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Coping with Christmas

The bright lights, the big meals and the bangs of crackers all go to make Christmas a time of spectacle.

For some traumatised children, however, this can be too much, leaving them feeling vulnerable, or even reminding them of bad Christmases they may have experienced in the past.

We look at ways to keep the festive season fun and stress free for you and them.

Experienced adoptive parents talking about Christmas, particularly an adoptive family's first Christmas together, are almost unanimous in their advice:

keep it low-key and familiar.

Forum user Hippychick explains:

"For first Christmases I think you need to be very careful, and be wary of what experiences our children may have had before joining our families.

For one of our children, Christmas was a time of terror, not joy, and the first time she saw our Christmas tree go up here, she had night terrors for days. We had to build up very slowly to her even being able to manage being in a room with a tree."

Lonsdale adds: "I suggest no surprises at first - you may be able to bring in small surprises in later years."

But keeping Christmas low-key and making sure the children do not feel threatened by it does not mean this time of year cannot be fun.

Adoptive parent Garden suggests: "Develop your own traditions and stick to them every year – it is very bonding."

Involving children in menu planning, giving them jobs to do and getting them to help with decorations can all be enjoyable parts of the holiday.

Overall, taking a more measured approach to the festive season is likely to mean that everyone involved – children and adults – is less stressed, and so enjoys themselves all the more.

Planning each day

The lack of routine over the Christmas holidays can make it difficult for some children to cope. Building in routine activities – like meals at the usual times can help.

Using visual timetables to plan each day in advance and help the child understand exactly what they will be doing and when can take away the uncertainty of this period.

You can use these to plan activities, what times everything will take place, and even menus for different mealtimes.

Making sure you all go out for some fresh air every day, whatever the weather, is another good idea and will help children burn off some of the extra energy or adrenaline they might have built up.

And not having visitors every day – every other day at most – is likely to help keep the atmosphere a bit more familiar and safe for children.

Finally, Hippychick recommends: "Keep things simple, honing down things so that they don't actually go to everything they were invited to, and if they are not coping, then battoning down the hatches and keeping them very close."

Christmas dinner

The extra people, multiple courses, the banging of crackers and excitement of lighting the Christmas pudding can all make this meal a daunting experience for traumatised children.

Online Community users have suggested the following tips, for calmer family meals on the big day itself and afterwards:

  • Eat at normal mealtimes – at your usual lunchtime or in the evening
  • Give children foods they know and like – if pizza and baked beans will make them more relaxed and enjoy the meal, then put them on the table
  • Don't force unfamiliar puddings on children – have the ice cream they like
  • Be careful with crackers for children who do not like noise
  • Taking some of the strangeness out of Christmas dinner could go a long way towards helping children feel safe, making it a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

Look after yourself

Christmas is a time for getting together, spending time with family and having fun, but these can also mean that it can be an extremely stressful time of year.

Making sure you do not take on all the organising yourself can help – make sure each member of the family has a task, to make them feel significant and take some pressure off you.

Taking some time out to do what you want to do, whether it is listening to music, going for a walk, or even just spending half an hour reading a magazine with a cup of coffee, can make a big difference to your state of mind.

Exercise generates mood-enhancing hormones and can leave you calmer, happier and feeling more in control. Going for a walk or a swim over the Christmas period could make a big difference.

A bad diet can greatly exacerbate stress. It may not be possible to eat healthily at Christmas, but making sure you eat fruit and vegetables, and replacing some sugary snacks with healthier alternatives such as raw honey, puréed sweet fruit and dates can all help.

At stressful times it is a good idea to minimise consumption of caffeine, which can stimulate stress hormones and cause insomnia, and alcohol which is dehydrating and a depressant.

Make sure you take some time to relax, and most importantly, remember that it is your Christmas too!