Last month I wrote about fear that can replace fun on special days. I promised then that I would share some of the options that have helped my children. I have four children, and they all deal with situations differently. They all have different ways of falling apart after a late night (something I’m very thankful for as well, it seems easier to handle stuff if it’s not all the same stuff!).
So here I have collected ten ideas that might alleviate fear or the stress response.
- Adjust your own expectations.
That might sound like a cop-out, but it really isn’t. You see, we have a picture in our head of what a birthday should look like, a St Nicholas celebration, or Christmas. What if that causes too much stress for it to be fun anymore? Change your mental image, adjust expectations. Think about it. For example, stockings for Christmas, dangling off the end of little beds. Such a cute image, where Father Christmas (overstretching the truth is another topic…), bumbling about with a smile, goes into children’s bedrooms, stuffing their stockings. What if you have experienced old men creeping into your bedroom at night, and being a ‘good girl’ meant presents too, as well as other things? Readjusting stuffed stockings is a small matter, isn’t it?
Sometimes we need to adjust, after all, we’re the well-adjusted sensible adults, haha, but no, seriously, let go of rosy dreams, and show your precious child that you care more about them than dreams. Maybe it’s wrapped presents. Knowing what’s inside will alleviate the stress, and they will still love ripping off the paper.
This year my daughter knew one of her presents, as we had to order it together. She still wasn’t sure whether there would be any presents, apart from the one. It made looking forward to her birthday less stressful for her, as she kept saying, “Well, I know at least I get one present, so there might even be more.” And you know what? Over the years I have found that sometimes the children cope so well, we’re able to reintroduce bits of our dreams too.
- Make an agenda type-plan for the day.
I used to divide the day up into short bits that included coffee for me, outside time, snack breaks etc. It helped when the chaos was complete to remind myself that in ten minutes time I would have coffee. Or the kids could watch a dvd in twenty minutes. Often I remind myself, “This time next week it will all be a memory, talked about in happy tones.” Which is true, my kids love special days, holidays and birthdays, it’s just the stress can take over at the time, but the negatives are forgotten almost instantly.
This helps me a lot, as I know staggering through one day will leave them with wonderful memories, so it feels worth it. To look at the long day ahead, with a pre-breakfast meltdown and battles over socks, can be so daunting and never ending. Chopping up the day (mostly in my head. As soon as I sit down with pen and paper, emergencies are created…) just helps me to stay focussed and find the energy I need for each chunk of time.
- Make a visible plan.
I used plastic business cards and a permanent marker. We had a card for breakfast, snacks, lunch, dinner, bath and bed. I also had card for art class, ballet, walks and whatever else we did that day. Stress made especially my daughter ask many, many times what time lunch would be, so I could just point to the cards on the fridge. Seeing it all ordered really helped her.
Somehow seeing it black on white made it more certain than an adult telling her. It also helped her to eventually realise that our days were comfortingly samey. Snack time was always mid morning, lunch was always at one, dinner was always hot, bed time brought the day to an end every single evening. Even on birthdays. Even when we’re on holiday. Life might be wildly out of control, but some things are the same. “So maybe my mum can be believed when she tells me I’m safe.”
Having a visible structure really helped them, and although we don’t use it anymore, they still love it when I make a visual timetable when they’re anxious, like when we’re on holiday.
- Have a visible plan for the near future.
We always make a point of showing events ahead, beyond the special dates. Birthdays come with a huge amount of stress and fear about moving on. So I talk about classes coming up, Granny visiting, booked events, proving to them that we have to be here, as there’s stuff planned. With them. Proving that this birthday isn’t moving day. Proving that when we say holiday, it’s just that, a holiday.
Again, seeing it written down has been such a help. I ask their input too, so things they want to do after the holidays, after a birthday. We plan it together, and now, finally they’re planning their birthdays. Lists are produced with wishes, outings are asked for, not just the coming birthday but the next few birthdays as well.
- Tears don’t ruin a birthday.
I felt accepting that tears are almost a guaranteed part of birthdays makes me way more relaxed. I loved my Dutch birthdays, the way we hade a few friends round on a Wednesday afternoon, dinner always being chips (the only time we had it!) and lots of riotous games (No idea how my mum handled that amount of noise!) and tears. Somewhere in the day there would be tears. Over popped balloons, friends not playing the way we thought they should, the wrong snack, or just any reason.
In the previous blog I mentioned expectations. Even now, I know that expectations won’t be met, there will be tears, and you know, I’m fine with that. It’s saying bye to your old age, a new year coming up, changes and hurdles ahead. Sometimes tears can actually relieve some of that tension, feel cleansing. Life isn’t fair, isn’t always happy, so why should children be expected to always smile and bounce?
I remember the shiver of excitement moving up into ‘big school’ at six, or learning that we’d have proper History with written tests, of being told we were going to learn about fractions… not all children love wild adventures, not all children love jumping into the unknown, and being a year older can come with so much pressure. Some of that pressure is unfounded, we might even think of as ‘silly’, but that doesn’t make it less real. So let the tears come, don’t feel you have to see happy children all the time.
- Food can help.
My kids love sugar, especially chocolate. It sends them high as a kite, but it also helps them in a funny way. I know my son’s pending meltdown on entering a museum etc would fizzle out simply by giving him a very chewy sweet. If it had a wrapper, even better, as he was so enchanted with the wrapper that he didn’t even notice we’d walked in, and by then he would be happy to look around! I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been tricked like that by a sweet, haha, but it worked for him. The others would also be distracted as they were all clambering for a sweet too. Sucking and munching contentedly, they would all troop indoors, ready to visit a new place.
Being allowed to eat some of their chocolate with Christmas makes them so happy, the stress and worry seems forgotten, then sweetened. Another food that helps is slow, chewy stuff, like raisins or flapjacks. Raisins are great, as they take forever to dig out of those cardboard boxes, using all their concentration, calming their heads at the same time.
- Verbalise the fear.
Hearing their feelings and fears out loud often lessens them. My children react strongly to this. It’s as if they suddenly understand the crazed feeling inside, making it normal, less frightening. I often explain that there is no need to sabotage, that we want to give them presents, that they are given them for who they are, not based on what they do or don’t do. The relief is visible each time.
I also explain to them that birthdays are extra hard for them, that fear will try to take over, and why. My kids love little drawings with arrows and funny faces, explaining how their panic centre takes over when life gets tricky. We do use the word Dinosaur brain, not because we think the brain evolved, but because a dinosaur looks rather clumsy and not too tactful or wise. So by letting dinosaur stay in charge of your brain, you’re going to have some chaos.
- Grin and bear it.
Not really, but pray and bear it. Hold your child close, hug them tight during their melt down, and I used to sing hymns to myself, and them as well of course, sometimes just hum a soothing tune. Soon their anger turned into tears and cuddles, and the meltdowns lessened over time.
My son used to lose the plot totally whenever ‘happy birthday’ was sung. The song, to his pre-verbal mind, meant a new home and new family. When I say lose the plot, well, he would totally and utterly lose it. I had two options, either ban the song, or ride out the storm each time.
I opted for riding out the storm, as I could just imagine his 18th birthday party, this strong tall lad, and one of his friends starting up ‘happy birthday’. An 18 year old losing it would be more complex than a three year old. So we held him, kissed him, and sang happy birthday with as big a smile as we could manage. This year he was the one to say we needed to sing before cutting the cake, and his shy smile when we sing for his birthday is the cutest thing ever!
- Don’t take it personally.
I know lots of people tell adoptive parents that, “When your child screams abuse at you, don’t take it personally.” Easier said than done. It’s true though, and I find it helps to remind myself that in themselves, they’re so much younger than their birth certificate says. So much ‘catching up’ is needed.
My son finally made the connection between birthdays, visitors and presents. The only thing missing was the definition of ‘presents’. Presents to him meant huge, brightly wrapped packages. One that needs two hands to lift. Not a small Lego box with a car (once it even lacked the Lego figure, horror of horrors!). So when people smiled at him, telling him they had a present for his birthday, he would react appropriately for his age, until he saw the size of the gift, then all happiness would get drowned out by his meltdown.
Trying to appease him (not my style, but some people felt really bad that they’d clearly given a lousy present) didn’t work one bit. In fact, leaving him to it meant that every single time the dreadful, rubbish, no good present was promoted to the best toy he’d ever owned. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up!
I still cringe in embarrassment though, although he’s more subtle about unmet expectations in gifts. So subtle in fact that most friends don’t realise he is telling them in a polite way their present was an utter fail. They do understand when he tells them it’s the best gift ever though, which is great. I remind myself that it’s not a parenting fail, it’s him learning to manage his expectations.
- Find new strategies.
Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, simply doing things because we’ve always done them. Or we slip into coping mechanisms that might not work but at least they are familiar. A writer friend and fellow adopter, Lucy Rycroft, has written a wonderful blog about Attachment Styles, so maybe if certain behaviours puzzle you, looking at your child’s attachment style might help you to think of new ways to help your child.
Recently we’ve started using essential oils in hand cream and a diffuser. The kids love it, I can’t particularly find any improvement in anxiety levels or find myself living with calm, quietly spoken kids. (Not sure I’d cope to be honest!).They do love the oils though, and are in awe of a mum who can mix E45 lotion and essential oils, which is nice too. It has given us another way to connect though, another way to stroke their hands, rubbing in oils, and another chance to smile into their eyes. Maybe that’s what will bring the most benefits of the oils, the closer connection.
Perhaps by Spring it’s simply another idea we tried, who knows. The girls especially love pampering through, and rubbing cream into their hands make them glow, so for now, it’s another step closer to a healthier attachment.
So here are my ten tips. Now, sadly, none of these comes with any guarantees. I would love to give you a formula, and tell you it’s fool-proof. Some of it will work for you, some of will be useless at best. Some of it worked one birthday, but not the next. But I hope and pray that it will give you hope, and a starting point. I have borrowed from snippets I have overheard, read, seen and experienced. Not all of it applies to my four, sometimes it does. And please let me know any ideas that have worked for you as well, I’m always on the look-out for more options!