When Christmas isn’t all comfort and joy

31 Dec

Christmas is almost over, and New Year is so close you can smell it. And I for one will be a little pleased to see the back of it.

It pains me to say that. Genuinely, I love Christmas. I love everything about it: the hype, the decorations, Santa, spending time with my family, giving presents and the annual mammoth roast that tastes so good I just have to eat it until I am sick.

But it is those very things, all those exciting, special things, that seem to trigger DS1’s most difficult moments.
For several years I have found my oldest son’s behaviour extremely challenging at Christmas.

Christmas Eve, the build up to Santa’s arrival has repeatedly led to explosive meltdowns. In fact, the more I would remind him to behave himself if he wanted Santa to visit, the worse his behaviour would become. Inevitably, every letter to Santa before bedtime would consist of an apology for his poor behaviour that day and a promise that he would behave better tomorrow.

Christmas Day would be manic. He would dominate the present opening. Tearing the wrapping paper from his presents at alarming speed and then attempting to open other people’s presents before they could. He would often appear ungrateful for the wealth of toys he had received and be totally unsure what to do next.

He would frequently appear to attention seek and cooking Christmas dinner was interrupted repeatedly by his attempts to sabotage.

In general, his behaviour appeared hyperactive, obnoxious and incredibly irritating and I would feel frustrated, embarrassed and somewhat upset that my high hopes for a happy, fun, and dare I say – relaxing day, were ruined.

But I never understood why. Until I became aware of ASD and PDA.

It was only then that I could understand that perhaps, just perhaps, that hype, those expectations, the extra people, the loss of routine, might be incredibly stressful for him and that perhaps his manic and challenging behaviour was actually a result of high anxiety.

So this year I tried to make things a little easier for him. To lower demands, give him greater control and help him manage his expectations.

On 1st December, I assembled the tree while he was at school and let him decorate it exactly as he wished.

That night we also started to read a bedtime story called “How Many Sleeps Until Christmas?” to manage the countdown.

5 days before Christmas I put up a countdown board and each morning he would write up how many sleeps were remaining until Christmas.

I also began to play a personalised Christmas story telling CD in the car which he seemed to really enjoy.

On Christmas Eve, I anticipated that the expectation for him to “behave” was just too great a demand and made meltdowns more likely, so I changed tack. I kept demands on the day low. He was left to do as he pleased in the morning. No requirement to get dressed, no chores, just playing what he wanted, when he wanted. While his baby brother took a nap, I played with him and we drew Christmas pictures together. At that point, he volunteered to write his letter to Santa.

When he asked what to write, I suggested that what Santa would most appreciate is that he tried his best this year and not that he always behaved. This seemed to calm him, and the result was beautiful.



In the afternoon his tension rose and the odd outburst occurred, but we managed to prevent any extreme meltdowns. By late afternoon we were using the NORAD Santa Tracker to trace Santa’s movements and by bedtime, he was not far from the UK, so this was the perfect persuasion to get him into bed and asleep pronto!

On Christmas morning, DS1 was inevitably up ridiculously early. From 4.30am he was in and out of his room like a yo-yo unable to sleep.

By 7am, he was downstairs examining his haul.

To keep his anxiety low, we explained how the day would unfold, giving him control where possible to decide what would happen and when. We agreed specific play times with daddy while his baby brother was napping, and again while Grandad and I were cooking the Christmas dinner to manage his expectations and try to minimise his attention seeking. Finally, I told him it was ok to take regular visits to his room to chill alone if things got too much.

When the Grandparents arrived for another round of present opening, we put DS1 in control. He was the director of the show, the conductor of his orchestra, dictating who could open their present next.

The day went largely well, with only the odd hiccup. The little man held it together well, taking himself to his room occasionally to play in peace and even agreeing to eat the turkey roast without chips on the side.

All things considered, it was a huge improvement on previous years, but my god, we have paid for it since.

By Boxing day, his behaviour was becoming difficult. He was dominating play with his baby brother, frequently snatching toys from his grasp, shouting at him and interrupting his attempts to play with his own toys alone. His general behaviour was becoming more manic and defiant, and he was taking far more distracting to keep him from melting down. Bedtime could not come soon enough and my nerves were beginning to fray.

The following day, we separated the boys as the play was becoming stressful, so hubby took our youngest out while I took DS1 to lunch and then the cinema. He was fidgety and manic, but manageable, and we had a good time.

On 28th December, I agreed to another outing of his choice to keep him away from his little brother for a few hours. This time a pantomime visit. He fidgeted, picked his fingers, and repeatedly asked if it had finished, before declaring it awesome. We had a good experience and he seemed to be happy and coping well. But once home, his behaviour again became extreme.

Since that time we have bounced from one exhausting meltdown to another every single day.

We have set up a sensory light tube in his bedroom to create a calming space for him to escape to, we have used every strategy possible to reduce his meltdowns, but ultimately, this time of year has taken it’s toll on him, and us, and I am hoping that a return to the school routine will help stabilise his mood.
So goodbye Christmas 2015, I think we enjoyed you for a while, but New Year and normality – whatever that is – awaits.


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