Behaviour can be tricky at Christmas. At a time when your children are supposed to be on their very best behaviour, in actual fact some of the behaviours they display can be the worst leaving you frazzled and un-christmassy! Here’s a little look into some of the possible reasons why.
Imagine the scene, you go into your work place and you’re told by your very enthusiastic boss that you’re going to be in a play, that everyone is going to participate and that there’s going to be songs, dancing and you all get to dress up in a beautiful costume! Now there’ll be those of you reading this who would LOVE this, would be imagining themselves as the lead role, dreams of audience applause and scouts in that audience plucking you from oblivion and propelling you on a fast track to Oscar nominations. There’ll be others of you who feel physically sick at the thought of having to stand in front of an audience, let alone say anything and to dress up in a costume would be your worst nightmare.
Imagine the same scenario for our little ones – something that happens year after year with the school nativity, and often the end of year productions too or class assemblies. For some kiddies, the chance to perform is a dream come true, for others a living nightmare. Yet they get no choice as to whether they will or won’t participate, it’s a given that all will take part because the parents and teachers expect it. In many cases, its great for children to step out of their comfort zone and try something new – I mean, how do you know if you’re good at something or enjoy it unless you try – but for others, it can be so completely overwhelming that it can cause anxiety, worry, and physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches.
These anxieties are not all centred around the Christmas production but in order to understand these anxieties it’s important to look at the school routine and home routine around Christmas. Children thrive on routine and structure. They love to know what is expected of them and when and they essentially thrive on praise and knowing and understanding how to make a special grown up happy, whether that be a teacher or parent or loved one. They love knowing what is going to happen that day and this predictability helps them to understand what time of day it is, where they are up to and what is still left to come. The same is true of both children with additional needs and those without. This is one of the reasons visual timetables work so well when children are anxious or worried. Bringing a little sense of control back into their lives can massively impact on your child’s stress or worry levels because they know what is going to happen next.
Christmas is a time when usual routine both at home and at school tends to be forgotten about and this is where those children who are prone to worry are impacted most. School routines are filled throughout December with disco’s, Christmas fairs, father Christmas visits, pantomimes, school trips to the cinema, Christmas jumper day, bring a bottle to school day, practice for the nativity, special assemblies, church visits and so much more. Normal classroom routine is broken with scrambles for extra hall time to practice the nativity or school play and singing time to learn hymns and Christmas songs replaces story time and usual routines too. All of this coupled with the addition of lights in the classroom, music, trees up, decorations and dangly objects and for some little ones, its sensory overload too. Often teachers will remind children of things they need for the following day – ‘don’t forget your costume,’ ‘make sure you remember your slip for the pantomime or you can’t come,’ and this too can cause worry and panic for our little ones who take that on board.
At home, bedtimes increase or become less consistent as Christmas shopping is completed, adults’ book festive activities for little ones at weekends meaning little time to rest and recover, trees are up in the house along with decorations. Adults are often stressed and less tolerant as they worry about presents, wrapping, money issues, food shopping, sharing childcare as well as trying to keep on top of all the additional extras needed for the children for school too. Christmas time is wonderful and exciting, but it can become as stressful for both adults and children.
As you can see, throwing in a stressful event into a time that is already quite unstructured and changeable can cause your little one to become worried. Worry, stress, anxiety can present in all sorts of different ways, it may be that their behaviour worsens, that they become difficult at home, answering back, lashing out, having temper tantrums. All of this is a response to their feelings of things being out of control. They are trying to regain control of things when they feel like they have no control at all. It may be that they feel physically sick and start complaining at home before and after school that they are unwell, sore tummy, headache, tired etc. This again is a common response to stress and worry. Your child may not link this to worry at all – especially if they are only young, but its important as a parent to recognise this feeling and maybe explore if there’s a reason behind those feelings. Are they nervous or worried about anything? Are they feeling a bit scared about anything? Has anything changed in school which could make them feel worried. Using all of this language gives your child opportunity to recognise one of the words and maybe link it to their feelings. It may be that your child becomes withdrawn and whingy at home. Again, take the time to give plenty of cuddles and plenty of reassurance and to plan for the week with them so that your little one is aware of home routines and feels more in control.
So top tips for managing worry and anxiety in children around Christmas
- Try to keep home life as structured and keep your routines as much as possible. If things are changing due to Christmas – make a weekly plan on a Sunday with your little one and have a weekly calendar visible so they know what is happening each day.
- Go through the daily routine each morning with them so they are aware of what will happen that day. E.g. Mummy will drop you at school, then it’ll be the Christmas performance, you’ll pop your costume on, mummy and daddy will be there waiting to see you in the play, then you’ll go back to class and get changed. After lunch you will have some learning time and then Nana will pick you up from school. Mummy will be home to make your tea – we are having spaghetti tonight. This gives your child an idea of what will happen and when.
- Take some time to relax each night with your little one. Make sure there is some time for a cuddle, a story, time to listen to some music or whatever you do as part of your bedtime routine.
- Minimise iPad/technology time before bedtime as this increases hormone production that can prevent sleep.
- Speak to your child’s class teacher about any anxieties your child has, it can sometimes be the children you least expect to become nervous at the thought of performing.
- Talk about times when you yourself have been worried and how you found the solution e.g. I found that I could make myself better if I did some nice deep breaths, if I had a cuddle, if I had a dance to my favourite song, if I did some drawing. All of these things will help distract your little one from the worry they feel.
- Try to keep a room in the home calm and relaxed, no lights, no tree, no decorations. If there’s a chill out space your child can use when they are feeling overwhelmed this can help massively. Let them use it whenever they need to for as long as they need.
- Ensure you have a calendar with all of the Christmas dates on. Making sure all slips are returned and your child knows they have their Christmas jumper etc will help alleviate some of their stress if they are the type of child that worries about forgetting things and getting into trouble in school.
Christmas is a magical time, but it’s important to be aware that it can be stressful for children as well as adults. As the spotlight become increasingly honed on children’s mental health its important to remember that lack of routine, change in routine and sensory overload can be key triggers for children who are prone to worry. Our children need to learn coping strategies from an early age to help them to recognise the things that trigger their worries but also the strategies they have available to them to help them to manage these worries, breathing strategies, worry monsters, reading material, songs, dance, art and so on. In a world where anxiety is one of the leading mental health problems in young children its important that we as parents are not only aware of our children’s feelings and emotions but also understanding and able to support our children with practical guidance support and advice.
Hope you and your little ones all have the most magical time. I am happy for anyone who is struggling with this issue to contact me directly through our website if you need further advice, guidance or support.