Miriam Gwynne’s nine-year-old daughter Naomi was diagnosed with anxiety three years ago and the festive period can be difficult for her.
“She was so worried about Santa coming into her house when we were all sleeping, and anxious about him forgetting her or leaving the wrong things.”
“We have had to adapt the traditional idea of Santa coming down the chimney, to Santa asking mum and dad to buy what the children want to help him out,” Gwynne continued.
“Christmas is a particularly challenging time for her as so much is unexpected.
“School routines change to incorporate nativity plays and practises for shows, meals change from what she is used to and there are so many social events going on.”
Why can Christmas be hard for anxious children?
Naomi’s experience is not unique. Kids are creatures of habit and can be prone to being over-anxious when routine goes out the window, explains Geraldine Joaquim, a clinical hypnotherapist and psychotherapist who works with children.
“Whilst Christmas is an exciting time, it is also a time of big upheaval as we decorate our houses, spend time planning for the event and perhaps visiting friends and relatives, preparing food, shopping,” she said.
“Children can be side-lined in a bid to get things done, especially as we race closer to the day.”
Gwynne’s daughter Naomi really struggles when strangers feel it’s okay to ask what she wants from Santa. She is too anxious to attend grottos and worries about shops shutting over Christmas, in case her family needs essentials.
“The weather changes make her anxious too as it is so unpredictable and snow changes what everything looks like and may mean her school is closed,” said Gwynne.
“She finds presents difficult because she likes to know what she is getting beforehand.”
“Children can be side-lined in a bid to get things done, especially as we race closer to the day."”
Joaquim said other factors that may heighten children’s anxiety include a lack of sleep (as bedtime tends to slide in any holiday season), the weather (with less sunlight and gloomier days), socially-demanding activities and being put on the spot with forced hugs.
Emma Saddleton, parents’ helpline operations manager at children’s mental health charity Young Minds added that extensive family time may also cause tension.
“No family is perfect and family tensions, even small ones, may surface during long periods of time spent together - particularly over this period,” she said.
“Children are often acutely aware of adult tensions and some may feel anxious about family dynamics during the festive period, but may not articulate this worry to parents or friends.”
How can parents alleviate the issues for anxious children?
We spoke to experts at YoungMinds and Anxiety UK to get advice on how parents can make the festive period an enjoyable experience for anxious children.
1. Plan ahead.
Gwynne said she prepares a lot of the things her family will be doing at Christmas in advance.
And according to Saddleton, this is key for keeping anxiety low.
“Talk to your children and identify what they look forward to the most, and if there is anything that they worry about or would like to do differently this year,” she advised.
“It’s a good idea to plan how you will spend time together, but it’s also crucial to plan for time to yourselves and time apart doing separate activities or having unstructured down time so there is time to relax among the festivities.”
2. Involve children in plans - with warning.
Joaquim said whatever festive plans you have arranged with your children - ensure they are given plenty of warning.
She advised parents to use the “countdown technique”:
“Most parents will be familiar with the scenario of counting down when leaving home or a friend’s house: Give them a 10 minute warning that you’ll be going soon, followed by five minutes, then down to two and one minute,” she explained.
“Usually it doesn’t matter that the minutes are, in reality, a little stretched - it’s just a mechanism to allow the child to know what’s going to happen next.”
Gwynne prepares Naomi for upcoming festive plans by watching clips on YouTube: “We use stories and videos to help prepare her for events like the nativity or days out, by showing her what it will be like.”
3. Empathise with your child’s feelings rather than dismiss them.
It’s as important as ever to make time to talk to your child about how they are feeling in the lead up to Christmas.
Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive at Anxiety UK said: “Recognise that these feelings are real and scary to them, and that you understand that a certain situations may be upsetting for them.
“Express confidence that your child is going to be okay and that you are there to support them.
“Discussing your child’s fears calmly and rationally will make them feel supported, rather than reinforcing a feeling that they are ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ for feeling this way.
“If you share some of your child’s anxieties, reassure them that you get scared and nervous too and that you will get through it together.”
4. Prepare for the Father Christmas visit.
Joaquim said it’s important to prepare children for new events, especially something so out of the ordinary as meeting Father Christmas.
“This can be done by reading books leading up to the visit, pointing out happy pictures of Father Christmas and children around him getting presents,” she explained.
“On the actual day of the visit, it should be child-led, meaning parents take their cues from the child.
“If they really don’t want to sit on his knee (and actually this is fairly rare nowadays, there’s usually a chair next to Santa) or are reluctant to go into the grotto, don’t over push it.
“Yes, it’s a lovely tradition but only if everyone is happy. No one wants stressed-out parents trying to cajole a reluctant child into doing something he or she doesn’t want to do.
“Just be gentle, take it at the child’s pace and if they’re not ready for it this year, they may be next year.”
5. Don’t force your child into social interactions.
“We restrict family coming to a few at a time to make it more manageable for Naomi, and we don’t go to big parties,” explained Gwynne.
When you do attend friends’ or family’s houses, Joaquim advises allowing the child to enter at their own pace without facing an enveloping hug or kiss.
“And bring something they are familiar with like a cuddly toy, book or something small and easy to transport,” she added.
“It’s worth pre-warning relatives that your little one is a little sensitive and will approach them in his/her own time.”
Lidbetter said even when you are at relatives’ houses, don’t expect your child to interact with too many people.
“Let them know that a simple ‘hello’ will do, rather than forcing them to hug each of their relatives,” she said.
“And if your child struggles with anxiety over Christmas presents, you may want them to open one large present in front of their extended family and then give them space and privacy to open others within a smaller group.”
6. Pace yourselves.
Gwynne said her family celebrates Christmas day “a little differently” to accomodate for Naomi’s feelings.
“We keep to a routine as much as always,” she said. “We usually have a quiet day letting the children enjoy new things in their own time and in their own way.
“We have no issue with the children playing on their tablets to get some time out. We never attend busy events and keep the TV off on Christmas day.”
Joaquim said having a routine is helpful, ensuring it includes a little down time such as a Christmas day walk or time to sit down with the children and play.
“It’s also okay to pace the presents, set family visits out over the space of a week or so rather than trying to see everyone within two days, whatever works for your family,” she said.
“And it is okay to set boundaries around how many people you’re going to visit, or alternate years. It can be a tricky time negotiating those family relationships but do remember it’s meant to be a fun time for all.”
7. Preserve sleep.
“Whilst a little routine-stretching is okay, bear in mind that prolonged lack of sleep affects everyone, young and old,” said Joaquim.
“It’s one of the major causes of meltdowns: children feel wretched and no one thinks clearly when suffering from a lack of sleep.”
Stick to regular bedtimes, advised Lidbetter, to ensure your child gets enough sleep and is less likely to feel tired and overwhelmed throughout the day.
8. Try (your best) to do healthy activities.
Whilst it’s tempting to binge on sugary sweets, cakes and chocolates throughout December, Joaquim said it’s good to try and pace it to avoid sugar highs and lows.
Saddleton also advised planning some healthy activities to get into the routine of taking care of yourself.
“Get your children involved with planning and cooking some healthy meals,” she said. “Going on walks or getting some fresh air and exercise will also ease you back into the routine after all the excitement of the day itself.”
9. And finally...
“Remember what the festive season is all about: spending time with family and making it a magical time for children,” said Joaquim.
“There is no ‘perfect’ Christmas but you certainly can make it memorable in your own way – and hopefully a good one.”
For more information:
Anxiety UK: The national charity helping people with anxiety has a wealth of information online as well as a helpline: 08444 775 774. They also have an essential read on how to help overcome children’s fears and worries.
No Panic: A site providing valuable information for sufferers and carers of people with panic, anxiety, phobias and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD). They have a general helpline (0844 967 4848) and a youth-based helpline (0330 606 1174).
YoungMinds: A national charity focusing on improving child mental health. Their parents helpline number is 08088025544.
Mental Health Foundation: An organisation researching mental health through practical-based studies.