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The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

Holiday Survivial Strategies — Anxious Teen Edition

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iStock_000011096103XSmallWhen my kids were little, they played a game called What’s Your Favorite Holiday? There were two versions; in one, they named two holidays — say, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day — and asked you to name your favorite. In the other, they just asked outright what your favorite holiday was and then demanded and explanation.

(Their favorites, always, are Halloween, because costumes, and Christmas, because presents. And, in both cases, candy.)

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Everything about it makes me happy, particularly the part where no gift buying is required. Thanksgiving is like an island of calm in the chaos of the winter holiday season, and I look forward to it every year.

What I do not look forward to is the entire week of no school (I don’t know why my kids are out of school all week — I would be more thankful if they could go to class on Monday and Tuesday while my husband and I are working). I also don’t look forward to the fact that my anxious kid gets more and more anxious as the week wears on, because he is out of his routine, which makes him cranky and unpleasant to be around. So while I am looking forward to sitting down at the table with my family for a lovely Thanksgiving meal, I am also dreading the fact that by Thursday, Henry may very well be almost unbearable to be around.

And then, once we survive Thanksgiving, we do it all over again at Christmas. But for longer. Ugh.

This year, I enlisted the help of our family therapist. What could we do, I asked her, to help Henry stay on track during the long vacation week? How could we balance the fact that the rest of us need a break from the routine while Henry needs things to keep moving along in the exact same way?

Here’s what we came up with.

Engage Henry in the decision making. Henry is 13, the therapist reminded me, which is old enough to be part of the solution. She suggested that we talk with him, in the week before the holiday, about what he wanted to do during his week off. The most interesting insight she’s had about Henry is that in his head, he has a plan for how things are going to happen, whether that’s how he will get his homework done or how he will spend his Saturday or how other kids will interact with him. When things don’t go as he planned, he gets anxious and argumentative. Engaging him in the planning and respecting what he’s thinking makes it less likely that he will be caught off guard and fall apart. And because his plans aren’t always related to what the rest of us are doing, having him articulate them helps us understand what he’s thinking and what he’s worrying about.

Limit screen time. Like lots of kids with Aspergers, Henry’s chosen retreat is video games and television. When he’s in school, it’s easy to limit his screen time, but on these endless long weeks of vacation it can be tough (which is not to say that we don’t do it, by the way — but his plan, of course is to loll around in our game room all day watching endless episodes of “Arrow” and “Phineas and Ferb”). Of course, too much screen time makes him crabby — and it makes me crabby, too, honestly. This past week, we actively planned things to do that pulled Henry away from the screen, things like playing with the neighbor kids and running errands and doing pre-holiday dinner chores. We let both boys download a few new songs each day, because listening to your iPod is way better than staring at a screen. And we engaged Henry in an ongoing conversation about all the cool things he was doing when he was out of his safe space and not staring at the television.

Make plans, but keep them simple. The long week off at Thanksgiving always seems like a nice opportunity to revel in schedule-free bliss, but it turns out that no one in my family does well with endless empty time. In the past, I’ve tried to plan big elaborate things to fill our days, but that just winds up stressing everyone out. This year, I planned small outings each day, including a trip to the dentist (yes, seriously) and lunch with friends. Henry is prone to opting out of things that make him anxious, but when he knows there’s no opt out alternative (because you can’t skip the dentist, of course) he goes along and does just fine. And then he’s out of the house and we can turn a mundane errand into something much more fun.

Let Henry stay home. Despite the fact that our goal during the long breaks is overwhelmingly to get Henry out of the house as much as possible, there are times when he just needs to stay home. I hosted Thanksgiving dinner at my house this year because it was less stressful for everyone to be here than it was to go anywhere else, even just down the road to my husband’s parents’ house. Because Henry was in his own space all day, he was pleasant and funny and a delight to be around. We had a relaxed meal with no yelling, which is always my goal. Later in the weekend, Charlie played in a basketball tournament; rather than insisting that Henry go — to a strange gym at an unfamiliar school with parents he doesn’t know — we let him hang out at home alone. I got to see Charlie play and Henry didn’t have to deal with the stress of new place, new people and was a win for everyone.

Breathe. The last thing the therapist recommended was the thing that made the most difference this week: She reminded me to breathe. When I start to get stressed out, she said, take five deep breaths, the in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth kind, to refocus and calm myself. In a week of constant togetherness (and really, it’s more than a week because of the weekends at either end) small things can start to seem like big things and big things can seem completely overwhelming. Stopping to breathe gave me a chance to reset when I was getting edgy and to reprioritize when things started to go off the rails. And it’s never a bad idea to breathe.

I’m feeling good about winter break right now, which is not usually what I’m saying after the long Thanksgiving week. This year, it finally feels like we have some constructive ways to manage the long empty vacation days. Now if I could just get my Christmas shopping done…



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