Holiday Help for Your Anxious Child – by Deborah Gray

Here are some helpful tips for adoptive parents and foster carers to ensure that holidays are fun for everyone—especially for the anxious child.

By Deborah Gray, MSW, MPA, clinical social worker specialising in attachment, grief and trauma, and author of Attaching in Adoption and Nurturing Adoptions.


Anxious children like to know what their part is in any new event. Beforehand, make word pictures that describe the day’s events. For example, at Christmas you might create the following word picture:

“At the star lighting, your place will be on Poppi’s shoulders so that you can see! You will stay close as we walk down to ride in the horse-drawn carriage. You will hold your hot chocolate and I will hold my latte. We will walk together and smile. Then, we will take our turn on the carriage. You will ride between me and Poppi. After the ride, we will go home on the bus. You will sit between Poppi and me.”

Children need consistency. A regular schedule helps them to handle stimulation. Keep the daily schedule as similar as possible to the normal schedule.

Children also need to be participatory. Always alternate watching activities with interactive ones.

Children can be alarmed by crowds, noisy surroundings, and contact with strangers. During chaotic holiday events that involve lots of noise and crowds, check in with your child frequently, asking them if they want to continue to participate or if they are ready to go home. Taking a few moments out to calm them in the middle of the event also benefits anxious children.

Look at the calendar as a whole, blocking out times and days at home for re-regulating the family. Behaviors indicative of overstimulation are arguing, yelling, fighting, and irritability. Holiday memories of playing games at home under the Christmas tree lights are lovely ones. Not everything has to be done “on the go”.

Go to bed ½ hour earlier for a six-week period during the darkest days—parents too. It improves everyone’s mood.

If there are overnight guests and casual visitors to the home, do make sure that your child still has access to you without having to compete for your time. Let your child be part of the preparation for the guests: making place cards, washing the sinks, plumping pillows, etc.

Children often miss their birth relatives during holidays, especially if they have holiday-related memories with these relatives. Children with local birth siblings will want to visit. These visits happen best a few weeks before or after the holiday.

Family events may bring out adoption-related questions. Often children are observing that their cousins are being described as “just like so-and-so.” Talking about these issues ahead of time is a good idea. Be sure to bring this back to practicalities: What are the pros and cons of looking “just like so-and-so?” Are there other ways that families “claim” its members?

If the holiday is one for which children are given gifts, consider giving one gift per day. Let children have time to experience the gift instead of getting frantically overstimulated. Take time to play with your child.

Get physical. Children will be more relaxed if they get an hour of physical play a day. Go to the park or hit the swimming pool.

Take time to talk about, reflect on, and store positive holiday memories. Anxious children tend to “tag” anxious memories. Help them to process and hold onto holiday memories that are filled with family resonance and fun.

Advice for Parents and Carers: 

Understand your own feelings about each holiday. What really is important to you in the holiday? Is the holiday a religious one, spiritual one, traditional one, or materialistic one? Is your time being spent according to your priorities? What are you planning to do that does not fit into your priorities? Why?

Write down three things that you would most like to do with your child over the holidays. How will you get quiet, reflective time for yourself, which is necessary to keep your child regulated? Do you need to become ill to do this? Can you make another plan?

Write down three things that you will not over the holidays, or that you will do in alternating years. For example, I will bake this year, but not next. I will send cards or emails next year, but not this year. 

Think about what you need to do so that you do not over-extend yourself financially. What is “enough”? Consider this in advance so that you know when to stop giving, buying, doing, going, etc.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

One thought

  1. I am following you on Twitter just wanted to say I really agree with your blog! My oldest is 8 and really struggles with all holidays. My two little one are 4 and 6 they get so excited and so happy over stimulated but at the same time they are still joyful and can be redirected. My oldest was 4 when he moved in with us, he has FAS and RAD. The toerh two also have FAS which is a challenge all by itself.
    Thanks for the blog it was very well written and informative!!
    Sherry Martz

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