A Christmas Tree Tale: consider others views to avoid triggers to conflict 

Let me tell you a Christmas story told to me by my wife. She has been a nurse for people with an Intellectual Disability for 30 years and has managed many homes supporting people.

It was nearing Christmas and the nurses and support workers had decorated the house for Christmas including the obligatory Christmas tree. One morning they noticed that the tree had moved. It was sitting outside on the patio. Confused they brought it back in and reset it in place. Not long after the tree had disappeared again, again it was found on the patio. They dutifully brought it back in and this time kept a close watch. It wasn’t long before they noticed one of the residents approach the tree and put it back outside. The gentleman in question had an Intellectual Disability and Autism. They quickly realised that his perception of what was happening was not the same as their own. For him the Christmas festivities were an unwelcome break in his usual routines. His environment changed and worst of all a tree was ‘inside’ the house, clearly not the correct place for a tree. So he took matters into his own hands and put the tree in its proper place…outside! 

As a person from the UK now living in Australia, Christmas can be a challenging time of year. The traditions and expectations that have taken 47 years to form my particular version of Christmas (roast turkey, cold weather and TV) is at odds with the Aussie traditions of ham, prawns, a day on the beach or around the pool.  I’m slowly getting used to it, though I do long for a fireside Christmas, but, I can accommodate these changes, I made a choice to come here and recognise the need to fit in and the impracticalities of cooking a roast turkey in a house that is already at 30 degrees, believe me I tried!

But what of those like my wife’s gentleman for whom this time of year can bring lots of unexpected changes, like a tree in the house! This can be a challenging time of the year. The support workers start to put tinsel in their hair and maybe wear different clothes. The house starts to look different with decorations; the daily routine starts to change. Not forgetting that for many people Christmas may not hold the positive memories that many of us have of this time of year.

And don’t think the issue is isolated to people with an intellectual disability. Those with dementia, people with mental health issues and many of us who are just plain stressed out with too much to do may all be adversely affected at this time of year.

Christmas can be a time of year when many people start to display more behaviours that are challenging.  This may be due to the direct influence of Christmas but also consider staff changes and taking of holidays, the closure of business of usual activities and venues, or the lack of seeing their own families at a time of year when everyone else is seeing theirs. The higher expressed emotions that the season can produce in people can be difficult to manage, combine this with people’s expectations of a perfect Christmas that may never appear, leads to disappointment.

There can be as many ways to deal with a situation as there are people but by considering what might be triggering someones unusual or aggressive behaviours we can adapt our response to calm and de-escalate rather than fuel the fire, helping Christmas run a little more smoothly for you and your customers.