removing anxiety linked to surprise gifts for birthdays and christmas

Last year, I asked myself whether we should remove the surprise of gift giving for birthdays and Christmas. Gift receiving was becoming increasingly difficult, as the uncertainty of the gifts and the wait to open presents was more than Eldest could cope with. This year we tried a new way - no surprises and presents were handed out over 7 days.

What a difference it made, both for my son and my sanity.

Last year

Mummy, Daddy .... can you tell me what my birthday present is? Is it a Power Ranger ? Is it black? Is it red? Does it have a mouth? Just tell me!

We were asked this every day, with increasing frequency, in the weeks leading up to my Son's 7th birthday. Always the same questions, always in the same order.

The questions started just after 6am when he woke us up with the first question of the day and continued until bedtime at 8pm - which he tried to delay with another round of questions. The unknown presents had become all-consuming, and we could almost hear his brain whirring as he tried to find out what he would be getting.

Saying no to Christmas fun
His behaviours were a clue of his inner turmoil: running from one end of the house to another for no particular reason, jumping on & off the furniture, making repetitive whirring noises, talking to himself and constant fidgeting. It was like he was stuck in overdrive, and there was no way to slow him down.

The anticipation was unbearable, and three days before the big day we could hold out no longer as we knew that everything was becoming too much. We let him open some of his presents early, however it was still not enough to calm the storm. As each present was opened there was a whoop of delight when he saw something he like, or a "are you kidding me" when we got something he didn't want.

We thought that having the presents would help to calm things down, as there was no longer the tension of not what was going to be happening. But like all storms, things need to run their course before it you can restore calm.

That afternoon, there were howls of frustration when the presents didn't work as planned (they were transformers, which required some skill in turning them into the different forms) and a growing sense of unease.

By the end of the day, we were exhausted and his behaviour had deteriorated to an all time low. The meltdown that evening was epic, and I vowed that something needed to change as I doubted we would be able to survive another day like that again.

This year

Mummy, remember that I don't like surprises.

It was the second week of December and I had barely had a moment to think about Christmas. Remembering last year and his most recent birthday where we asked him what he wanted ahead of time, but didn't quite get it right as he still struggled with the anticipation of not fully knowing what he was getting.

I decided we needed a different approach. Armed with my laptop, we sat down and browsed the Amazon website together. We agreed up front a total budget, and that all presents bought would need to be wrapped up and put under the tree and opened on Christmas morning. We also agreed that any presents given by other people could be opened before Christmas, two per day. This way, we didn't have to deal with all the surprise presents together.

For an hour we sat going through Amazon, selecting presents and putting them in the basket. We learnt about the value of some toys (such as the £400 power ranger megazord which turned out to be a collector's item and was a definite NO), and together we found a present that he really loved.

Dad's chosen gift - can't beat a Yoda air freshener!
Things also took an unexpected turn, when I commented on the price of one of the toys he really wanted he got up and disappeared. Moments later he returned with his treasured piggybank and emptied out his savings from the year, offering to help pay for the toy that he really wanted. Talk about mommy guilt - how could you say no to an offer like that. I tried to convince him that he didn't need to help pay for his Christmas presents but he was insistent.

Eventually, we agreed that we would use the money to buy a gift for his sister. After that, we were on a roll as he helped me choose gifts for his Dad and his grandparents. Each of the gifts chosen showed him thinking about the other person and what they might like. My little pony for his sister, Starwars for his Dad, a bangle for Nannie and a book grandad. This was a first - in all his years I have never seen him show consider other people's likes or buy them presents.

As the presents arrived in the house, Eldest would open the parcel and then help wrap the presents before putting them under the tree. There was no questioning each day, and no constant questioning about what he was getting or when he could open the presents. This was a much calmer approach, however I did wonder how long he could last with knowing that his presents were under the tree.

Three days before Christmas, we allowed him (and his sister) to start opening presents from friends and family. Each morning we opened a present, and half the day was spent playing with the present. By Christmas morning we had opened half the presents, and had already had great joy from the presents we had opening. It was certainly much less stressful for all involved, as we were able to spread the joy and there was a less frantic approach to ripping open each present to see if we loved / disliked it before immediately moving onto the next one.

Operation Ho, Ho, Ho

On Christmas eve, Eldest stayed up and help us wrap up the stocking gifts and ate the mince pie that had been left for Santa as part of what he called "Operation Ho, Ho, Ho". He stopped believing in Santa almost 2 years ago, after literally guilting his Dad into telling him the truth. Now he is part of the Secret Santa club, which is is a keen member of. The purpose of the club ... to keep the Santa dream alive for everyone who hasn't worked it out - especially his younger sister.

With his alarm set for 7am, it was an early start to Christmas as he came in telling us it was time for Christmas and present opening. The final round of present opening was as calm as it could be with 2 kids opening a pile of presents. Each present opened was followed by a "fantastic" and there were no moments where we felt like we needed to batton down the hatches.

By all accounts it was a great success, and definitely the way forward in our house. Eldest got the presents he wanted, and we got a Christmas morning to cherish and remember. Who knows, next year we might even sort out the family dinner and post Christmas backlash after days of heightened social demands.

A calmer Christmas

What we learnt

So what have we learnt? Here are my tips to removing the stresses of present receiving

  • Agree on presents and timings of present openings ahead of time. If possible, involve them in the present choosing
  • Spread the word. Let other present givers know what presents are wanted
  • Timing it right. Working out the best time to open presents can make a big difference, especially when around other people. As much as possible we avoided present opening in front of other people, as often the first reaction to a present can change over time. We also try to chose times when we don't have to go anywhere, and eldest is calm. Present opening in a hurry, or when we are about to go out always seems to lead to challenges for us. 
  • Spreading it out. The best thing we have found it to spread out the gift opening, otherwise the excitement/ dissapointment of too many presents in a short time can lead to emotional overload. By spreading out the present opening, we were able to help eldest self-regulate his present opening
  • Plan for calming activities. After each bout of present opening we planned for calming activities including Lego building, cataloguing Pokemon cards or reading favourite books. Quite often this was linked to the present opened, as we planned some presents specifically as onces that we knew would help calm down Eldest when he got worked up.
  • Enable siblings to open their presents separtely. One of the biggest challenges we had this year, was Eldest wanted to take over Youngest present opening and presents. He struggles when she gets something that he is also interested in, and will often try to take the toy off her. Next year, we will be working out how Youngest can open some of her presents separately so that she doesn't immediately need to defend it from her brother. 

Have you had strategies that worked for you? If so, I'd love to know for next year. Please let me know in the comments below. 

social hangover - tips for avoiding and managing the impact of social demands

Since writing about my own experience of a social hangover, I have found out that I am not the only one to experience this and have spent a lot of time thinking about it.  This is the physical and mental shutdown that I can experience after times of extreme social demand, where I am left struggling to face the world around.

At this time of year, the likelihood of social hangovers are much greater as everyone Here is what I am trying to avoid and deal with social hangovers

  • Identify social demanding situations. I now am actively working out what situations I find difficult, and thinking of ways that I can achieve the same outcome in a different way. For me, this means avoiding free-flow group discussions where possible and providing my input before / after the discussion
  • Enlist a social ally. Finding someone who I can tell about the things I find challenging and the support I need to get through it. They can then be my social support to get me through situations I find demanding and avoid compounding difficult situations by unintentionally adding to the demand when I am struggling. I have found this has been the greatest help, as I no longer feel that same level of fear that I did when I felt I was in it on my own. 
  • Find out what to expect. A much as possible, taking the time to find out what is going to happen so that there are no unexpected surprises. This way I can process things ahead of time, and work out my responses. I find it much easier to cope with social situations when I know what to think
  • Be selective with social events. For me, this means saying no to invites to many social events, especially when there are a large number of socially demanding situations looming. Previously I would try to do it all - now I realise that I need to limit myself otherwise I will end up not enjoying anything and I will end up in a state where I can't deal with anything
  • Take time-out to detox. Ensuring that I balance the socially demanding situations with downtime and activities that help self-regulate my social anxiety. For me this is putting time aside for activities that help to relax me - like gardening, listening to music, watching telly, cataloguing my photo collection and more recently Pokemon TCG. 
  • Have an emergency plan. Socially demanding situations can't always be managed or avoided, and sometimes the lure of some situation is so great that the risk of a social hangover is something that I am willing to take on. I have people ready to step up when it all gets too much an I am in danger of self-saboutaging as my anxiety gets out of control. I also know the signs that it is time for me to remove myself from the world in order to regain my composure and top up on my resilience. 

After 40 years, I am still learning about my own social limits and what it takes to help me through socially demanding situations. These tips have started to make a change for me, and I am sure that there are many more to be added to the list. 

I have no desire to become a social butterfly, but with some careful planning and management, I do hope to reduce the frequency and impact of my social hangovers
Spectrum Sunday
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