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Do you remember waking up on a snowy morning, seeing the twinkling lights on your neighbor’s house and wondering when your holiday break would begin?
If you’re like me, you probably experienced the eager expectancy of days of freedom and joy, of waking up and playing in the snow instead of getting ready for school.
That’s not always the case, however, for children with complex challenges.
Instead, the weeks before Christmas vacation, spring break and summer vacation can actually be stress-inducing.
Why? How could the thought of languid days sipping hot cocoa or weeks at the shore lead to stress instead of yearning? It’s because many children with complex challenges like ADHD, autism, sensory processing disorder and anxiety disorders crave sameness.
Repetition is predictable: it is safe, and it is easy to control.
This is exactly why so many of our children watch the same show, listen to the same songs and play the same games over and over again. Predictable routines, no matter what children think of them, are safe and soothing.
Breaks from school, on the other hand, are a major change. Some of my students even worry for weeks before break about what it will be like to return to school.
This worry about an upcoming event is called anticipatory anxiety.
While not a disability or diagnosis in its own right, students with autism, anxiety and ADHD may experience significant and severe anticipatory anxiety. The stress and worry during these times can then lead to inattention, task avoidance and difficulty with self-regulation.
Here are four ways parents can help their children with the anticipatory anxiety created by school vacations:
#1: Use a Social StoryTM.
A social story gives children an example of a proper social interaction by describing a situation and modeling an appropriate response. By reading a social story to a child, we make new events or activities predictable. Having heard the characters in the story, children feel reassured and are no longer forced to imagine what may happen.
Here is an example of one I wrote to help students returning from holiday break. (If you wish to create your own, The New Social Story Book by Carol Gray is a terrific resource.)
After Holiday Break, the school will open again. I will go back to school. Everyone likes having a break from school. I had fun on Holiday Break. I will go back to driving to school. Everyone will be a little tired, and that is OK. I will be happy to see my teachers and friends. I will miss being on vacation but will be happy to be back in my school routine.
#2: Accentuate the positive and limit the negative.
Give your child five minutes in the morning and five in the evening to discuss their concerns. However, do not engage with ruminating on their worries. This is often a self-soothing behavior that only reinforces the worries.
A better solution is to give them a “worry journal” and have them write out their concerns for 10 minutes each day. Then, literally close the book on those worries.
Next, have your child tell you or write out everything they are excited about. Start each day with the question “What are you looking forward to over break?” Maybe they could jot down a list of their favorite summer activities, or you could discuss your favorite Christmas movies.
Take the attention away from their worries or anxieties and direct it to the positive.
#3: Ask them.
That’s right — simply ask your child what would help them! You could start by letting them know that you’ve noticed they are worried. Ask them, “what can we do to make you feel better?” and then give them time to come up with a solution.
This may require dialogue, but I am often amazed by how well children can solve their own problems with the right adult support.
#4: Know when to punt.
If your child’s anxiety is causing physical symptoms, tantrums, harmful behavior, absconding, school refusal or any other severe symptoms, he or she may need a psychological or psychiatric intervention, or both. Make sure you are keeping your pediatrician informed, and ask for professional help before any behavior becomes negatively consuming.
With some preparation and positive reinforcement, we can try to limit the anxiety or worry that our children with complex challenges face during unpredictable situations like school breaks. Keep it positive, and have a wonderful holiday season!