10 Ways to Help an Anxious Child at Holiday Time

Posted: February 7, 2019

Holiday season is here, and if you have a child whose anxiety increases at this time of year, you’ll be happy to know that there are some great ways to decrease the uncomfortable feelings and the predictable explosions that often result.

Yes, kids explode when they get overwhelmed by their own anxiety.  It’s not conscious on their part, it’s not on purpose (though it sometimes seems like it) and it’s not disrespect.  All they’re doing when they have a loud response to your request is attempting to lower their own anxiety, best defined as “fear where there’s no real threat.”

What causes anxiety in kids at holiday time?  Several things:

–      Being too bright for their age: they can conceptualize things way beyond their ability to
comfort themselves, simply because they are young and lack experience.
–      Sensory input: they feel the impact of sound, taste, touch, smell, and/or sight much more intensely than average kids.  They are anxious because they never know when a toilet flushing or the smell of a new food might overwhelm them.   Holidays are particularly stimulating to the senses.
–      Interpersonal sensitivity:  they fear that someone they don’t know might be at Grandma’s house.  (In their own homes, this is often not so intense.)

“Christopher” is just this type of child.  He can do well at home where things are predictable, but in someone else’s home, he’s very wary of a stranger showing up.  How do we help children with these anxiety issues?

First, Christopher’s parents realized that having power over sensory sensations is the antidote to anxiety.  Give your child a specific job whenever you can.  He loves heavy sensory input, so they say, “Could you be the one who carries all these groceries into the house?”  And they’ll let him carry ALL the groceries.  Or they might say, “Everyone’s coming to our house, so could you be the one who makes sure that the light’s not too bright?” Authentic helping is a true self-esteem builder.

Second, underplay all the holiday hype.  Say to your sensitive child, “See all these decorations, bright colors, and signs for things? Hear how loud that TV ad for holiday stuff is?  That’s just the store trying to get our attention so we spend our money, but we don’t have to pay attention.  We can just walk by or turn off the TV.”

Third, a child such as Christopher needs a safe place to which he can retreat at a relative’s house.  A nearby bedroom is ideal.  Show him immediately upon arrival where he can go, and put some of his toys or art supplies in the room.

Fourth, do not demand that your “Christopher” greet unfamiliar people at holiday time.  The only reason he doesn’t do this is because of interpersonal sensitivity.  Forcing a greeting can add guilt to an already overwhelmed child, and is never a good idea.  Acting out is his only defense.  Offer positives to him whenever he does interact well with new people, but be assured this will not happen until he has been in their presence for quite a while.  Here’s how to say it: “When you talked to Uncle Rob so nicely when he offered to play ping pong with you, I was really impressed!  I can tell you had a great time.”

Fifth, Christopher’s mom answered all of his questions about what will occur during the holidays with short, but clear answers.  “How many people will be there?”  “I’d say about 15.”  And she also thanked him for letting her know what was on his mind: “I really appreciate your questions, Honey.  I want you to feel comfortable, so when I know what you’re wondering, it really helps.”

Sixth, if your children get into arguments with siblings or cousins, practice a good response to conflict in advance.  “May I have that when you’re done?” and “Can we play this together?” are great phrases to try out.  When Christopher came to his parents with news of what another child did to him, they said, “How will you handle that?”  Of course, if there’s aggression or bullying, you’ll need to intervene.

Seventh, before shopping, Christopher’s parents pointed out that “in our family” we don’t get everything we see in a store that we may want.  Mom and Dad even see things they want, but we don’t buy it all.  This helps kids see they are not alone in the “wanting and not getting” world, and facilitates their acceptance.

Eighth, if your child makes strides in development, be sure to write a note acknowledging the progress. “Dear Christopher, I noticed how well you accepted that you weren’t able to visit your friend because we had plans to be with family.  I am so proud of you.”  This dramatically increases the likelihood that he’ll show more mature behavior in the future.

Ninth, when Christopher’s parents saw him progress, they then saw some regression in behavior.  Please don’t consider this a failure, but a natural return to an earlier stage to “gather steam” for the next advance.  This is how children evolve, three steps forward, one back.  A good-natured response is always the best one.

Tenth, just like number one above, give your Christopher a real job!  If company’s coming, you’ll want them to decide on the music, set the table, vacuum the living room, make phone calls for you, decide where the coats will go and put them there.  Having a job takes the focus off anxious feelings and builds self-esteem.  It also affords you the opportunity to share the load and deliver some really heartfelt appreciation … everyone wins!

Take time to really enjoy your children this holiday season.  Unlike what they “got”, the memories of how they felt at the holidays will stay with them for a lifetime.  You can make these memories powerfully positive with a little forethought, attunement to your anxious child’s needs, and implementation of the 10 tips above.

Happy Holidays to all!

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I See You Letter

“I See You” Letter

Another tool for helping a child with a traumatized brain, or any child who is asking for attention by showing unwanted behavior, is an “I see you” letter. When something is put into writing, it weighs more. The child can read the message without having to hear the adult’s voice, which is more effective because adult voices have sometimes not proven trustworthy in the past. I encourage caregivers to write the letter in a notebook, so the child can write back, if she so chooses, and review the letter at any time. The re-reading can be very healing. When I’ve encouraged other adults to write this type of letter, they’ve told me that they’ve found it later, stashed in a drawer or other safe spot, but never thrown away, which speaks to its significance to the child.

               You can write a letter to a child of any age. If she is old enough to read, just leave it on her pillow. If not, write it out and read it slowly, then hand it to her.

               If the child is so hurt that listening to you read a letter is too much, try posting notes that say what you see in her all over her room. Use the components below to craft your letter or your notes.
               The components of the “I See You Letter” are:

  1. I see what you've been through (in details that are significant to her, maybe just the things you know she remembers). You may want to add, "And other things, too, that we haven't talked about." This could spark a response where she shares more.
  2. In light of your experiences, I realize that none of your recent behavior is your fault. You were just trying to express your pain.
  3. I'm sorry I blamed you when I just didn't realize that your behavior was your pain being expressed.
  4. Together we'll work on making it better, and here's how: ______

An example:

Dear Ana,

I just wanted to tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a kid who has had some very rough experiences. When you were younger, your adults did not do what they needed to do to keep you safe. No child should have this happen, as every child deserves and needs to be kept safe. Your mom left you with people who hurt you, and your dad left without saying why. That must hurt so much. I want you to know that this was never, ever your fault. You were an innocent child.

I see a kid who is sensitive and smart. I see a kid who is amazing at figuring out other people. I so appreciate hearing you express what you know long before others your age can do that. I see a kid with artistic ability, and one who cares deeply for our pets. When I watch you with younger children, I am so impressed with how tender you are.

I realize I have gotten angry with you and yelled when you were upset with me. I now get that you just felt threatened, and you did not mean to hurt my feelings or disrespect me. I’m sorry and I will try very hard not to yell in the future. If I make a mistake and yell (because we all make mistakes), I will apologize and have a do-over, because no one deserves to be yelled at.

If you feel like writing back to me in this notebook, that’s great. Feel very free to do so. If not, I’m fine with that, too. I’m just happy to be able to use this notebook to say what I want to tell you in writing.

I am so happy you are in my life. Thank you for all the gifts you give me, especially your smile.


Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa/Other caregiver

I encourage adults not to ever mention the letter, nor to expect him to say he read it and liked it. For a traumatized child, this may be too much vulnerability. But what often happens is that adults notice a softening in their child, a better attitude, more affection, more focus, and more cooperation. That’s the goal of writing: to see the child clearly, communicate it, allow the amygdala to register that the child is seen and therefore will survive, watch the result in a much more relaxed and relieved child and in an improved relationship. I often describe this process as being “like physics,” as predictable as proven science. It’s truly remarkable how dramatic the results are! And when you think about it, the seeing is the tool for calming the threat alarm. No wonder the child can now function so much more rationally. The more rational front brain is able to work!

I See You Letter