December can be a month of excitement and anticipation, but it can also be a very stressful time for individuals and families. This is particularly true for families living with FASD as disrupted routines, unrealistic expectations and over-stimulation can overwhelm individuals and lead to meltdowns. This year NOFASD asked parents to share the strategies they use to support their young people at Christmas. It is important to remember that every person is different, with unique triggers and support needs. As a carer you are the specialist in your child’s life – you know best what works for your family. These suggestions from other families may be beneficial additions to your toolkit, but ensure you consider each strategy’s applicability to your unique family. This is what some families told us:
- Christmas is a time of celebration. Celebrations mean excitement, noise, lights and colours, all the triggers for sensory overload. It is vital to keep the environment as calm as possible. Request your child’s help in decorating the tree and house, allowing plenty of time to touch each of the decorations. Accept their choices about placement of decorations. Make it a calm, slow task. Play calming Christmas music and avoid overdoing the decorations. Flashing lights can arouse a child’s sensory system and too many objects can become overwhelming. Less is best.
- Christmas is a time of disrupted routines which causes anxiety and difficult behaviour. One mother told us she always places a weekly activity plan on the fridge. She keeps this very simple and easy to follow, with events spread out as much as possible. For example: Monday put up Christmas Tree, Tuesday Christmas Carols at school, etc. She involves her daughter in planning events to ensure there are no surprises. However another mother told us that she is careful not to reveal plans to her teenager too far in advance, and she only makes plans which can be changed or cancelled if needed. She adapts their days to set her son up for success. She always gives him at least one day’s notice before activities and ensures she gives him many days notice ahead of social gatherings as she knows he needs extra time to prepare for these. This is a great example of parents knowing what works best for their unique children.
- While routines change in the Christmas holidays, it is possible to keep many of your usual family routines in place. Do your best to keep bed times and meal times consistent.
- Choose your priorities and let some things go. For example if your child wants to wear Wellington boots on a sunny summer’s day this could be a fine choice and it might be best not to comment otherwise. Similarly, advent calendars could be opened all at once, without the excruciating wait for each morning in December. Chocolate advent calendars, however, are not recommended.
- Keep screen time to a minimum. Some families use it as a reward for positive behaviour with a strict limit on time and content.
- Food at Christmas is always an issue if your child has difficulty controlling her food intake, especially chocolates, lollies and cakes. At Christmas most homes have extra ‘party’ food available. Many parents find it best to keep this out of sight and enlist the support of family and friends to help with this when possible. Fresh fruit can be an alternative to lollies when a child’s cravings are taking over. Some families choose to bring all the food that their young person will eat at an event. This can be difficult as children want what everyone else eats (which has negative consequences later). Negotiating the child’s menu beforehand and ensuring it contains suitable treats can be effective.
- Preparing family and friends by talking about what behaviour they may see, and ensuring they have realistic expectations, can prevent conflict. Letting family know how they can best respond (which might include not responding) gives them the opportunity to be supportive. Having a quiet place for the person with FASD to retreat to is valuable.
- Don’t feel pressure to stay for the duration of events. Sometimes dropping in for one hour works better for the whole family and also allows you to avoid shared meals if needed.
- Having a pyjama day is good for all families, including those living with FASD. TV dinners are not shameful, and macaroni and cheese can be a perfectly good Christmas dinner.
- Shopping can be really overwhelming for someone with FASD. Familiar people look different as they wear hats and Christmas costumes, shops have been rearranged, lights and tinsel flash and Christmas music often plays on a loop. If you take your young person Christmas shopping limit the number of choices they have. Avoid big shops, and if possible you can call ahead and arrange for the shop attendant to suggest two appropriate choices to your child. Keep shopping trips short – for example prepare your child to buy just one present for grandma today. Shopping online can be a great alternative to going out, and groceries can be ordered online too. One mother told us that she sometimes just presents her child with one choice, for example printing an item from an online shop and suggesting they buy it for Dad. She has found that on some days even a choice between two items overwhelms him, so by discussing the online purchase he is still involved.
- You may wish to talk to family members to guide them in choosing Christmas presents. Gift cards can be overwhelming for those with FASD as they present too many choices.
- If a child becomes fixated on an unrealistic present you may need to discuss this with them repeatedly. One mother said she explains simply “that would be too expensive for Santa”.
- Ownership disputes can be avoided by having a named box for each person to place the contents of their Christmas stocking and unwrapped presents. Some families find it is important to ensure that the number, size and shape of all Christmas presents is the same for each person.
- No matter how organised you are, some days won’t go the way you hope. Be kind to yourself. Enjoy the little moments and get out into nature when you can.
- Create your own Christmas traditions and build on what they mean to you as a family.
There are many resources online supporting families in the preparation for Christmas. For example NOFAS-UK connect with the community and remind us that “it’s a challenging time of year for those with FASD (young and old) and for those who care for them. Sometimes a break from the festivities is the best gift of all. Some quiet time of ‘normality’ can help balance out the excitement. It’s OK to simplify. Do you what you need to do for you and for your family.”
Oregon Behavior Consultation created a video explaining how to have proactive conversations and anticipate difficulties in the holiday season.
This comes with a Skill-Based Holiday Planning Sheet to help families prepare for Christmas.
There are many blog posts online from families sharing their strategies for the Christmas season, for example Preventing the Holiday Crazies by FASD Connection in Canada.
If you have strategies which work well in the lead-up to Christmas we would love to hear about them! Please comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need to talk to someone please feel free to call our national FASD helpline on 1800 860 613.
NOFASD’s website contains many resources for parents, carers and families which can be accessed here.
Read more blogs from NOFASD Australia here.