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Posted on Dec 14 2022 by Fiona Bailey

Hannah Batkin is a single parent who lives in Northamptonshire with her two children. Her daughter is aged 14 has autism and her son is 8 has an acquired brain injury after developing meningitis as a baby.

His condition now presents as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) traits, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and Tourette’s syndrome.

Hannah’s role working as a mental health nurse within the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) at St Andrew’s Healthcare in Northampton has helped her to better understand the needs of her children, as well as listening to what they want and responding to their requests.

Here she discusses how she has learnt over the years to manoeuvre the Christmas period so both her children participate in the festivities without becoming upset or anxious. 

"Christmas can be overwhelming and upsetting for some children with learning disabilities but it is possible for all involved to enjoy the festive period.

Being a single parent means it’s only ever been me so I’ve had to learn and find my way as to what works for me and my kids. Working within CAMHS at St Andrew’s Healthcare has also hugely helped me to understand autism better too which is always helpful. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by colleagues at the Charity who are happy to listen and to offer up some advice if I am at bit of a loss.

Christmas is a very excitable time for children and for some – particularly those with a learning disability – it can also be rather overwhelming and upsetting which can manifest as challenging behaviour. My daughter who has autism is sensitive to change that is unpredicted or unplanned, so I make sure I give her plenty of notice and let her know what it going on.

Large family gatherings can be difficult sometimes, so if unavoidable I tend to ensure we go out for the visits. This means if things get a bit too much for my kids we can leave. My son enjoys seeing everyone and becomes very excited and active but due to his OCD he also struggles with unplanned change. Because they both like structure it makes it easier to find a balance and harmony during Christmas.

Although the children are slightly older now, it is usually easier for them to communicate to me when they have had enough, but this is not always the case.

But, if my daughter’s had enough and not managed to vocalise her thoughts she will cover her head, put her head phones in and sit in a corner. If we are unable to leave a situation this will turn into anger and tears where she will eventually completely shut herself away from others. This can be embarrassing for her and so we plan and agree times to leave to reduce this and give her structure to work with.

Spotting early signs

Generally speaking I’ve become quite good at spotting the signs so I can normally intervene early and make a call on what we need to do before it escalates.

My son’s Tourette’s can impact on others as he can lash out with movements. He can display impulsive behaviours and his mood can change to anger, resulting in slamming and throwing of things. This is often approached with understanding and time, as once he has calmed down he is able to tell me when he is ready to talk about why he couldn’t cope.

Christmas can be stressful, but over the years I’ve found approaches which means we can all enjoy ourselves in a relaxed way that suits everyone.  After all, my main objective is to make sure my children are happy and contented. It’s important to me that both of them enjoy Christmas in their own way, while also not missing out on anything.

Structure and communication

My tips for parents through the festive season is to offer children structure and tell them what’s coming up for the day and listen to their needs. I don’t change too much from our everyday management and this continuation of expectations makes things easier for them. I also recommend saying no to things.

At Christmas there’s such expectation on people to see everyone and cram in as many activities as possible, but where has that come from? For me, Christmas is all about spending quality time with my kids, making sure they are happy, and everything else can wait."