Surviving the Holidays with Sensitive Kids

Both of my boys are sensitive guys. I believe that, in the long-term, this is a good quality in the males of our species, I really do. In the short-term it can be a bit tough, however. Among other things, it means that Baxter cries easily and was afraid of segments on Sesame Street until he was about 6 years old. I mean, truly, there is never any doubt about how that boy is feeling and it’s been relatively easy to help him learn to manage his emotions.

But Lyle, though probably even more sensitive and finely-tuned than his big brother, has been much harder to read. Rather than crying when he’s scared or his feelings have been hurt, he is likely to feel confused and hide behind what I think of as his “wacky” behaviors: moodiness, hitting, sudden shrieking, twirling in circles, and jumping on top of his brother.

I see children through an uncommon lens, because of my training. I’m sure this has pros and cons for my family. In my book, children’s behavior is highly meaningful – they are communicating something with their actions, and our job is to watch, listen, and interpret the message in order to respond appropriately.

So when Lyle’s “wacky” behaviors began to escalate in the past week, I took it very seriously and watched carefully. In addition to the usuals – which were significantly heightened – he began to bite his shirt collar or jacket a lot – and a couple of times even bit his own hand earlier this week.

Now, listen up: if you are my child and you want me to go into Full Alert Mode, just start biting your hand. I’m all yours.

I watched. I listened. I talked to Matt. I thought about it a lot.

Let’s see, what’s going on for this shy little guy…Christmas is coming (exciting)…Santa is coming (scary and exciting)…he was invited to his first school friend’s birthday party (scary and exciting)…my work party is this Saturday, complete with a live Santa (scary and exciting)…Mommy was a stress case the last two weeks (scary)…there are new decorations all over the house – and everywhere else, for that matter (exciting but different from the norm)…we’ll be going to California in less than two weeks (exciting). And on and on. No wonder the child is completely dysregulated. That’s a lot for a small boy to handle.

So here’s what I’ve done.

First of all, I quickly gave him a substitute to bite. Because think about it – oral input is the most primitive source of comfort and self-regulation we’ve got. Consider breast-feeding, sucking on a pacifier or a thumb. Many adults use food or cigarettes to satisfy that need. If we say, “Stop biting” but give the child nothing to substitute with, we are probably causing him more discomfort and then what’s going to happen? Probably more biting.

I have a collection of oral motor tools that are safe and durable, and I offered Lyle an assortment. He took to one of them. I encouraged him to get all the oral input he wanted with that – while we read stories, when he watched a video, or when he was starting to experience heightened emotions. It helped. Forty-eight hours later he isn’t biting anything else and isn’t even using the tool much.

Second, I worked extra hard with him to identify what he was feeling. When he began to bite his shirt or shout, I slowed him down and asked, “What are you feeling right now?”, helping him to differentiate between excitement and nervousness so that we could identify other ways to deal with those feelings. This worked very well. Tuesday afternoon I took the boys over to Starbucks for hot cocoa in the afternoon. Lyle was starting to get really wired, and I raised my voice to get his attention before he bumped into someone. He immediately bit his shirt – but then stopped and said to me, “I was surprised because you spoke sharply to me.” He then climbed on my lap and allowed me to comfort him and explain why I spoke sharply. This self-awareness led to an immediate decrease in the undesirable behaviors in that environment.

Third, I slowed down his world as much as I could. I started to speak slower and more quietly to him, and kept our schedule as calm as possible. I made an extra effort to sit down and focus on pretend playing with him more often, which always gives us more opportunities to connect emotionally and play out difficult situations.

Fourth, I made life more predictable. I drew a calendar of the next few weeks for the kids. On each day, I drew simple pictures to identify Lyle’s school days, days with the nanny, when exactly the parties are, when we go to California, etc. When life is busy and routines change all of a sudden, many kids (and probably adults) need some extra predictability and external organization. Both of the boys are checking their calendar multiple times a day; it’s posted on the refrigerator.

This is an exciting time of year. That’s as it should be. It’s fun to dance in the kitchen to Frosty the Snowman, treat the kids to some holiday fun, and enjoy the season.

But for kids who are not so sure yet about how to express their feelings, ’tis also the season for some extra support.


9 responses to “Surviving the Holidays with Sensitive Kids

  1. Wow. This is a wonderful post Jordan. And in light of what we’ve been going through, you can bet I’ll be back here to check on your ideas and tips regularly. Or maybe I should just print it out.

    Smart girl. Good mama. Lucky boys.

  2. I really, really appreciate this post. For situations like this with Anya the answer is “explain, explain, explain.” We talk through what she can expect over and over until its part of her own vocabulary. Letting her know what HASN’T changed is our best strategy in times of change (and boy have we had those!!).

  3. I’m printing out this post right now and hanging it on my fridge.

    Thank you!

  4. Brilliant. This is the sort of recipe that needs to get tucked away with the ones for gingerbread and sugar cookies, so we can all remember to pull it out every year at this time.

    Sounds like you’re in for some happy holidays!

  5. Lori at Spinning Yellow

    This was great! Even for those of us who know these strategies well, we tend to forget to put them in place.

    Because active boys are perceived as tough, I think there is a misunderstanding about their sensitivities, you know?

    Oh, the chewing! It is such a barometer for how Scott is doing and I must say a million times a day, “you can’t chew on the remote/your shirt/whatever, but you can chew on these things”.

    I like Becky’s strategy of pointing out what hasn’t changed also.

    You are such a good therapist, blogger information sharer, and of course, mommy, to those wonderful, sensitive boys.

  6. As you know, our Julia’s uber-sensitive as well. (Don’t yet know about Genevieve! So far she seems pretty much all about the “eh, whatever, I’m doing my own thing, don’t bother me” approach to the world!) Like Becky’s Anya, with Julia “explain, explain, explain” is the crucial step, too.

    Luckily, since our kids are only 3 and 1, we haven’t yet hit that stage where the holidays cause a lot of upheaval and crazy-excitement. Genevieve doesn’t know anything different is going on (she likes the tree, but doesn’t seem fazed by it), and even with a 3-year-old, it’s easy to keep life normal and low-key. To her, one fun local holiday event (our town’s Winter Walk the other week) and one morning putting up the tree is pretty much the sum of any “holiday excitement” going on in our household.

    I imagine things will change a great deal when our girls are older and more aware of holiday “craziness.” Right now I’m glad they’re little enough to minimize the disruption to their normal routines.

    Happy Holidays!

  7. God, you’re such a good mom. What a wonderful, healthy, SANE way of responding.

  8. Jordan, thanks so much for this thoughtful and truly helpful post. Though Nik isn’t yet ready for any sort of calendar –we’re trying to start with visual aids but it’s not going so well right now– this is a very good reminder for me to at least S-I-M-P-L-I-F-Y.

    Nik certainly understands much of what is said to him so we can verbally map out a step or two ahead for him…and keep our word. (This reminds me of a post I may need to write soon…)

  9. Jordan, this is such a beautiful and wise post. And a perfect time of year to trot out the chewies, the calendar and the social stories. Brava!!!

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