Q: When we visit our family during the holidays my daughter cries a lot, retreats to her room, even turns away when a grandparent or favorite aunt or uncle tries to hug or kiss her. My child becomes so painfully shy that her behavior is practically rude. Is this normal?
TARA: The holiday season is very challenging for a lot of children. They are expected to be “on” for long periods of time and often in the company of relatives who are unfamiliar or whom they don’t see on a regular basis.
Children are not always sure what to expect during the chaos of the holidays and, many times, are unclear on how to react or behave. Think about how traveling or changes in your schedule make your body feel! So, imagine how children may be experiencing this without knowing how to communicate what it is they are feeling.
From the child’s perspective, consider these points:
- It’s hard to be ”on” for long periods of time
- A change in routine and schedule can be tough
- Traveling can be disruptive to the body
- Your child may not know what to expect or how to behave in the way you hope or expect
What can parents do?
You can help your daughter cope during the holidays by preparing her for change. Show her photos of relatives she’ll meet and discuss what they may say to her. For instance, talk about how an aunt or uncle may comment on how much your daughter has grown or how they might ask her about school and what she likes to do. Relatives tend to ask children they see infrequently “How’s school?” But most children answer with one word: “Good.” Rehearse with your child things they can mention about school, such as a performance they were in, a project they are currently working on, or a new friend they just met. This will help your child learn how to engage in a conversation. The next step is to have your child prepare a few questions she can ask relatives, such as how a favorite pet is doing.
If your child is young or has difficulty understanding information verbally, create a “Social Story”–a picture book of what she will see and hear during the holidays and ways she can react.
Also, if your child tends to get overwhelmed when there are a lot of people around, make sure she can take a break from the social mania that surrounds the occasion. If you are going to friends’ or relatives’ homes, explain that your daughter has a hard time in these social settings, and ask if there is a place where she can take a break. If there are a lot of people staying in one home, consider staying in a hotel–this will help with providing privacy, quiet, and maintaining a more consistent sleep/awake schedule.
As parents, we too are overwhelmed during the holidays, which in turn, impacts our children’s behavior. Be mindful of this, take a deep breath, and remember–it’s normal!
Tara Delaney is a nationally known child development expert who specializes in sensory processing, autism spectrum disorders, and social/behavioral issues. She is the author of two books: The Sensory Processing Disorder Answer Book (Sourcebooks) and 101 Games and Activities for Children with Autism, Asperger’s and Sensory Processing Disorders (McGraw-Hill). An active occupational therapist, Tara is also the Founder/Executive Director of Baby Steps Therapy, a nonprofit clinical practice focused on helping every child achieve his or her greatest potential in the classroom and beyond. Visit her web site at www.taradelaney.com.