The holidays are too much for many of our kids. Though it seems to us regular adults from regular childhoods that this should be the most wonderful time of year, for a kid who struggles getting though a normal day, getting through a series of high-expectation days with multiple events is stressful.
I have learned a few things over the years about managing the holidays with a child who has Reactive Attachment Disorder, Bipolar Disorder and DSM-NOS. 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, schedules are haywire and can knock kids off track for weeks, even months. Most childcare professionals will verify- kids who are sensitive to change often destabilize this time of year.
First and foremost, be mindful that your RADish will probably struggle. Work from the perspective that there will be problems and try to contain them before the fallout. Anticipate. Think to previous years and plan. Understand what is causing the blowouts and why.
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.
When things are predictable, she feels safe. Even though she knows it's Christmas, maybe she didn't realize that meant her regularly scheduled breakfast would be at 7:05 instead of 7:00 and there would be a parade to watch on tv instead of her usual cartoon. A typical kid wouldn't think twice about it but for the child with RAD, one change means everything could change, and that is dangerous.
Anxiety always comes out.
When your child starts up with provoking behaviors, incessant demands and/or does bizarre things it probably means she is feeling unsure and unsafe.
So what do you do? You talk it through at every opportunity. Describe every single thing ahead of time. We are going to Grandma's house. We are taking the blue car and leaving our house at 12:00. 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 but she always has snacks out for you right? She's having ham and those mashed potatoes you love (and sweet mother of tequila, those potatoes better be there) for dinner. These are the people who are coming.
But wait! Do not tell her too far ahead of time because then she will freak out anticipating The Day of Changes. 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 a meltdown. Or twenty.
The other thing that helps is to commiserate. You know change makes her feel nervous. It is hard! You don't know what to expect when things are changed up and you aren't sure the people in charge will take care of things. But you, the parent, will be there to help her.
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 used protective garments at the homes of other people. If she didn't need the back up, she didn'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 meltdown is coming- it never just fades away. 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 thumping like the drummer from a death metal band has moved into her 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). I'll slowly "draw" the infinity symbol on her back, purposefully crossing the medial line to engage both sides of the brain.
We might escape to a bedroom and close the door and do some strong sitting in quiet. We can do quick brain shifts or 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.
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, look off into the distance, and wander away. I think the it helps kick open the door that reminds people, we are not working from a regular box of chocolates here. 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 get better. 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.
I realize the above ideas 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 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.
I know many people feel they should be teaching their children delayed gratification. That kids should darn good and well learn to wait and they'll be better people for it. That is totally valid, and I get it. It's true. My thinking though, is that my daughter spent the first year and a half of her life in abject neglect. She was forced into a life where delayed gratification was the standard. Only it wasn't a new my- little- pony doll, it was food that was insubstantial. Hugs that never happened. Non existent stimulation. She knows too well what delayed gratification is because it damaged her brain and torpedoed her development.
New Segment- What to Give Her
I often lurk around facebook pages for parents of children with RAD, and this is a subject that comes up regularly. What can you give a child who destroys toys? Or the child who rarely plays with toys? Or the child who places no value on "things" and will lose it?
Whenever people ask what my kids want I will tell them a few specific items if they insist, otherwise we request experiences. Actual physical things to do. A week of dance camp. A card for ChuckE. A pool membership or swimming lessons. Zoo or museum memberships. Spa cards to get manicures together. A salon card to get a streak of green in the hair. Horse riding lessons. Donation to a charity in her name. Have a few of these handy so when people ask, you can supply a website or phone number.
Some folks feel it is important the child have something to open on the holiday. Actually, the unknown of a wrapped package can be stressful. At any rate, suggest those things be small and inexpensive. Thrift stores are a fantastic source for cheaper than dirt kids books.
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 minimizing (not eradicating!) the meltdowns. We will absolutely still have fallout, but if we try to work out 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. I've updated it and added a little. Of course Genea is older now and able to respond better so that helps. At this point, I can straight up ask her what would help her manage her anxiety and she will come up with her own idea's. Age limits apply, but for us the boys and girls club helps greatly to occupy days off with structure.
Last thing. Let's be certain there will never be a statue for me unless it meets the same fate as Saddam Husseins. Today Genea told me she was feeling stressed because of the changes coming up this week. Then she pointed out that I get "super frustrated" when we are going off somewhere. This makes her nervous and then I get frustrated with her. Notwithstanding the fact that I have to be the brain for 3 extra people, get everyone and everything ready, she's right. I get frustrated and it shows. I will work on it.
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!