As we come towards the end of what has been a difficult year, school and kinder stop for holidays and there’s lots to do. There’s the end-of-year busyness as we rush towards the finish line. There’s lots of trying to squeeze in seeing friends, buying presents and preparing food for gatherings. While all this activity can be fun for some – and certainly many people feel like there’s extra to celebrate this year – for others it’s an extremely stressful and anxious time of the year.
Getting back to ‘normal’
Lots of children and adults are struggling to get back to ‘normal’ after the pandemic restrictions. Some are more socially anxious than they used to be. Others are simply exhausted from trying to ‘hold it all together’ for months. Lots of families experienced extreme disruption this year as people lost incomes, got separated from loved ones or tried to work from home while also trying to help kids learn. Victorian kids have shown real adaptability as they twice adjusted to learning from home.
To add to the pandemic anxieties, the warmer weather may be a reminder of last summer’s bushfires, especially for families visiting places away from home. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the memories of those fires – especially on children. Memories of seeing homes burning and injured wildlife on TV are traumatising for many people. The smell of smoke – even if it’s from a BBQ – may trigger this vicarious trauma.
This time of year is tough for lots of people.
Advertising portrays it as a magical time of joy, love and big family get togethers celebrating Christmas (or Hanukkah, another religious holiday or just the end of the year.) But, for lots of people it’s scary, awkward or sad. Or it’s all these things, especially for children who live in out-of-home care and don’t feel they have those things.
For some children Christmas is a time of bad memories. Of times that they know were supposed to be happy but weren’t. Of times there wasn’t money for a Christmas lunch and Santa didn’t bring presents.
Conflict in family relationships is common at this time of the year, and family violence spikes over the Christmas and New Year period. Problems with substance abuse, alcohol, gambling and mental health are often exacerbated too. For some kids, summer holidays meant less connection with safe and predictable adults at school or day care, and more time with the adults who struggled to look after them. Be aware that the seemingly innocuous sound of Christmas carols in a shopping centre or tinsel decorations might trigger a child’s bad memories.
How you can help:
- Don’t make assumptions.
- Spend time asking open-ended questions with the child about how they are feeling about Christmas. Ask what they might be looking forward to, or what they might be dreading.
- Listen (properly!) to what they say, both verbally and with body language.
- Many kids in out-of-home care are experiencing post-traumatic stress, so understanding their past experiences can help you manage situations that might trigger them.
For some children Christmas is another reminder that they’re the odd one out. Some won’t know what the fuss is about, because they haven’t ever had a happy Christmas. Some won’t have had a Christmas lunch or dinner, decorated a tree or put Santa sacks out. Some might remember that other kids got lots of presents and they didn’t get any. They may feel shame because of this.
How you can help:
- Create an opportunity alone with the child (preferably while you’re doing something together) to explain what’s going to happen on the day. Encourage them to come back and ask questions.
- Be honest in your answers to their questions and empathise with them. Don’t dismiss their past experiences. Instead, acknowledge and accept them.
- Explain any traditions that happen in your house. It helps anxious kids if you explain things in the order they’ll happen – even things you might take for granted.
- Think of a couple of things the child might like to do – such as watching a movie, putting decorations in their room or choosing a special Christmas morning breakfast – and allow them to create a new tradition in their new home.
- Buy them something they’d like for Christmas and make sure all the kids in your house receive a similar number or value of presents so no-one feels left out. Don’t go overboard though.
- Many kids won’t know how to respond to receiving gifts, especially if they feel put on the spot, so try not to be offended if they react differently to how you’d like them to.
- Instead, try and help them learn the joy of giving presents. Suggest they help you make something to give as Christmas presents – even if it’s just drawing a picture, helping bake biscuits, making some decorations or potato-stamping paper to wrap gifts in.
Christmas can be a reminder of the people now missing from children’s daily lives – their siblings, parents, cousins, aunties, uncles and grandparents. They might miss an old neighbour, teacher, friend or pet. Some kids will be missing previous Christmas routines, places and foods. Even if they experienced bad things in their old home, the fact that things are different this year may still be difficult for them.
How you can help:
- Ask the child who or what they think they’re going to miss this Christmas.
- Empathise rather than sympathise with the child. Let them know it’s OK to be sad and miss people and things.
- If you can, help them connect with the person or people they’re missing. Speak to your case worker about arranging a Christmas morning video call or even a visit.
- If that can’t be arranged, suggest they make a card, draw a picture or record a video message to send to the people they are missing.
- Make sure you mention and ask the child questions about that person on Christmas Day to show them you know they are missing them.
When kids who have experienced scary things are no longer in danger, they still might not feel safe. Their brains have learned to become more attuned to threat. Anything unknown or new becomes more stressful. The unpredictability of special events like Christmas feel risky, especially when they don’t know what to expect, how they’re supposed to act and because it often involves seeing lots of people they don’t really know.
Many kids will become distressed with all the sensory input (especially noise), the changes of routine and feeling that they’re supposed to be happy.
If this happens, they might: become very clingy and not let go of you, freeze and seem to shut down, run and hide, or get angry and lash out. This is their bodies using a flock, freeze, flight or fight response to try keep themselves safe.
How you can help:
- Talk with the child in advance. Give them as much information as you can. Answer all their questions and make it clear they can ask more if they want later.
- Ask them if they are looking forward to, or worried about Christmas.
- Plan ways they can let you know that it’s all becoming too much and know what you’ll do to help calm them. Often the kids can tell you what calms them.
- Make sure the child gets enough sleep and has had enough healthy snacks and water to avoid getting too hungry or thirsty which only add to the discomfort.
- Throughout the day prepare the child for transition by warning them what is coming next and what can they can expect. Take it one step at a time.
- Try and see the signs that they are getting dysregulated. If they are, there’s some ways you can try to prevent a meltdown. If you’re staying at home, it’s easier. But if you’re going out or to someone else’s house, there are plenty of options.
- Take headphones so they can go into a quiet room, the backyard or the car and listen to their favourite music for a while.
- Plan to break up the event with a walk to a park and go on playground for a little while.
- Take a soft toy to cuddle or a weighted lap blanket that comforts them.
- Take a fidget toy or stress ball to keep hands occupied.
- Take a water bottle that includes a sucking straw.
- Take a skateboard, footy, scooter or a skipping rope for some short bursts of regulating physical activity outside in the driveway or backyard.
- Plan to go for a shorter amount of time – and stick to these plans.
- Consider declining big, noisy or long events this year that you know will be really challenging for the child. Instead organise a more casual catch up in the park.
What if it’s too late?
Sometimes meltdowns can’t be prevented. Each child will have their own triggers and will respond differently. It’s likely to be distressing and it may look like a tantrum. It’s not though. You can’t ‘give in’ and give them what they want to make it stop. They don’t want anything in particular, it’s just the situation is all too much for them.
How you can help:
- Warn friends and family in advance that Christmas can be a tricky time of year for children in out of home care and they can have lots of mixed up feelings and that they may not react, respond or behave in the way other children do at a happy event. Ask them to be kind and gentle and trust the carers to respond to the child.
- Don’t punish or yell at the child if they do have a meltdown.
- Take them somewhere quiet without much sensory stimulation.
- Keep yourself calm and use a gentle and quiet tone of voice as you talk.
- Avoid talking too much or trying to reason with them – they won’t be able to process words properly in the heat of the meltdown.
- Try doing something rhythmic. Walking, counting breaths, stamping, jumping, humming or tapping a beat are all good options.
- Sit with them or stay nearby. If they want to be touched, hold and rock them, rub their back, massage their hand or stroke their hair. Respect their boundaries if they don’t want to be touched though.
- Avoid being angry at the child for the reaction they are having – they really can’t help it.
- Be accepting of the way they are feeling, it’s their reality and more distressing for them than for you.
- Once they are calm, help them to repair and reconnect with others by assisting them to re-join the event by settling them into an activity.
We know that most of the children in out-of-home care have experienced harm while in the care of people supposed to look after them. That’s not their fault. When they seem to overreact to situations or people, they can’t help it – it’s their survival instincts kicking in.
The good news is that over time you can build their trust and help them feel safe and secure. Now’s the time to show them that they can trust you to take care of them and that you have their best interests at heart. Over time you can create new happier Christmas memories together. In a year like this year, that’s a challenge, but one that can literally change a child’s life.
Models are used in our photos to protect the identity of the children and families we work with.
Berry Street’s Take Two program is a Victoria-wide therapeutic service helping to address the impact on children of the trauma they have experienced from abuse, neglect or adverse experiences. Take Two can also provide specialist clinical consultancy services to other organisations. Learn more about our Take Two service