‘Bah Humbug’ as Dickens said, but he also ‘invented’ the Christmas that we now seem to expect to have.
According to Dickens, we should be entertaining our nearest and dearest with well-prepared and fun-filled meals. Trees should be decorated, and games played without arguments. There should be laughter and love, not tears and exhaustion. Christmas time should be a time of fun, hope, peace; - not a time of stress?
But I well remember past Christmases (with three young children). The weary midnight present wrapping, the ‘emotional dysregulation’ (AKA meltdowns) in supermarkets – mine as well as the children – the panic around the roast dinner, and that yearly fear of ‘getting the roast potatoes right.’ A terror that still hits me every Christmas day.
Other things would be also thrown into this melting pot; ‘could I please provide my child with a brown leotard and tights by Thursday,’ from the school. This, before the age of internet shopping, when brown was not a colour freely available in M&S. So along with the midnight last minute everything else, I had to dye leotard and tights for the reindeer performance. At least antlers were on sale!
And then, herding the children up to pack them in the car and drive halfway across the country to see grandma and grandad; but grandad always had it sorted. He was ahead of the game. We, as a family, still laugh about grandad prepping ‘tomorrow’s vegetables today.’
So how do we get through this potentially stressful period, with the added benefit of a child (or more) with different needs? I asked around my family, friends, and colleagues, for their good memories from childhood. I heard of putting the baubles on the tree, decorating the house with holly and ivy, going to the garden centre to buy the tree, staying awake to catch Father Christmas in the act, reading a book in front of the fire, opening Christmas stockings, opening advent calendars, carol singing at the Christingle service, playing carols on the piano with sisters, passing round the tin of Roses, and eating an entire chocolate variety pack for breakfast! There were memories of small special presents, an entire suit of clothes for a teddy, a much-wanted game, but this wasn’t a major theme.
My own ‘fond’ memory is of a large jolly family group, playing cards, with one uncle who would cheat at ‘Cheat,’ to wind up my grandma!
Some had no fond memories. An adult, somewhere on the spectrum but now with children of her own, told me that for her Christmas was appalling; she just gritted her teeth to get through it and would just rather sit in a room on her own with a book.
BUT - not one of these memories included anything about Christmas dinner.
One daughter remembered post-Christmas meals with the jolly well organized grandparents, but that had something to do with illicit tastes of Babycham!
SO - do we really need that roast dinner?
Every year friends of mine took their children for Christmas dinner to a motorway cafe, because that is what their children wanted. Amazing: no hours in the kitchen struggling with roast potatoes, no piles of washing up – everybody happy. Someone else reported that in the city he once worked in, sending out for a takeaway on Christmas Day was quite common – again no stress, no washing up and everyone has the food that they like.
For those with ARFID, for those who hate and fear food, a mealtime is never going to be a good social experience, unless wearing headphones and behind an iPad.
So, how do we handle it?
When we are stressed, we cannot see clear priorities – we cannot see the wood for the trees.
All changes in routine, both at home and at school, will add to the stress.
So - Write two lists: -
The ‘Must do’ list (Buy some food? Dye the tights)
The ‘I think I should do’ list (Clean out the fridge? Clean the filter on the tumble dryer with a toothbrush – yes really – suggested to me by the repair man)
Then store list 2) away until February – or tear it up.
Make another list.
things I like about Christmas,
things my family like (or don’t like about Christmas),
things I want to do,
things they want to do.
Can you plan a Christmas that meets most of these needs? Remember that your children’s needs are sometimes more important than your visitors’ needs.
Can you leave out the things that no-one has mentioned?
Look at your ‘Must do’ list again – what can you cross out?
What are you doing just because it is expected?
(Like putting apples that will never be eaten in the school lunch box)
4) Then make another list. The house rules.
My child: -
Does not have to sit at the meal table.
Will only be given the foods which they can accept.
Can eat whilst watching an iPad / television.
Can go to their room if it is all too overwhelming.
Visitors will not: -
Give advice on my child rearing practices.
Tell me I am making the whole thing worse.
Suggest that I just refuse to offer accepted foods because my child will eat when they are hungry.
Try to prompt my child to eat new foods.
Print out list 4 and stick it on the fridge door, where it can be easily seen.
Then make a timetable.
Remember that if you are stressed everyone else will be stressed.
So first in the timetable – some ‘me time’ for you -every day – a walk, a long bath.
Then perhaps ‘us time’- if you can- just with your partner if you have one, or a friend; things you both enjoy.
Then schedule Christmas – put up a visual timetable so everyone knows where and what will be happening – my husband gets one of these every week!
Leave large spaces of free time, or time for your child/ children to do what they want whatever this might be – it doesn’t really matter if they watch television all afternoon in their pyjamas- Christmas only lasts for a short time.
Be clear about your child’s needs.
Be clear about your needs.
Don’t feel guilty!
you are doing the best you can.
If you have visitors or must visit others who are a little critical, then ask them about their childhood, about food and mealtimes. It is often surprising what you might hear.
“I was made to eat liver every Sunday.”
“And do you like it now?”
“No can’t stand the sight of it “
If all else fails -blame me! One of those ‘so called’ experts!
And what have I learned from writing this blog? We all get some insight from writing things down. Well, those wretched roast potatoes will be cooked on the 23rd and heated up!
I will remember the me time – and try to juggle the needs and preferences of the family along with mine.
And how did my father - the good grandad - get it so right? Well, he was in the navy for a while – in a small ship – a mine-sweeper. If everything didn’t go to plan and everyone didn’t communicate and get on – well, there would have been a very big bang! So, he also knew what was important in life and what was not. Chocolate for breakfast is not the end of the world. He managed to combine good and careful planning, kept it low key and was always (how?) in a jolly mood. Most of all, his ‘me time’ – an afternoon nap - was non-negotiable.
Dr Gillian Harris BA, MSc, PhD, Cert Ed., AFBPsS, C.Psychol.Consultant Clinical PsychologistHCPC registered; number PYL29611
‘So called’ expert in ARFID
Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/women-and-child-facing-dining-table-3171152/