Parenting Kids Who Sabotage the Holidays

(This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosure policy.)

The holidays are a special part of the year that most people look forward to, but for some families, the thought brings fear or even dread. For children who have Reactive Attachment Disorder or have experienced early childhood trauma or for children with ADHD or sensory processing issues, the holidays can be hard. In fact, sometimes children who fall into those categories will sabotage the holidays.

It is not much fun walking around on eggshells knowing that your child is on a hair trigger and may be set off at any second. But holidays are not much fun for those kids either. Big days can be a reminder of all that they have lost or of how their brain works differently than other people’s do or of how far their behaviour is from what they want it to be.

Advice for parenting a child who sabotages the holidays #parenting #parentingadvice #adoptionSome of our kids have at times sabotaged big days including birthdays (other people’s and even their own), Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas, graduations, anniversaries, family celebrations, vacations, times of accomplishment when others are the center of attention, Father’s Day, and often in particular, Mother’s Day. The root of the sabotaging behaviours is often guilt and shame, but there can be other causes as well. It’s not just adopted kids who sabotage the holidays. There are many reasons a child may do this.

Possible motivations for kids to sabotage the holidays:

  1. Feeling unworthy. Abandonment or the perception of abandonment in children who have been adopted or who have had one parent leave the family can lead to a deep sense of shame. This may make them feel as if they are unworthy of love, unworthy of having good things happen to them, unworthy of gifts or attention. With that entrenched feeling of being unworthy of truly feeling happy, sabotaging behaviours can begin to emerge. They may sabotage so that they can force what they see as inevitable disappointment. If their parent then responds in anger to their sabotaging behaviour, it only further validates their belief that they are unlovable.
  2. Triggers. During the holidays, triggers are everywhere. Smells, sights, sounds, memories of the past… the holidays can be a minefield to navigate. These triggers can cause a fight, flight or freeze response.
  3. Excitement and anxiety feel the same in the body. Read that sentence again. It’s a biggie! Butterflies in the stomach, quickening of breathing rate, a loudly thumping heart, sweating, and trouble sleeping are the same body responses whether you are feeling excited or nervous. When your child feels those body sensations, it can bring memories of times of stress when they felt that way due to anxiety.
  4. Lack of routine during the holidays can make certain children feel a lack of control. They may then attempt to assert control and take charge. The unpredictability and uncertainty can feel unsafe to them. With less of a set schedule, they may also be overtired and be eating poorly which can also affect behaviour and mood.
  5. The holidays often come with sensory overload. This can lead to sensory meltdowns which unintentionally sabotages the holidays
  6. The weight of expectations. When a child believes that he will fall short of the expectations placed on him, he may decide to just quickly blow things up to get it over with. The stress that come with anticipating the disappointment they may cause can be overwhelming.
  7. For children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, Christmas can be a nightmare because during the holiday season, relationships are usually the focus and there is more emphasis put on family togetherness and unity. This feels like a threat to kids who are putting protective walls up when it comes to family relationships.
  8. Unreasonable expectations. Even the most neurotypical, well grounded children tend to have high expectations during the holidays. This is sometimes magnified in kids who have a trauma history or have sensory needs. Some adopted children have a fantasy of what life would be like with their biological parents and nothing in reality can live up to that fantasy.
  9. Grief. Oh my. Consider a simple tradition such as decorating the Christmas tree. Our family’s collection of ornaments includes those Baby’s First Christmas ornaments and handprint ones I made when many of our kids were newborns. How must that feel for our kids who joined our family when they were 4 and 7? I can buy them ornaments to represent their first years and their milestones, but I cannot replace the hardships of their early years. Holidays have so many things that can magnify grief, sadness and loss.
  10. Protection. Attempting to protect their heart from further disappointment, a child who has experienced early trauma will put walls up and push others away. With everything being magnified during the holidays, those walls have a tendency to go higher and that pushing away can turn to an aggressive shove (literally or figuratively).

Parenting kids who sabotage the holidays:

  • Lower your own expectations.
  • Provide a lot of opportunity for sensory input.
  • Create a calm down kit for your child.
  • Maintain routines as much as possible.
  • Talk candidly with your child ahead of time. Speak factually about past holidays and their challenges with them. Brainstorm strategies with them to help this year go more smoothly.
  • Less presents! When it comes to kids who struggle with the holidays, less is more.
  • Simplify. Practise saying “no” to some of the invitations so that you do not over schedule.
  • Be willing to let go of things that don’t work for your child. You may need to set aside even treasured holiday traditions for a few years.
  • Some kids do not do well with surprises. Even though you may think that surprises are fun, they may cause additional stress for your child. If your child falls into this category, resist the urge to surprise them.
  • Prepare your child ahead of time what to expect. Tell them where you are going, who will be there, how long you will be staying, what you will be doing there, and what your expectations are of them. Use a calendar to give them as much notice as you can of upcoming events.
  • Make a plan with them for where they can go at an event if it becomes too much for them or a signal they can give you that they have reached their limit.
  • Talk with your family members and close friends ahead of time and explain why the holidays can be rough for your child and what they can do to minimize the difficulty.
  • Manage their expectations. If your child has asked for a gift that is out of budget or not something you want them to have, tell them ahead of time that they won’t be receiving it. Speak about how not everything during the holidays go as planned or as wished for. Come up with strategies for managing disappointment.
  • Include therapeutic and/or sensory breaks on the big day. Whether it be a birthday, Thanksgiving or Christmas, be willing to pause everything to practise some calm-down techniques.
  • Accept that there will be meltdowns (or tantrums or rages), but follow these steps to keep their frequency and intensity as low as possible.
  • Talk to your child about which family traditions are hard for them and ways you can make them easier. Gift exchanges are hard for some kids. I let one of my daughters wrap her gifts with me. She then knows what she will be getting, but it takes the anxiety out of it for her and makes Christmas day run more smoothly for everyone.
  • Make small promises and then follow through on them in order to maintain trust.
  • Talk ahead of time to your child about how excitement and anxiety feel the same in the body and then in the moment, help them distinguish which they are feeling.
  • Never equate gifts with behaviour. For children who have experienced trauma, the whole “naughty or nice list” is a disastrous concept. Do not take away or threaten to take away gifts or threaten that “Santa won’t come if…” with children who are trying to just hold it together each day.
  • Remember: “They aren’t giving you a hard time. They are having a hard time.”

The good news:

When parenting a child with attachment issues or early childhood trauma, it is important for them to hear “yes”. This does not mean buying them everything on their wish list. In fact, that would not be healthy for them, but the holidays do give you more opportunity to say “yes”.

“Yes, I will sit and do the puzzle with you.”

“Yes, I will be at your Christmas concert. I am so proud to be your mom.”

“Yes, you can have a candy cane.”

“Yes, we can drive around and look at Christmas lights. Let’s bring some hot chocolate!”

“Yes, you can help me make the gravy.”

“Yes, you can help me wrap presents.”

“Yes, you can help me plan the dinner.”

“Yes, you can hang some ornaments.”

“Yes, we can decorate cookies.”

To get your free printable sheet of ideas to say “yes” and connect with your child over the holidays, click this link or fill out the form below.

The holidays also allow opportunities for activities to increase eye contact and to promote family togetherness.

No matter how much you prepare and plan, the holidays can still be challenging. To all the parents steeling themselves for the sabotage, grieving the holiday you wish you could have, I see you. You are not alone.

The Chaos and The Clutter Community Center is an online support and resource center offering that “me too” feeling to moms who are parenting children with high needs, particularly those with kids who have trauma, attachment or sensory related needs. I would love to have you join us!

Calming a Child’s Fight, Flight or Freeze Response

13 Effective Calm Down Activities for Kids

(This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosure policy.)

Regulating emotional responses, particularly during times of stress or anxiety can be difficult. It is a skill that many adults have yet to master. It is a learned skill and something that requires practise. One of the ways to teach this skill to children is by teaching calm down techniques. It is important for calm down activities and strategies to be practised regularly, not just in times of high anxiety. This ensures that they become second nature and can be accessed during times when big emotions come into play.

Calm Down Activities:

By far the most effective tool in our calm down toolkit has been our anti-anxiety kit. It has helped our daughter tremendously in regulating her big emotions and in teaching her strategies to calm herself. The techniques in the relaxation prompts have been invaluable.

Stress balls are easy to make. One of the nice things about them is that they can be carried in a backpack or purse or vehicle and always be accessible.

Calm down bottles work well. Your child can watch them without even realizing that their breathing is slowing and they are becoming more relaxed. When I see one of my kids begin to get worked up, I will shake a calm down bottle and set it down in front of them and continue to talk to them. My child will then start to watch the falling glitter or sequins or beads as they listen to me and there is an almost instant decrease in their anxiety level.

Trampoline time. This idea may sound counter-intuitive since jumping may not exactly seem like a calming activity, but calming down and settling down are different things. Some kids need to get that proprioception sensory input in order to help themselves regulate and jumping can be a good way to achieve this.

Using calm down breathing strategies may sound simple, but it is incredibly effective. Find three calm down breathing techniques for kids here.

This calm down mini book provides some concrete strategies that really work. I like how it is small enough to be tucked into a pocket or backpack and used anywhere. If your child uses it often, you may want to laminate it to increase durability.

Blowing bubbles is a great calm down strategy. It naturally causes a slow down in the child’s breathing pattern. This lavender scented bubble recipe also has the calming benefit of the soothing lavender.

These calm down yoga poses are specifically designed to help kids manage big emotions. Movement and a focus on breath team up to help your child regulate their emotions and bring them back to calm.

Listen to calming music or soothing sounds. We use a sound therapy machine that has many options for soothing sounds such as tropical forest, white noise, heartbeat, ocean waves, and waterfall.

Knead, press and pull lavender playdough. The kneading, pressing and pulling provides good sensory feedback and the smell of the lavender adds an extra calming element.

Spend some quiet time in a sensory room or sensory space. If you don’t have access to a dedicated sensory space, you can easily create a temporary one by placing a sheet over a table and throwing a few items in there. Things you can include in this temporary calm down area are a soft blanket or weighted blanket depending on your child’s preference, twinkle lights or a lava lamp, a bean bag chair, fidgets, and a stress ball.

Have a warm bath with epsom salts. All children should be supervised in the bath of course. You can make this experience more calming by using flameless candles in the bathroom or dimming the lights.

Inversion. Inversion is a fancy way of basically saying to get your head below the level of your heart. It has an almost instant calming effect. Inversion can be achieved by bending and touching your toes, doing a headstand or handstand, hang upside down on monkey bars, or hanging with your head off the couch.

Join me for a free 5 part email series, Little Hearts, Big Worries offering resources and hope for parents.

These calming techniques can work well to keep anxiety at bay, but if your child is already in the middle of a meltdown, then you will want to set aside these strategies for another time and pull out the ones outlined here:

5 Critical Steps to Take When Your Child Has a Meltdown

The Chaos and The Clutter Community Center is an online support and resource center offering that “me too” feeling to moms who are parenting children with high needs, particularly those with kids who have trauma, attachment or sensory related needs. I would love to have you join us!

Calm Down Breathing for Kids

(This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosure policy.)

Teaching your child a few simple calm down strategies can make a big difference. The most basic one and perhaps the most important is breathing. Calm down breathing is a skill that is very effective when a child is under stress, struggling with anxiety or having a meltdown.

3 Calm Down Breathing Techniques for kids #parenting #specialneedsDeep breathing has been scientifically proven to combat stress and anxiety. It is used in meditation and yoga. With children, calm down breathing is an essential technique to learn to help with self-regulation.

When a child goes into their fight, flight or freeze response, their heart rate increases and their breathing becomes rapid and shallow. This decreases the oxygen to their cells, which obviously does not improve brain function in the moment. This makes it all the more important to practise good breathing technique and get that oxygen flowing well again.

These three calm down breathing techniques are extremely effective and easy to learn.

3 calm down breathing techniques:

  • Have your child put their hand on their stomach and feel the rise and fall while they breathe.
  • Have them inhale for 4 seconds, trying to fill their “belly balloon” with air, hold the breath for 2 seconds and then exhale.
  • Teach them to breathe slowly in through their nose, out through their mouth. The best way to teach this method is to have them make eye contact with you and do it at the same time as you while you give them the verbal cues of “in through your nose” and “out through your mouth”. I find this one especially helpful during a meltdown.

Teaching breathing techniques should be done while your child is already calm and can concentrate. Ideally, if you practise breathing techniques often enough, they become motor muscle memory and will be easier for your child to access during times of distress.

When they are distressed, you can give them scripts (“in through your nose, out through your mouth”, “fill your belly balloon” or “let’s breathe”) to help them along. These should be short and simple.

Blowing bubbles through a bubble wand or doing bubble painting is another way to practise calming breathing so that that motor muscle memory kicks in when those moments of fight-flight-freeze occur. Blowing softly to spin a pinwheel is another good way to practise calm down breathing.

Join me for a free 5 part email series, Little Hearts, Big Worries offering resources and hope for parents.

You can read about other calm down methods for kids here and get the relaxation prompts which are so helpful once your child learns how to use them.

5 Critical Steps to Take When Your Child has a Meltdown

(This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosure policy.)

Meltdowns, tantrums, rages… no matter what you call them, they can be of the most challenging parts of parenting. We’ve all been there. In the moment when your child has a meltdown, it’s hard to know what to do, particularly if you’re out in public and have to contend with public scrutiny.

5 critical steps to take when your child has a meltdown. This takes a bottom-up approach.While it is always important to determine the underlying cause for a meltdown, such as whether it is a sensory meltdown, a response to a trauma trigger, a fight, flight or freeze reaction, or just a plain old tantrum, during the meltdown, you just need to help your child get calm.

Yes, there are ways to try to prevent meltdowns from happening in the first place. Those are determined largely by the root cause of the meltdown. However, once the meltdown has started, none of those strategies will work.

The critical steps to take when your child has a meltdown:

    1. Stay calm. There is no helping your child to stay calm when you are not calm yourself. Breathe.
    2. Water and food. Meeting a child’s most basic needs can help them to go from fight, flight or freeze mode to being able to access more of their cognitive functioning. This will bring the intensity of their meltdown way down. A healthy snack and water are particularly important for children who may have been neglected or gone hungry in the past, even if it was when they were too young to remember.
    3. Sensory. Whether or not a child is experiencing a sensory meltdown, sensory input, particularly proprioception, or heavy work, can snap them right back into a calm state. I particularly like to offer them lavender playdough. They can use it to squeeze and squish and it provides immediate sensory feedback. Squeeze balls, mermaid pillows or pushing a laundry basket filled with books also work well. I always offer big, chewy bubble gum piece as well. Great sensory feedback there.
    4. Connection. Children need connection. This can be achieved during a meltdown by making eye contact, helping them to breathe in and out slowly while you breathe with them, and providing reassurance. Avoid saying “calm down” and instead choose some of these alternatives.
    5. Self-regulation. The ultimate goal obviously is to promote self-regulation so that a child learns to calm themselves. This usually works best when the other steps on this list have been already taken and those needs have been met. Remind the child of their calm-down strategies. It is best to have practised (and practised and practised) those strategies at times when they were calm. If you have a calm-down kit for your child, this would be the ideal time to pull that out.

Recently, a friend called me for advice while her daughter was raging in the background. She had tried offering water and a snack and both suggestions were rejected (rather pointedly I will add). I asked her if she had any playdough. She was able to find some. I could tell that she was skeptical of my suggestion, but she offered it to her daughter anyway. The response was immediate. Once that playdough was in her hands, her daughter’s screams stopped and she was able to finally articulate the underlying reasons beneath the rage. It was then that her mom was able to validate her feelings and make that connection with her.

I know that not all of these suggestions will work initially. In fact, you may end up having that glass of water thrown in your direction (be sure to use a plastic cup)! But using these 5 steps will help to de-escalate your child’s big emotions. Once they are calm, you can try to determine what may have caused the meltdown in the first place.

The reason these 5 steps are so critical when your child is having a meltdown is because they address things in the brain from the bottom up. They meet the child’s basic survival needs such as breathing, food and water, and then begin to work their way up from there. If you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs with physical survival needs being at the base, then physical safety needs, then love and belonging needs, these steps begin to make more sense. After love and belonging (met in these steps by CONNECTION), comes self-esteem needs. This is where the self-regulation step comes in.

Determining the root of the meltdown:

Keeping track of behaviours such as meltdowns can help you find the root causes for them by finding patterns and triggers. You can use make notes in a calendar or use the forms such as the sensory triggers log and the behaviour tracker in the More Calm in the Chaos printable planner.

Some common causes of meltdowns:

(click each link for more information)

Join me for a free 5 part email series, Little Hearts, Big Worries offering resources and hope for parents.

Create an Anti-Anxiety Kit for Your ChildCalming Your Child’s Fight, Flight or Freeze Response