellophane designs. If he opens the present he really wants, he may want to deep dive straight into that present and not be interested in opening anything else. This can leave you feeling deflated as you know what else exciting is waiting for him and totally confuses relatives who see the piles of presents remaining under the tree. Oliver may come back to them later in the day, but if you think this is likely to happen from previous experience, make sure that you’ve let relatives know in advance so that they aren’t urging him to get on with opening them or why not spread the present opening over a few days, perhaps turning it into the 12 days of Christmas (without the drummers drumming – unless you did buy those ear defenders), or adopting present giving days from other world traditions – like 5th December in Netherlands or 6th January in Spain to spread the load and reduce the pile awaiting on Christmas day?
If you have relatives who don’t understand high learning potential, some of your gifts to your wonderfully unique child may seem strange (see Christmas Gift Ideas the High Learning Potential Way for some of the more unusual gifts parents have given their child with high learning potential). Don’t excuse them – you know that your child will love them. However, if Oliver has requested a particular present that you know neither you, your relatives, nor Santa is prepared to deliver (no, he can’t have liquid oxygen, sorry but that console is just too expensive) make sure that Oliver understands this before Christmas Day itself.
In the list of traditions mentioned by Anna awaiting Oliver at his grandparents are board games. Board games can be a fantastic way to interact with others – or the push into overexcitability or meltdowns for a child who doesn’t know how to lose. Read our blog Do You Hate Losing for ways to help Oliver if he struggles with this. He may not want to take part in board game sessions with grownups anyway and happily focus on his own presents, but if he wants to take part or play with his cousins, bring a favourite game of his from home or try to find games that would be easy for everyone to play together – a shy child might dread charades and for a child with some form of dyslexia any game which involves putting together words, like Scrabble, is a thing of dread. Cooperative games, like Forbidden Island or Hanabi, mean that everyone is working together for a common objective and he might enjoy thesem while games like Pictionary are easy for even the worst artist to take part in. See Developing Thinking Skills Through Board Games for more ideas for games.
Appreciating Your Unique Child
If your relatives don’t meet Oliver very often, they may not appreciate what an amazing child he is. Ask them to give Oliver the gift of time and patience to listen to him – he may love performing music or sharing his knowledge – and while they may learn more than they ever wanted to know about batteries or Egyptology and struggle with his personal cover of Jingle Bells, they may also start to appreciate how fantastic your child with high learning potential really is.
To discover Christmas from another parent’s point of view see: HLP Diaries – It’s Christmas! about performance anxiety at the school play
For tips on handling meltdowns and triggers view: Managing the Momentous Meltdowns of Children with High Learning Potential
To understand more about the common difficulties children with high learning potential or dual or multiple exceptionality face, including overexcitabilities and sensory issues see Common Difficulties for Children with High Learning Potential and Common Difficulties for Children with Dual or Multiple Exceptionality
To discuss things with someone who understands, contact our Telephone Advice Service to book a half hour call with an advisor. These calls are free to eligible members (Family Plus and Family Essential Membership). Associate and Non-members are able to take up paid calls with our advice service. Visit our Telephone Advice Booking Calendar to book a call.