When Christmas Is Both Exciting and Anxiety-Inducing for Your Child

Christmas was my favorite holiday when I was a child. It was a holiday that touched almost every aspect of our culture, both inside and outside the home, in a way that no other holiday did.

Everywhere I would go and everywhere I looked, things would be changed for Christmas, from holiday music and Christmassy store displays to seasonal crafts we did at school.

We brought a live tree into our home and covered it with lights and bright, pretty things. The house would be full of beautiful things I wasn’t supposed to touch or could break easily. There would be unusual amounts of sweets and desserts to eat almost daily.

Our routine would change, and we might stay out late for a Christmas party or drive around the neighborhood in the dark and see the decorations on the houses.

And, of course, there would be the impending break from school and the anticipation of the gifts on Christmas morning. I loved the Christmas season.

My son gets very excited about Christmas, too, but his excitement isn’t always fun for him.

All the changes that take place during the holiday season that I loved as a child can cause him stress simply because they are changes to his environment and to his routine.

He may love that Christmas is coming but still feels anxiety about the changes.

He loves that a break from school is coming but still feels anxiety about the transition.

He loves seeing the neighborhood light displays but can still feel anxiety about being out in the dark and away from the security of home.

He loves that he will get presents at Christmas but may feel anxiety about not knowing what he will receive. Surprises can be a double-edged sword for him.

Days of excitement and anxiety can have a cumulative effect, leading to his “checking out” — just shutting down to block out sensory input — or meltdowns when his sensory overload point is reached.

Over the years we have developed strategies to help him maximize the fun of the Christmas season and limit the anxiety as much as we can.

I know to limit his exposure to Christmas decor and displays at stores following Thanksgiving. (I hate coming across those stores that start featuring Christmas items before Thanksgiving.)

We have a Christmas season routine we try to keep each year so he knows what to expect — things like cutting down the tree the weekend after Thanksgiving, limiting the sugar he consumes, decorating only certain spaces in the house and keeping him in the loop about seasonal activities.

We include him as he wants to be included and don’t force him to participate if we see signs of overload. He may put five ornaments on the tree and then disappear, and that’s OK with us.

He may ask to see the neighborhood lights, but we don’t force him to go out if he doesn’t want to.

Every parent wants Christmas to be exciting for their child. For us, it is a matter of maintaining a balance of sharing the excitement and helping him feel safe.

Follow this journey on Autism Mom.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness during the holiday season, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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