Thursday, December 30, 2010

Don't Underestimate Your Children's Ability to Cope with Change

In the lead up to Christmas this year, there were a lot of blog posts about coping with Christmas and helping your children cope with Christmas.

It was interesting to see how those blog posts covered all manner of topics dealing with;

  • Crowds and over-stimulation
  • Relatives who couldn't (or didn't want to) understand your child's issues
  • "Surprise" Management
  • Junk food issues
  • Travel difficulties
  • Gift-Reaction Management
  • General change management (because Christmas throws every routine out)

There were all kinds of discussions about preparing your child and family for Christmas. Some of them, if read by the wrong people would have made the children seem like "spoiled brats" and some were against the very nature of Christmas (in my opinion only).

An Example from our household
I'm quite big on "surprises", so I don't generally like surprise management tactics where you let your child know what to expect as a gift. This year, our kids got a new trampoline. In the lead up to Christmas I did mention a few times that we'll probably have get rid of the old one soon because it looks like it's about to break. In fact, the trampoline cooperated with me by unexpectedly "throwing a spring" at the boys a few days before Christmas. I never hinted that we'd get a new one but hinting that the old one would need to go soon was the way I did my surprise management.

Learning the Hard Way
When I think back to when I was young and the times when I was less than gracious, it seems to me that sometimes surprise management is a bit unnecessary. Sometimes the child simply needs to learn "the hard way".

I can remember one year, asking my parents for a bike. In further discussions, they told me how expensive it was and I changed my mind and told them that I didn't want one. They'd obviously already bought one by then, so I think I probably caused them a lot of discomfort.

It wasn't that I didn't want the bike but that I'd realised that if I got a bike, I'd get less presents generally. It was a greed thing.

On Christmas morning I was initially quite disappointed to find that I had a bike but then when I discovered that I had other presents, I calmed down and relaxed. That bike was the best Christmas present I ever got. I had it for years and I rode it everywhere. My initial reactions are long forgotten but everyone remembers my years of love of the bike.

I find that even as an adult, I have this kind of issue. Sometimes it's greed sometimes it's simply my analytical mind. Sometimes I get a present which doesn't fit into my world and I'm ungracious. I wish I could stop that initial reaction but I can't. Sometimes it takes me a few days, even weeks to become accepting of a present. I can remember my mother getting used to the fact that I had to have a new shirt hanging in my closet for a month or two before I could wear it.

Surprise management would help in some cases because then I could get used to the idea before the "gifting". Unfortunately, that would take away the joy of the initial reaction. I also genuinely love surprises which fit immediately into my world and would resent these moments being taken away from me.

The point is that I adapt. At these times my own surprise management kicks in and I think I learn a lot about myself every time it happens. I don't want someone to "surprise manage" me - and I sometimes wonder if our children feel the same way.

Obviously this isn't going to work for every child but sometimes I think you do need to let the child learn to self-manage. Sometimes they need to understand how the wrong reactions can hurt people and sometimes they need to simply learn to cope by themselves.

It all works out... eventually
It was nice to read all the follow-up posts on people's blogs. I think I only read one "bad Christmas story" and that was all due to unsympathetic relatives. The kids all coped really, really well. In fact, they coped so well that I wonder how much of that coping was due to pre-Christmas preparation and how much was due to the kids simply "coping".

I'm not advocating a complete absence of pre-Christmas preparation for your child. I certainly had a good talk with my kids about showing appreciation for gifts and about not having a meltdown. The general rule was, be good on the day because "we can fix it later". I talked about one child getting a "better" present, or someone getting something they already had or didn't like. I also covered sharing and what to do if one of their gifts suddenly broke.

I think that talk was critical.

I also talked to the boys about taking time out, what to do if they felt stressed or overloaded.

This year, since we were at our own house, that was less critical but it was still a discussion worth having. At least the boys know that they have somewhere to go if it all gets too much.

I just feel that to go much further is to over-manage and that children will find their own ways of coping. Sometimes they can surprise you with their abilities and after all, if you don't let them exercise their coping skills, how are they expected to develop them?


Marita said...

We've learned the hard way to do a fair bit of preparation with our girls in the lead up to Christmas because they simply fall to pieces if we don't.

However I do try to keep everything fairly generalised, not just to keep some spontaneity and joy in Christmas but also because if I get too specific and something changes that can be a bad thing also.

So we had schedules but they only showed one activity a day ie 'christmas eve', 'christmas day' etc.

We talked about saying thank you for gifts but I did not tell the girls exactly what they were getting. I did however warn them about a few things they would *not* be getting as I didn't want them to get over excited anticipating getting a gift and then not get it and have that disappointment overwhelm everything else.

Example of this - Heidi wanted a robot dog, it has been all she has talked about for most of the year. I knew she was getting a robot dog on Christmas Day. However the night before two of my nephews were getting the same robot dog.

So I talked to both my girls about how sometimes other people get gifts we would really like. When that happens we can say "I really like your present." They can also tell Mum and Dad they really like the other persons present and Mum/Dad will remember for another time.

Most important though is making sure both girls had a place to go when things got overwhelming and they knew how to get there. Both girls tend to run/hide when they get overwhelmed which can sometimes be dangerous depending on the location, so we coached them to come ask Mum/Dad to take them to X location and we would take them there.

I think you are very correct that too much preparation can diminish the opportunities for children to learn by doing. Once again it is the tightrope of parenting, providing the right balance of learning opportunities and preparation.

Chynna said...

This was a great post, Gavin. I noticed all the posts too. We do worry about Jaimie because, unfortunately, one of her areas we need to work on constantly is change, transition and social stuff. But she is always surprising me with what she 'CAN DO'. This year, we did all the pressies in one shot. She wasn't too bad, she TOLD me when she needed a break and said, "you know, Mama? We should do something calm now."

We CAN overprepare and stuff--Jaimie and Xander both teach me that. And sometimes when we do that, our kiddos aren't given the chance to experience how the world really works around them. Now I just tweak a few things, prepare Jaimie and Xander for the things they each still really need the prep for then let things happen. Because that's how life is, right?

Thanks again, Gavin. I always love your posts. =)


Apples and Autobots said...

I have to say that gifts have never been a problem for us. We have taught our kids that the "right" thing to do when they get a gift is to say thank you, no matter what. We've made it the gift receiving rule, and that has worked for our rule bound little guy. Besides, not all people with AS hate surprises or gifts. I'm impatient if I know they're coming, but I love surprise gifts!

In Real Life said...

I really enjoy reading your posts.

I agree with the perspective that children are often more capable to cope with things than we think.

I used to walk on eggshells trying to prevent "melt-downs", when my daughter was younger, until I realized that often she was picking up on my anxiety and that was making most situations worse than they would be if we just carried on as normal, and took things as they came. It took me a little while to adapt, but I realized that melt-downs weren't necessarily as traumatic or as bad as I thought they were, and often my daughter felt much better after the emotional release, that the tantrums actually had a function, and my goal became not to avoid them, but to teach her skills to manage her emotional state. Having done that, she is very adaptable to most life situations and doing extremely well. It was a learning process for me.

On the spectrum coaster said...

I applaud each and every family for individualizing their approach to the holidays - there is no "one size fits all" answer. Some kids need more prep then others, some need a schedule and other don't, some need presents spread out and others need to rip them all open as quickly as possible - our kids are all unique and we are the only experts who know how to handle high stress days like Christmas.
We should never underestimate our kids, ever! They constantly surprise us with what they are capable of and we should push the limits when we can.
For us, over preparing can backfire if something changes at the last minute (and some of our relatives are famous for changing up things without notice) so we try to keep things fluid and flexible - which is usually okay with son as we've worked hard on flexibility in the past with things like that. Personally, I think some of our family needs more interventions then my son does. He is who he is - I accept him as he is and love him unconditionally. If he wants to get upset because a family member is 30 minutes late, that is his right. If his thank you isn't as polite as someone thinks it should be, so what? I remember when he was 2 and being worried that he would never be able to say thank you! Sure, he still has stuff to work on but so do most other people!

Adam Parmenter said...

I've found that my children don't seem to mind pleasant surprises, but if we are planning some life changes (job change, moving, etc), we need to ease them into it.