Christmas can be a tough time for children who have experienced trauma. How can we help them to enjoy the festive period?

child trauma christmas

Betsy de Thierry, author of The Simple Guide to Sensitive Boys and The Simple Guide to Child Trauma, explains how Christmas isn’t necessarily a happy time for all children, especially those who have experienced trauma.

Television adverts and social media are full of happy families at this time of year. Tables are laden with delicious food, presents can be found under trees and all around everyone is smiling. Beneath this image, however, there are many children who, for various emotional reasons and past traumatic experiences, can find the contrived festive spirit overwhelming.

For those who care for a child who fits this description, I thought I’d highlight a few challenges and potential triggers to be aware of during Christmas.

  1. Adult expectations that all emotions will be positive

As parents and carers we do love it when our photos make us look like a happy family.  We enjoy dressing up our kids in Christmas jumpers and taking photos that make us look way more perfect, peaceful, harmonious and happy than perhaps the reality is.

Children who have experienced trauma can pick up on a parent’s anxiety for everything to go ‘perfectly’. They are often hyper-vigilant which means that they notice the small detail of your facial expressions, others emotions, smells, sights and sounds – such as a raised eyebrow – because their subconscious has been trained to notice such things in order to survive unpredictable frightening scenarios. Whilst it has been a survival strategy to pre warn them about anything frightening about to happen, it also means that they can see clearly in your eyes the look of hope, fear and uncertainty as you speak about the plans for Christmas celebrations. They want to please you so they may try and be all that you want them to be- but the cost to them can be high. If they feel that your need for perfection and a ‘happy Christmas’ is important for their ‘survival’ then they may deny their own struggles to focus on your needs, which could lead to a volcanic eruption of negative emotions at some point as they will be struggling to hold all their strong emotions internally for too long.

As a tip, it can be helpful to laugh together at the media’s image of Christmas and talk about how many feelings all the adults and children can have at Christmas. It’s always helpful to tell stories of when you were a child and received a weird or unexpected present and how you navigated the expectations and feelings you felt. Laughter at expectations is important and can dilute the pressure that can be felt.

2.  Overwhelming feelings of happiness, loss, sadness, excitement all at the same time

For almost every child, Christmas is a time of experiencing lots of different emotions. Most children will feel excited and hopeful and then on the day of presents will feel happy alongside short, sharp moments of awkwardness, disappointment and sadness that a few presents were not received or weren’t quite right.

For children who are struggling from trauma, these emotions will be significantly stronger but can also be coupled with a strong feeling of loss. Loss seems to be a strong emotion at Christmas; in an environment where things ‘should be perfect’, the loss of a family member, their birth family, a life experience, or a loss of innocence can be felt powerfully, although sometimes on an implicit subconscious level. The strong feelings of loss, which can be felt as sadness and anger, can be overwhelming in the context of ‘happy people’. Somehow the contrast can feel explosive. To add to the cocktail of strong emotions is the most potent of all feelings, which is guilt and shame.

Guilt and shame is often carried at the core of traumatised children as they feel the weight of self-blame for what they have experienced, despite the obvious fact for us that they never caused or deserved anything that happened to them. Shame is the sense that they are bad, dirty, worthless people at the core of who they are. Christmas can feel so overwhelming that their shame levels can rise because they feel that they will probably be ‘the one to ruin everything’ and make everyone unhappy. This can create anxiety or terror, which can lead to some children emotionally exploding before Christmas events have even begun.

3. Relatives commenting on how they look, small talk and expected hugs

Children who have been through trauma can sometimes feel confused about adult requests (‘oh give your granny a hug’) and ‘small talk ‘conversations (what a lovely, happy chap you are!”). When there are unfamiliar relatives who hold expectations such as hugs, it can feel like being traumatised. Trauma can be defined as experiencing powerlessness and terror at the same time. A child could feel powerless (inability to say no) and terror (strong fear) when adults ask them to hug, tickle them or tease them. We need to be able to explain to children that they can say ‘no thank you’ and be confident in ‘being shy’ because that is a normal response to such demands. It’s also helpful if we can chat to relatives and other adults who may visit and explain that, for safeguarding reasons, we are teaching our children that they can take the lead on their own body and say ‘no’ when they want to.  We can also explain that sometimes children may not engage in small talk because they are learning how to be authentic in their conversations and so may not say ‘the right thing’.  It can also be important to point out that children certainly don’t like being teased or commented on because they are children with real emotions and sensitivities.

4. Needing to pretend they like the presents they are given

This is fairly obvious but can be a huge pressure for children to navigate. They see the look of hope on the present giver and don’t want to disappoint whilst also feeling a sense of disappointment themselves. Let’s be kind to children who are honest and have emotions that are authentic and enable them to process negative feelings in a way that ends well and gives them a life time of skill.

5. A strange fat man (Father Christmas) is coming into my bedroom while I am sleeping

As an adult I would not be keen to think that an old man is coming to my bedroom at night while I am sleeping. It doesn’t make me feel safe. I have no idea why we think children would be ok with this! If your child doesn’t sleep around the Christmas season, it could be due to fear about this experience. They may feel too much shame to tell you as others seem so excited about it, but actually the feelings of anxiety can rise leading up to this ‘special night’. For those who have been sexually abused, by a man at night coming into their bedroom, it would seem obvious that they may not be feeling that relaxed. Popping the fantasy bubble about Father Christmas can be the kindest thing you can do to some children!

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‘It’s not fair mum! You’ve bought more Christmas presents for him than me!’

Christmas presents SpLDVeronica Bidwell, author of The Parents’ Guide to Specific Learning Difficulties, discusses the importance of treating your children equally during Christmas. Admitting that children with specific learning difficulties tend to receive more attention than their siblings from their parents throughout the year, she reflects that Christmas should be used as a time to bridge rather than expose these gaps.

As we come up to Christmas I find myself thinking about ‘fairness’.  Am I being fair in the way I plan presents for children and grandchildren?  Is fairness to do with value, with what they want or with what they need at this particular time?  Is a scooter equal to a pair of pyjamas or a boxed set of CS Lewis’s Narnia books?

Children develop a keen sense of fairness and justice at quite an early age.  I think most of us can remember the indignation and hurt if things within the family didn’t seem fair.  Why did my little sister always seem to get away with things for which I would be told off?

There are things children want and there are things children need. All of them need love, time and attention from the important adults in their lives.  They need support, guidance and discipline.  They may need help with homework, in preparing for exams, in mastering a new skill.  Help may entail time, attention and resources. Continue reading

Tips and tricks to help avoid anxiety and manage meltdowns this Christmas

Mother and son Jane and Paddy-Joe share their top tips and tricks for a stress-free holiday season. Jane and Paddy-Joe are contributors to JKP titles  Create a Reward Plan for Your Child with Asperger Syndrome and Helping Children with Autism Spectrum Conditions through Everyday Transitions. In this piece Jane explains her top tips and Paddy-Joe provides a commentary on how a child or young person on the spectrum might feel about the holiday season.


Use visual cues like scripts, signs and sketches to explain the changes happening over the holidays.

Learn all about Christmas with your child.

Help your child get used to all the changes of routine at Christmas time by learning all about the history and origins of the holiday. This will empower them to understand what is going on and why there are some many changes.

Useful hint – create visual cue cards or a wall display. People with autism are visual learners and this will help them engage.

Make a Christmas calendar

Using a large piece of card draw out a calendar December 1st up to the second week in January.  Now you can jot down or doodle all the important dates for example ‘Dad finishes work for Christmas,’ ‘Going to the theatre with Mum,’ ‘Aunty Sally coming to visit’ and so on.  Remember, it’s important to also schedule ‘rest’ days.  On these days Paddy Joe could do whatever he wanted to which usually involved watching films.

Useful hint – it’s a good idea to use pencil or post-it notes so if there’s a change of plan its easy for you and your child to alter the calendar together.

Paddy-Joe: Sometimes you just need a day where you don’t do anything.  This isn’t laziness – it`s just that you need to give your senses time to rest.  It can be kind of hard to tell if somebody needs a rest day because you might think that they haven’t done anything particularly stressful, and that they have been resting, but if they have been getting stressed out with all the changes going on at this time of year they might not be feeling particularly rested.  That is why it is so important to have a day where they can just do whatever they want.  If they just want to sit there and watch films all day then let them. 

Gradually put up the decorations.

Avoid sensory overload and a sudden transition by putting up your Christmas decorations slowly.

Useful hint – If you can get the individual involved with choosing or even making the decorations this may help them to feel more in control.  Don`t be too precious about matching decorations or having the perfect tree, the more involved the individual with autism is the more they are likely to feel in control of their surroundings and less anxious about the changes.

Don’t overwhelm with presents          

At Christmas time we tend to over-indulge our children and even neuro-typical children can get overwhelmed with the amount of presents they receive. To avoid overload and meltdowns think carefully about the present giving element of the day. Perhaps your child will need a quiet private space to open presents away from the noise and excitement.

Useful hint – space out the giving of Christmas gifts, this may mean that you give one present per day for as long as it take.

Be aware of sights, sounds and smells

People with autism are often hypersensitive to sights, sounds and smells; at times it can feel like all the senses are being attacked.  As the food we eat, the programmes we watch and the way we decorate our homes are often very different around Christmas time it is no wonder that individuals who have an ASC experience sensory overload and everything that goes with that. 

Useful hints –

1.       Give the person a sign to show, if they struggle to articulate, to let someone know that they are feeling uncomfortable

2.       It is hard to regulate noise made by siblings, but make sure that grown-ups are aware of the issue of sensory overload, and try not to have people cross-talking or being too loud around the individual with autism.

3.       Encourage the person to wear ear-plugs or to listen to music, this will help to block out unwelcome noises.

4.       If there is a smell that you know the person really likes then try to get this on to a tissue or cloth and then they can hold it close to their nose to block out smells that they don’t like – you can use essential oils such as lavender.

Paddy-Joe: One of my theories about why Christmas is so stressful is that when you are autistic you get used to a certain level of daily impact on your senses – sights, sounds, smells, tastes – but when you go through the transition to Christmas pretty much everything changes when it comes to your senses; everything you see is slightly different, everything you hear is Christmassy, smells and tastes change as well.  This sudden shift in what your senses have to tolerate can often lead to a sensory overload, so for me, when it comes to Christmas, change and sensory overload are linked.

Food, glorious food

It is possible that your loved one who has autism may have a very limited diet or is reluctant to try new foods.  This may well be intensified over the Christmas period when we tend to eat more food and to cook foods that we don`t eat very often – such as sprouts!

Useful hint – Provide a tried and tested meal for the individual on the spectrum. Also, it may be helpful to provide a Christmas-free space for the person to eat in, if they can`t stand the smell of the foods others are eating.


  • Draw a sign for your child to show you if they are starting to feel stressed about more visitors over Christmas (you may have to practise with them beforehand as it can be hard for people with autism to recognise how they are feeling) just draw a Christmas tree and lots of stick people for example.
  • Ensure your child has a safe space to escape to and that they know it is ok for them to do this.
  • Have all visitors check in advance and don`t be afraid to say ‘no’ to visitors.
  • Have a limit on the length of time visitors can stay.

Scripts, signs and sketches

Create visual tools to help your child communicate during this busy time.

Scripts: a short description describing the situation, how they feel now and how they may feel when it is resolved. For example: ‘I feel overwhelmed or upset when there are lots of visitors at Christmas. If I feel like this I can go to my room for some quiet time. This will help me to feel better. Mum will try to help me recognise when I am feeling like this.’

Signs: a hand-drawn sign showing an increase of people visiting the house at Christmas time with a little sentence ‘there may be more visitors at our house over Christmas’ and on the reverse it might say ‘I can go to my room for some quiet time if I need to.’

Sketches: a series of little drawings (just stick people, nothing fancy) to show what may happen if there are more visitors to the house at Christmas time and a reminder of how this may make PJ feel and what he can do about it.

Paddy Joe: Sometimes, if you are doing something that should be fun, you might not notice that your child is starting to become stressed out and overwhelmed – that’s not to say you are bad parent – but it is easy enough to overlook something when you are as busy as you are on Christmas day.  So if your child has got something they can show you, it could really save all of you a lot of trouble and stress.  For this to work properly it is worth practising a few times. 

Don’t force the Christmas you want on your child

One of the most important tips is not to try to force your child to do things your way.  Try to help and encourage them but don’t force them.  These tips will only work if you work with your child and not against them.

Jane McDowell and Paddy-Joe are authors of Create a Reward Plan for Your Child with Asperger Syndrome and Helping Children with Autism Spectrum Conditions through Everyday Transitions both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. They run their own free help and advice service, ASK-PERGERS? Find them on Twitter: Facebook: or read their Blog: