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With the summer holidays fast approaching, our Behaviour and Autism Specialist Jan, discusses why foster children sometimes seem to sabotage holidays.

Holidays are a special part of the year that most people look forward to, and many foster families I have supported at Credo Care say that not having the pressure and demands of school mean their children are able to relax and therefore the unwanted behaviour is less likely to happen.

However, for some foster families, the thought of no school and change of routine may bring some trepidation. For children who have experienced early childhood trauma and have attachment difficulties, autism, ADHD or sensory processing issues, holidays can be really hard.

It is not much fun walking around on eggshells knowing that your child is on a hair trigger and may be set off at any second. But holidays are not much fun for those children either. Big days can be a reminder of all that they have lost or of how their brain works differently than other people’s do, or of how far their behaviour is from what they want it to be. Some of our children have at times sabotaged those lovely days out we have organised or those special occasions we had planned or surprises we have arranged. We were so looking forward to them really enjoying life and then it all goes wrong due to their behaviour, and we wonder why and we are left feeling deflated, disappointed and maybe annoyed that our children are not appreciating that we are trying to give them a good time. We ask ourselves “why?”

The root of the sabotaging behaviours is often guilt and shame but their can be other causes as well.

Feeling unworthy

Abandonment or the perception of abandonment in children who have been fostered can lead to a deep sense of shame and poor self-esteem. This may make them feel as if they are unworthy of love, unworthy of having good things happen to them, unworthy of gifts or attention. With that entrenched feeling of being unworthy of truly feeling happy, sabotaging behaviours can begin to emerge. They may sabotage so that they can force what they see as inevitable disappointment. If their caregiver then responds in anger to their sabotaging behaviour, it only further validates their belief that they are unlovable.


During holidays and special occasions, triggers are everywhere. Smells, sights, sounds, memories of the past… the holidays can be a minefield to navigate. These triggers can cause a fight, flight or freeze response.

Excitement and anxiety

Doing something different can leave a child full of uncertainties due to facing the unknown. The prospect of a day of unfamiliar things raises cortisol levels, which for many care experienced children, are already heightened and this released adrenaline. So the planned event is intended to bring joy but instead creates a physiological response in our children, fight, flight, freeze and emotions such as excitement and anxiety. These feel the same in the body. Butterflies in the stomach, quickening of breathing rate, a loudly thumping heart, sweating, and trouble sleeping are the same body responses whether you are feeling excited or nervous. When your child feels those body sensations, it can bring memories of times of stress when they felt that way due to anxiety.

Lack of routine

Routine changes frequently during the holidays and this can make certain children feel a lack of control. They may then attempt to assert control and take charge. The unpredictability and uncertainty can feel unsafe to them. With less of a set schedule, they may also be overtired and be eating poorly which can also affect behaviour and mood.

Sensory overload

The different environments that children experience may bring about a sensory overload causing sensory meltdowns which unintentionally will sabotage holidays and events. Think about a day at the beach, the feel of the sand on your feet (or in your shoe), the smell of fish and chips and the sea in the breeze, lots of people playing and calling to one another, balls and frisbees being played with all around you, the noise of squealing children as another wave crashes into them… For some children, this overload may cause them to shut down. It’s as though their body hits ‘sleep’ mode to protect them from the perceived threats around them. You might see a child with their hood over their head, sitting hunched over on the beach, or you might spot a child on a bench staring into the distance for prolonged periods of time. For some children, the sensory overload may cause them to be hyper aroused, unable to settle at all. You might see wild, erratic running around, hear unusual noises (trilling the tongue or high-pitched squeaks), exaggerated efforts to push or pull things. All of these are an attempt to regulate, although they’re done as an unconscious coping mechanism, not an intentional coping strategy.

The weight of expectations

When a child believes that they will fall short of the expectations placed on them, they may decide to just quickly blow things up to get it over with. The stress that come with anticipating the disappointment they may cause can be overwhelming.

Unreasonable expectations

Even the most well-grounded children tend to have high expectations during the holidays. This is sometimes magnified in children who have a trauma history or have sensory needs. Protection.

Attempting to protect their heart from further disappointment, a child who has experienced early trauma will put walls up and push others away. With everything being magnified during the holidays, those walls have a tendency to go higher and that pushing away can turn to an aggressive shove (literally or figuratively).

What can I do?

Let me be really clear. This behaviour is not the deliberate act by the child, but an extreme expression of unmet needs caused by trauma. It’s not personal, even though it can feel like it.

Empathy and nurture for the child will help them journey through what they’re feeling and validate their emotions. Being present as they experience them, and then helping them learn healthier ways to express big feelings is a powerful way that we can support our children.

Research shows that consistently responding in this way can create new pathways in the brain, reconnecting bits that were damaged by trauma, and helping them to learn new ways to respond instead of reacting. It is not a quick fix, but consistent repetition can lead to gradual lasting change.

What about saying things like:

“I can see this is really hard for you, and I’m here for you”

“I can see you’re feeling angry, that’s OK, you’re allowed to feel angry”

If your child is unable to understand this level of sentences, then use simple words and an empathetic tone of voice accompanied by open body language. Offer a hug when it is the right time for them.

Other ways to help:

  • Lower your own expectations.
  • Consider sensory overload and input.
  • Take a calm down or distraction box – anything that you know your child loves and will help them to calm.
  • Maintain routines as much as possible. Children thrive with consistent routines.
  • Prepare your child ahead of time what to expect with social stories and visual information. Show or tell them where you are going, who will be there, how long you will be staying, what you will be doing there, and what your expectations are of them.
  • Less is sometimes more. Don’t do too much.
  • Be willing to let go of things or activities that don’t work for your child.
  • Be careful with surprises, don’t presume they will love them. If they don’t appear to appreciate them, you will be disappointed, and the child may feel criticised.
  • Make a plan for somewhere to go if things become too much for them.

Remember: “They aren’t giving you a hard time. They are having a hard time.