The holidays can be a wonderful time for families, but for children, including children with special needs, the holidays can be a stressful time where their usual routine is thrown out the window, they’re visiting places they don’t go on a regular basis, and they experience sensory overload from the many different sights, smells, and sounds that accompany the holidays.
If this time of year is difficult for your child, there are some things you can do to prepare them (and yourself) for the holidays. While you may not be able to prevent every possible meltdown, you can at least go into the holidays with a plan and with a child who is prepared for what’s coming, giving your family the best chance for a happy holiday season.
6 Holiday Survival Tips
1. Understand there may be meltdowns
Whether you’re at home, a family member’s house, or the mall, be prepared for a possible meltdown. If you’re out and about, bring a toolkit filled with familiar items such as a stress/squeeze ball, a favorite toy or stuffed animal, soundproof headphones, change of clothes, sunglasses, etc. If you aren’t sure where to start with creating a toolkit, a mother with a child who has sensory meltdowns came up with a whole list of techniques that you can reference. If you’re at home, use the techniques that you’ve found helpful in getting your child through a meltdown and calming themselves down.
Regardless of when or where the meltdown might take place, if you have prepared yourself beforehand and have a toolkit to help, you will feel less stressed (and so will your child).
2. Set a routine
Children’s schedules are already thrown off by not being in school, so toss in a few holiday get-togethers and late nights/early mornings, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. If you can, set a routine for the holiday break and try to stick with it as much as possible. For instance, attempt to keep morning, bedtime, and mealtime routines consistent.
3. Prepare your child for what’s going to happen next and use social stories
If holiday celebrations are going to change your usual routine, talk with your child about this ahead of time. Talk through the schedule of winter break and holiday get togethers (and maybe even make a calendar for them to keep in their room so they can reference the schedule) and let them tell you what they’re worried about so you can reassure them that everything will be okay. You can even utilize social stories to help them understand that the change in routine/schedule is okay. An example of a social story for this situation would be,
We're having people over for dinner tomorrow. Dinner will be earlier than usual and that’s okay. I’m going to have fun seeing my family, but if I’m overwhelmed, I will tell my mom and she will let me take a break by playing with my Rubix cube in my room. When I’m ready to be around everyone again, I’ll come back from my room.
I will eat dinner with my family. I don’t like green beans so I won’t eat green bean casserole. It makes my mom and dad happy when I eat a balanced meal, so I will try to eat all my other food.
People might ask me questions during dinner. Questions can make me nervous. If people’s questions make me feel too anxious, my mom and dad can help me think through my answers. Then I’ll take a break to read my book in a quiet room.
4. Have a safe space where your child can calm down
If you’re at home, identify where your child feels calmest and make that the place your child will go if they feel overwhelmed or anxious. Especially if there’s a lot of people over and it’s noisy or crowded, your child will need a place to go to calm their mind and body. If you’re at someone else’s house, find a “calm corner” where your child can retreat to.
5. Talk with family ahead of time
You likely know some of the things that might put your child on edge, such as being asked too many questions or being told to, “Show your grandma what you can do!”, so talk with your family ahead of time about these things. Describe your child’s behaviors and triggers, and gently ask them to respect the boundaries you’ve set for your child. You don’t need to be apologetic because you’re simply asking them to be a little flexible, and the more they do this with your child, the more it will become second nature for everyone.
6. Take care of yourself, too
When you can, do something for yourself. Leave the room for a few minutes to take a deep breath and center yourself, go for a walk, take a bath after the kids are asleep, grab a coffee with a family member or friend, or read a few pages from your favorite book. Whatever it is that helps you relax and feel refreshed, try to take time to do that for yourself this holiday season. You can’t pour from an empty cup!
Children of all abilities and development can struggle during the holidays, but with some preparation and understanding, the holidays can be a little less stressful for your whole family. Do you have any strategies you would recommend to other families whose children struggle during this time of year?