The other week I had the joy of spending several hours listening to Dan Hughes, the founder of DDP (Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy) discuss preparing children for Christmas, in a webinar organised by Family Futures. One of the the things he said – “Many children have a great deal of trouble around Christmas time and the holidays as they can’t manage the anticipation and excitement.” – really resonated with me.
Dan was talking about children who would be spending the holidays with their foster families but so much of what he said extended to adoptive families, those adjusting to divorce or bereavement and those with children who are impacted by autism or ADHD.
He gave us all these top tips to take away:
Gather around the Christmas tree, have a happy holiday.
At Christmas time the household can feel different. Decorations go up, meals are planned differently, there may be visitors but crucially the day-to-day structure feels different. Building traditions and helping your child know what those traditions are, their role in them and how they will contribute gives them both the necessary information and a sense of control. This all contributes to creating a sense that these changes are safe.
Dan loves advent calendars and so do we. Alongside our TheraplayUK colleagues, we have built a calendar full of Theraplay activities based on our new Theraplay and Polyvagal based resources, Cards to Help You Connect. These resources are designed to help children manage the anticipation in small doses through games they can play with their parent to prepare. You can find our Festive Advent Calendar here.
He’s making a list and checking it twice!
We need to put aside telling children that Santa will find out who has been naughty or nice. Children need to believe they are loved unconditionally. For children whose behaviour is telling us they are struggling, they need acceptance. If they feel that the overwhelm of Christmas leads them to get it wrong again, and again, they will not feel the sense of belonging this time of year is about. Everyone in the family should get gifts. Why? Because they are a member of the family and that is the tradition.
Santa Claus is coming to town!
Some children will be terrified that Santa will come into the house during the night. Given the messages we give them all year about the potential risks of unknown people this is confusing. Dan suggests you let children know you have communicated with Santa (as you do every year) and he has made an appointment. You will be there to let him in and oversee his time in your home.
Do they know its Christmas time?
We give gifts to mark that within a relationship we want to bring contentment and pleasure. Some children, especially fostered and adopted children whose early experiences of relationships were difficult, find it easier to take pleasure in the gift than the relationship. We want to help children experience giving as well as receiving so they can connect. This will give a real experience of unconditional love. To help with this, Dan suggests:
- Making Christmas gifts with your children. If they are going to make you something make sure you have made something for them. This year we have gifted all the children who attend our Theraplay sessions unique hand knitted Beacon beanies. The children have known they were held in our minds even though we couldn’t be with them. If you do want to make one for your child instructions here. If knitting and crocheting aren’t for you we have a limited number to give away so drop us an email on email@example.com.
- Try and gift items that encourage the child to enjoy them with you and won’t cause you distress if they are broken. We love Sarah Naish’s story for therapeutic parents The Very Wobbly Christmas. In this story the presents the children were so desperate for are broken by the end of the day. For children who don’t have a sense of themselves as deserving of the gift it is important to choose something that will not overwhelm and they can enjoy with you.
This time of year can be challenging as a parent so focus on the structure and offer lots of supervision. We loved how Dan summed up that your child’s behaviour is linked to their experiences and helping them manage overwhelming situations builds their capacity to find a sense of belonging within your family Christmas traditions.
And if you worry about post-Christmas blues and how it was so lovely and may not be repeated, keep making time to play and enjoy the nurture of a snack and drink each day. Our Cards to Help You Connect help parents, carers and children connect through play throughout the year.
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Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.
If you are struggling with family relationships please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how we can support you and your family.