Birthdays have always been overwhelming for Little Miss M and not in the typical becoming over excited and inevitably over-tired-from-the-excitement way a lot of children do. She does get excited and tired (exhausted in fact) but she also worries. She worries about every detail of the day, about how long she has to wait for the day to come and about it coming to an end and not just on the day but for quite some time before and after. She also cries, a lot. She experiences big emotions and cries multiple times throughout the course of the day and celebrations over seemingly small details or when there are no more presents and I used to worry that she was ungrateful or spoilt so would gently remind her to be grateful for what she had, which unwittingly put more demands and expectations on her, making it worse.
Since discovering PDA, we have learnt that she’s not ungrateful or spoilt. She cannot handle uncertainty or things not happening how she imagines they will. She needs to feel absolute control and certainty of herself, her environment and of situations otherwise extreme levels of anxiety overwhelm her causing this behaviour.
Birthdays, traditionally, are filled with uncertainty and demands so cause extra anxiety than normal.
Birthday uncertainties include:
- Surprise presents – traditionally we’ve kept gifts a secret for a surprise on the day but this leaves Little Miss M in a constant state of uncertainty because she doesn’t know what to expect or whether or not she’ll be given that special thing she really really wants.
- Decorating the house with banners and balloons as a birthday morning surprise can be unsettling (even though she loves decorations) because it eliminates the security of the surroundings being familiar (likewise, taking them down can too when it’s unexpected) she also has very particular ideas of how something will be and waking up to things looking different to what she expected can be overwhelmingly disappointing.
- Changes to routine and more people visiting than usual leaves her wondering what will happen when and what will people do/say.
- If we have a trip planned to somewhere new, it’s unfamiliar and again, she doesn’t know what to expect.
- Will the weather interfere with our plans? *
Extra demands include meeting the expectation to:
- say thank you for gifts
- to like gifts
- to smile for photos
- to blow out candles on cue
- to be well behaved and happy
All of this leads quickly to overwhelm.
This year was Little Miss M’s first birthday since learning about PDA and armed with the understanding we’ve gained about her PDA and looking at it from her perspective, we involved her in all the preparations so she felt in control of this aspect of the day. She saw her banners, balloons, wrapping paper and card when we got them and told us how she’d like the room decorated (which we did exactly as she said), she knew what presents she was getting from most people and she planned what would happen on the day and when. We tried to relax as much as we could on expecting thank yous and instead I made sure I said it, even if she didn’t. [I try to relax all my expectations generally now and find it makes life much calmer and happier for me and Little Miss M but will go into that more in another note]. We only took a few pictures when she wanted them and tried really hard not to say “smile” when we did. We did the cake (which she chose) when she was ready to and asked her if she would like candles or not (she did and again she chose them).
With these adjustments and us being mindful of her anxiety levels before, during and after the day and being flexible to meet her need for control, overwhelm was much slower to build and much less frequent than in previous years.
She still experienced challenges and difficulties. Demand avoidance and anxiety were still present because that’s inevitable with PDA but it was mostly manageable. She used her ‘go to’ coping strategy of imaginary role play a lot to alleviate anxiety. This works because she has absolute control of her imaginary world. She slipped in and out of character when she needed to and at times needed us to participate too, telling us what to say and do. There was still anticipation anxiety in the build up and transition anxiety at the end of the day and not wanting it to end because unfortunately nobody can control time or the rate at which it passes and overwhelm, with lots of tears and anxiety, did occur at the end of the day because of this.
I learned a valuable lesson that night. I finally learned what to do and what not to do when I can’t offer a suitable solution to fulfil her need for control. It was already midnight and the day had come to a natural end. These circumstances which were out of Little Miss M’s control and the cause of so much anxiety were out of my control too and I realised everything I suggested to try and calm her (we have photos to look at and remember the day, you have new toys and games you can enjoy playing with tomorrow, we can go back to LEGOLAND in July when Daddy is on holiday again) was actually making it worse.
Then the penny finally dropped – my suggestions were in fact perceived as demands and were all adding to her increasing feelings of overwhelm so I decided to stop suggesting and listen to her express herself and ride it out with love, understanding of her anxiety and need for control and with patience. So much patience. I acknowledged her feelings and reassured her that it’s ok to feel them – showing her I love her no matter what and found that alone helped her to eventually be free from the negative effects of those feelings and she regained enough control over herself to be calm again and eventually fall asleep.
There are times when Little Miss M does need my help in finding a solution but I’m going to be more mindful from now on about when that is helpful and when it becomes a demand. And I’ll continue to show her I love her at all times and through all the challenges so she can love herself entirely.
It took her a few days to transition back to normal life and recover from her birthday celebrations and she went through phases of hyperactivity and being very intensely demanding and controlling while her anxiety levels reduced. It took lots of patience and understanding from us and seeing things from her perspective. But we made it through and it was a happy birthday and she remembers the positives of the day when asked, not the tears and anxiety.
* Oh and we didn’t let the rain interfere with her plan to play in the splash park! The water was freezing cold and we were the only ones brave enough to venture in but we had it all to ourselves which she loved and some of the best memories come from doing crazy things!