Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Minimize Holiday Meltdowns

I have learned a few things, directly from the source, about managing the holidays with a child who has Reactive Attachment Disorder. Things which have worked to help Genea remain on the planet during times of stress, and I thought I would pass them on. I'm not an expert and I don't even play one on TV.

With holidays and school breaks, kids easily go haywire and stay off track for weeks, even months. Most child-care professionals will verify- kids who are sensitive often destabilize this time of year. Genea actually has six other mental health diagnosis's, and so much of this could apply to any child sensitive to change.

First and foremost, be mindful that your RADish will probably not emerge from the other side of the holidays in good condition. Work from a position that expects problems and makes the effort to contain them before they blow. Anticipate. Think to previous years and plan.

RADishes do not like change!
My RADish (affectionate term for a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder) does not like change. She has every day scheduled to be exactly the same as yesterday. It might seem as if a  holiday like Thanksgiving where my little food hoarder/sneaker can eat all she wants would be a positive. However, the overriding feeling will be anxiety due to change in schedules, locations, people and rules.

But.. but... but... it's Christmas! She's getting presents! How could she flip out about that? That was my question until I realized, it's because of the changes. All change- even good change- is bad.

Anxiety always comes out.

When your child starts up with provoking behavior, constant demands and does bizarre things it may mean she is feeling unsure and unsafe.

So what do you do? You talk it through at every opportunity. I would describe every single thing I could think of to Genea ahead of time. We are going to Grandma's house. We are taking my car. It will be a long car ride and I want you to bring a few books. We will try to drive straight there without stopping. When we get to Grandma's, remember her 2 dogs will bark at you at first. We will not eat right away, it will be about 2 hours after we get there. These are the foods she will have. These are the people who will be there.

But wait! Do Not tell her too far ahead of time because then she will freak out anticipating the day. For Genea, usually the night before a big event is good. Sometimes, the day of. Seriously, rarely more notice than that. Where you have anticipatory anxiety you have your Wango Tango. Simple.

Do what you have to do to keep the chances for failure at a minimum.

My child could not control her urine when stressed. Even though she was 7 and fully capable, unfortunately her continence was always one of the first things to go. We use night time underwear style protective garments at the homes of other people. Nancy Thomas can come get me and bash me over the head with a diaper genie. If Genea doesn't need the back up, she doesn't need it but if she does it will not ruin the whole day, her clothes, or the furniture of others.

Know your child's signs of stress and look for them.

Genea can look perfectly calm, even happy, on the outside. I know she is feeling anxious because her pupils dilate. That may well be the only sign at all that she is internally dysregulated. And where does all that go if left to fester? After all, she looks good on the outside, why not take that for the truth? Here is why. Because the Wango Tango will always come out somehow. Maybe not at Grandma's for Christmas, but the next day? The next 7 unstructured days at home without school? Oh yeah, you will feel it!

Check in with your child often with physical contact.

I am always amazed when I casually hug Genea and I can feel her heart beating out of the chest cavity. Another cue she is feeling stress! I make her sit  next to me and I firmly hold her. Not forcefully but as the adult in charge. We might discreetly work on breathing or counting. I will have her place her hand on her chest to feel her heart beat and work on slowing it down (I call that biofeedback for the poor, lol). We might escape to a bedroom and close the door and do some strong sitting in quiet.  We can do quick brain shifts now that she is getting older and can do some academics. I might ask her to spell "frog" or use the math trick. The answer doesn't matter in the slightest- it will shift the brain out of panic and fear and away from fight/ flight/ freeze. Other ideas- ask her favorite color, favorite tv show, etc. Think of it as driving a car with a manual transmission (good God, why do those things still exist). If the car is in 1st gear going 45 miles an hour you are going to wind up with a messed up car. You have to shift to bring it into safety.

Other things that have helped Genea and I survive:
  • Keep visits to other homes short. Short.  Short as you can.
  • Plate your child's food for her. A buffet style or family style meal is going to overwhelm and freak out your little loved one.
  • Keep as many rules from home as possible. Example- we have a rule that you have to try everything on your plate with one bite, then you can decide not to eat it. Awkward and annoying to keep that rule at another persons home, but rules are reminders that someone is in charge and the child is safe.
  • Try not to "let it go because it is a holiday". I have wound up with 2 ungrateful, overstimulated brats on many occasions thinking I was giving the gift of fun and freedom from structure. Not. Good.
Get over the idea that this is your holiday too and you should be able to have some fun. Maybe you will, maybe you won't. Yes this will all be a lot of work. No, it probably isn't fair.

What about pushy relatives?

Those that are sure your RADish needs a fistful of crackers and you are just being too strict, you know them? They spend half the holiday trying to convince you that you are too hard on the child, you need to loosen up. Or the other where your child runs off totally out of control and just needs a good spanking. I have two lines that I have found will stop all opinions, second guessing, and unwanted "help".

1. Say this with your head tilted to the side and try to look tragic.
"You know, she will just never be totally sure that we won't abandon her too. No matter how long it has been she still doesn't quite fully believe we will always bring her home. Our rules may seem odd but she functions so much better with them".
Without fail, the "helpful" relative will make sad clucking noises, quickly look off into the distance, and wander away. I think the comment helps kick open the door that reminds people, we are not working from a regular box of chocolates. Half the box isn't even candy.

2. Looking helpless or a little doubtful, shift the focus (blame) off of yourself.
"Mmmm hmmmm, her therapist (insert whatever professional you want) says we have to 'blank' for her to be emotionally healthy you know, after all she's been through". Around my relatives that will move immediately into a discussion about this feelings crap in society now-a-days, psychiatrists are nothing but drug pushers and the Big Pharmaceutical Companies are running the world.  Clears the room. Get out with everyone else.

I realize the above idea may turn folks off completely. Do what works for you. This is what has worked for me. 

Now, on to gifts!

Around here, my kids get a lot of gifts. What a problem, right? No, it's not something I complain about. However with my children, too many new things at one time overwhelms them. Then they wind up playing with the box or an old cat toy from way under the couch. Spread it out.

We will do our family gifts 3 days before Christmas. No one has ever been arrested for opening gifts early. Winter Break from school starts five full days before the actual holiday this year- that's a long time and I'm sitting on a pile of new toys? Gifts mailed out from relatives get opened two days before. That will give the kids most of the next day to play with their new stuff. We once tried having Santa come early the night before Christmas because.......

For  2 years my little neurotypical child became so excited about Santa Claus that she vomited. She works herself so far up into a tizzy that she gets a fever going and cannot keep food down. All day. So, Santa will came early the night before, like 7pm,  instead of Christmas morning. Does that just not seem right? Kids are supposed to wake up Christmas morning at 4 am all excited and flipping out about Santa! Well, that may be how it is in all the stories but if the excitement is too much for your kids than how much fun is it going to be? Anyway, no one is having fun when there is vomit on the gifts. Words to live by.

It was a good plan I think, but Teena still remembers the year Santa came too early. However, she did not get sick so, in that regard it worked well.

Anyway, like I said, these are the things that have worked for us. You may have already tried every single thing on the list and none of it worked. For me, it's about maximizing the fun and helping my RADish be successful and that may mean my day sucks. But I would feel worse if she managed to ruin the day for a bunch of other people.  We will absolutely still have fallout, but if we try to work at the problems ahead of time and have a plan for the other stuff, it helps.

I actually wrote this a few years back, but to this day we still do most of the same things. Just this past Thanksgiving I was helpfully informed that a spanking would be a great idea for Genea.

So, opinions? Suggestions? What has worked for you and your family that is not typical? Fill me in, I will take all the help I can get!


  1. Oh! Thank you! I needed to read this today. As my daughter matures
    and has so many tools under her belt it is easy for me to forget that the anxiety always comes out. Thanks for the gentle reminder that change
    is the trigger. Healing isn't linear. Consistency is key. Good advice!

  2. So glad you liked it! Healing for us has been measured in years, and there's been nothing linear about it! Hope you have a good one!

  3. I got a great newsletter that talked about strategies for kids with three different kinds of mental health issues. I am not a child, but I saw myself in "Kids who are anxious and/or struggle with obsessive thinking" - They don't do well over holidays because of all the down time. The strategy for helping those kids is to keep as busy as possible....with a full schedule, advertised in advance, so there is no wondering what is going on and as few as possible empty hours where anxiety and depression can come in and make themselves at home. If only I had someone to organize a nice, busy schedule for ME! I think it is the lack of routine, and the need for ME to somehow cobble together a new one (and it better be SPECIAL and FUN) that makes me so darned miserable over the holidays. I don't think I usually AM anxious or given to obsessive thinking EXCEPT in these situations, and it isn't pleasant....I begin to dwell on change and death, and never seeing or doing or hearing or having....whatever it is again.... Akh! I'm getting worked up just thinking about it.

    They share many of your strategies for kids with self-regulation issues.....and suggest above all, structure (i.e. those same "rules", etc.). Well, again, I say - would someone please step in and apply some structure to my life? I'm already lacking it, and my regular schedule just concluded yesterday....all of the possibilities of things I could do are making me self-destruct. (So, why not read blogs since I ought to be shopping, cleaning, planning, and catching up on WEEKS of backlogged work....)

    1. oh laws yes! I suck at scheduling and I hate it. I try to just keep consistent with times for things we were doing anyway. Dinner at 6:00, if we are going out for the day, we leave at 11:00, stuff like that. It really is exhausting to keep it all up and I need a break after winter break!

  4. Sorry but I gotta ask: Who advocates spanking another person's child? That is so intrusive that I am in shock. Thanks for all the good tips. I admit that I get caught up in the "let's have a picture perfect Hallmark holiday" fantasy and then when it ends up as less than that feeling awful. I have to let all that fantasy stuff go and just enjoy the parts that will be good about the holiday. Because there will be good parts mixed in with the crazy and don't think that I am not pulling out the math problems when the crazy starts because they WORK. Have the best holiday possible!

    1. LOL- do the math ha ha. The spanker is a close family relative who was play-kidding but kind- of- serious. Sigh. Yeah that was my thing too, to have a great holiday. Unfortunately in this house that doesn't happen without constant attention, supervision and redirecting. Whee!

  5. You won't recognize the above comment but it is me - maggie K. Just commenting from my husband's computer because mine is "challenging" me right now. Sorry for the confusion.

    1. That's funny because when I first read it I was like YAY a new reader! HA! Make your husband read now, lol. Though actually, you are a new reader too so... it evens up :)

  6. We run into the fact that the first thing that you need do in anxiety mode, to prepare to either fight or to flee, is empty your bladder. Your body knows that you don't need that extra burden during fight or flight, so it takes care of it for you. So, yes, even though she went to the bathroom ten minutes ago, she really does have to go now. We often have people who don't believe me, but I do explain it when I get exasperated looks.

    Routine, rules, prefacing everything--yep, yep, yep.

    Also, we don't like surprises. At all. So, Pix knows what her gifts are. She knows which one is in which box under the tree. She doesn't have to worry about what she's getting or if she's getting something. She knows. And she's delighted on Christmas morning. (I felt like this was ruining the joy, but, actually, for her it's increasing it. Anticipation isn't a good thing for her. It's not joyful anticipation. It's stress and anxious anticipation. It's unknown.)

    Many of our European families have their version of Santa come Christmas eve in the late afternoon, some before church and dinner, and most after. The children have to wait in their room until a bell rings and then they can come out and see what has been left. So…maybe you're just very European. (Can you imagine them just sitting and waiting in their rooms for a bell to ring?!? I have a hard time with that one. But…no benevolent stranger entering your house while you sleep might be a good thing. And, just think of the extra sleep parents get Christmas morning while kinder play with their new gifts. :> )

    1. yes yes yes, it's not happy anticipation, it's panicked and anxiety ridden and comes out all over the place! That's brilliant and so simple of the Europeans. Lots of kids worry about a stranger coming to hurt them and even though Santa is a good dude, they worry if he could get in so could the bad guys. Yeah, and for sure we would get extra sleep :)

  7. We have three children who suffer from RAD, PTSD, and the laundry list. I try to decorate for Christmas right after Thanksgiving because without decorations, the kids worry that Christmas won't actually happen at our house. My youngest child sleeps on the floor next to the Christmas tree. Something about it helps him feel safe. We try to spend a lot of low-key family togetherness time. My oldest (14) will team up with Dad in an online computer game. My daughter (13) will help me bake and shop. My youngest (10), who is by far the most volatile, plays outside as much as possible, often with neighbors who understand him pretty well. He needs a lot of sustained physical activity, so we go for walks to the grocery store or around the block. He also responds really well to nature. He needs a lot of check-ins throughout the day--sometimes every two minutes.

    Our children also know what they are getting for Christmas. My husband is a good shopper, so we usually get our kids one "big" gift (often the same for all three) that my husband has found a smoking deal on and a few small gifts. The kids feel overwhelmed with a lot of stuff. After having a few "big" Christmases, we have settled on few gifts and more family activities, like detouring on our way home in the evening to cruise the neighborhoods looking at Christmas lights. We also look for ways to give and serve charitably, since it helps my kids to remember that they are now safe and to see that we could receive help from others if we were to fall on hard times.

    Our children know who St. Nicholas was, so we don't "believe" in Santa Claus at our house. We do talk about his care for the children in his area and how it is a reflection of how much God loves and care for all of His children. We also reiterate that God meets their basic needs, no matter what their behavior. We love them, no matter what.

    1. oh- good idea! I read this and made up some bags for the girls to collect stuff for charity. Do you make that connection- that there is help out there for everyone, or did they? Awesome either way, I'd never thought of it like that!

    2. I made the connections at first because my kids were so severely dysregulated all the time for the first three or four years they were with us that they had no cause-and-effect thinking at all. They didn't understand common metaphors or have any idea why people did what they did. So every connection was one we had to draw. Forget subtlety. Forget euphemisms. My children's world-view was so skewed that although English is their first language, it felt like we were speaking Chinese to them. We are their eleventh home, so it has been hard to establish the "common" upon which common sense is based. And common sense is the basis for cause-and-effect thinking.

      My kids are better regulated now, though our youngest still struggles constantly. We require our older kids to participate in some kind of ongoing volunteer work during their summers off of school. It can be as little as a couple of hours a week and can be an activity of their choice, but they have to do something to give back. Having spent the majority of their lives in foster care, they need to do things that counter their feeling of entitlement. Along with that feeling of entitlement goes the notion that people only care for them because they are required to and possibly because they are being paid. My kids need to know that we take care of them because we are their parents and that's what good parents do. There doesn't have to be a rule or payment for us to take care of them. Besides, my kids' self-esteem goes way up when they are volunteering and they learn skills that help them.

    3. I totally get the need for common in common sense! I'd never thought about charities in the way you said. Like, we can help right now so we will and if we need help someday they will help us. You have a great approach and I'ma gonna' use it!

  8. Thank you so much for your post. I do not even know where to begin on what is so right about these helpful and REALISTIC reminders. The one I need most to remember is the simple, Anxiety always comes out. There are times I forget that fact. Then I wonder what the heck is going on without any clue on how to manage any of it. And, "After all, she looks good on the outside, why not take that for the truth?" Because sometimes the truth lies. Thank you for sharing and your honesty. All the best to you and your family. C.

    1. ah, thank you! I'm happy you like it!
      That one busts me up a lot- I understand anxiety before hand but I forget about anxiety afterwards. In my mind it's over so.... ? But she's spent days holding in every worry and fear and there have been tons of them and poof! it comes out.

  9. I love this! I need all the reminders I can get...We learned about all of this before she actually came home, but reading about it in a book and actually living it are two TOTALLY different things. Ours is 14 now, came here when she was 12...12 years in a "good" Chinese orphanage is a brutal place to spend your childhood. One of the hard things for us is that she appears to be so independent and mature at times, but on the inside she's anywhere from 4 to 9 years old emotionally. Depending on which emotion she's reacting out of, motives behind behavior change and what seems like an appropriate consequence in one situation may not be in another. But whew! Thanks for the reminders and tips!

    1. oh my gosh, I have that same issue. She makes a huge effort to do things herself- to be unattached, so lots of times she seems older than she is. Then more often, she's about half her age. Plus needy and clingy then push-away-fast. Whatever need I respond to gets switched.

  10. Love this! This is the first year our two really 'get' Christmas, so... I think there might be lots of counting. Thanks for sharing the fruit of your hard-eatned wisdom.

  11. Awesome post. I relate to the part about not telling her things ahead of time. We went to Washington DC this summer and we had driven from Maine to somewhere in NJ before I told her.


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