Christmas Chaos

Dear Dena,

My kids are having extra bad behaviors this month and I’m wondering if it’s connected to the holidays? How do we survive this busy season with our kids who crave routine?


Christmas Chaos


Dear Christmas Chaos,

‘Tis the season to be dysregulated! Fa la la la la la la la!

Boy do I hear you loud and clear on that one!  Despite our best intentions to provide fun and memorable experiences for our kiddos, the truth is that the extra activity, lights, sounds and smells can send some of our sensory sensitive kids right over the edge.  Not to mention the extra sugar, later nights, school holiday activities and visitors. Whew! It’s amazing any of us make it out in one piece!

Here is what I’ve learned over the years of parenting 7 kiddos with varying needs and trauma backgrounds:  Save yourself the frustration and save your children the struggles by limiting your events and activities. I don’t mean to sound like Scrooge…but the truth is you will end up meaner than the Grinch if you insist on “fun” for your kiddos who cannot tolerate schedule disruptions and over-stimulation.  

Choose one or two activities and inform your kids of them ahead of time. Surprises are a bad idea.   Let them weigh in on the decision and offer a few choices you’d be happy with. Don’t make them stay longer or later!  If they can only tolerate an hour, then celebrate that hour rather than rage over their behavior at hour two. Once it’s over, pack them up and do a calming night-time routine.  Make time at home a laid back and comfy opportunity. Movies, snuggles, games, popcorn, etc. We forget how much those things mean to kids who haven’t had them consistently.

In addition to sensory issues, be aware that holidays serve as memory triggers to our kids.  Special days they remember having or not having…events that went well with bio-parents or that ended in violence and/or substance use…desires to have a picture perfect Christmas day  that instead ended up lonely or neglected. These are the things our kids have been exposed to.

As much as we want to make a wonderful holiday experience for our children, the truth is, this is a season charged with hard memories and BIG feelings.  Our kids experience the conflict of both wanting and not wanting their birth-family, of wanting and not wanting to remember past Christmases, of wanting and not wanting to enjoy you and this day.

Pay attention to the feelings of guilt that result from enjoying Christmas in your home.  Often it is experienced as betrayal to birth-family to have a great time. Be prepared for sabotaging experiences to ensure NO ONE has fun, so they don’t feel shame for celebrating.   Give your children permission to be sad and make time to process some feelings. Help them understand that is normal and that you are available to talk or just to sit and be sad together.  Sometimes our desires for them to be happy and have a great holiday can feel like expectation they cannot meet. Be kind. Accept limits. Remember their developmental age and be prepared for regressions during this season.

And be kind to yourself! This Christmas may not look like the one you envisioned but it can still be meaningful and special.  Create new traditions that honor your kids’ limitations. Give yourself a break and don’t expect too much out of them or out of yourself.  At the end of the day, we want Christmas to be about family and faith and opportunities to grow in both.

-Dena Johnson MA, LMHC

Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Attachment-Trauma Focused Therapist, TBRI Practitioner