Holidays Can Be Stressful for Children with Special Needs

While most of us experience increased joy and happiness during the end-of-year celebrations, the holidays can be stressful for special needs children. Crowded spaces, flashing lights, lots of noise, meeting strangers, hugging, change in routine, and sheer chaos can be a recipe for stress and sensory overload for them, at this otherwise happy time.

As the parent, guardian, or caregiver of special needs child, you will need to be flexible with your ideas of what your family’s holiday celebrations should look like. The ritual and traditions you remember from your childhood may not be the best choices for your own child. Instead, think of holiday gatherings as an opportunity to create new memories and fresh traditions for your family.

When you have a child with special needs, a bit of stress management planning can go a very long way toward making your holiday celebrations enjoyable for all involved.

Holiday Tips for Special Needs Families

With a huge “Thank you” to Lori Lite a, we offer these stress-reducing holiday tips for special needs families:

  • Set Up a Safe-Brain Break Space – Your child can enjoy downtime when they feel over-stimulated at your house or at your relative’ homes. Set up a brain-break space and be sure that the other children and guests know that this space is off-limits. Empower your special needs child to recognize when they need to go to their brain break space. Practice this ahead of time to recognize when their mood is escalating and teach them to go to this safe space at home. This will help them be ready to take a “time out”, when needed, in other people’s homes.
  • Get Your Family Ready – Social stories, books, and movies can be a big help in preparing your child emotionally for holidays. Comfortable clothing and small dose exposures to holiday sounds can help physically. Think ahead with an eye for potential anxiety-causing issues. Is wrapping paper too loud? Use easy open bags or just decorate with a bow. Are the decorations at Grandma’s house going to cause sensory overload? Ask her to unplug them before you get there. Let friends and family know about potential triggers ahead of time. If your child doesn’t like to be hugged, suggest a handshake or just a wave.
  • Prepare Your Children For Groups and Gatherings – Eliminate unnecessary anxiety associated with getting together with family members you rarely see by looking through photos of relatives prior to an event. Play memory games, matching names to faces. This will help your child feel more comfortable with people they may not have seen in a while. Aunt Mary won’t seem quite so scary when she bends down to greet your child.
  • Learn and Teach Relaxation Techniques – Incorporate deep breathing or other coping strategies into your day. Let your child see you use these techniques when you are feeling stressed. Encourage them to use relaxation techniques on a daily basis. Breathing, visualizing, and positive thinking are powerful relaxation and stress-coping tools for everyone.
  • Incorporate Positive Statements Into Your Holiday Dinner – This is empowering and reflective. Each person at the table can state an attribute of their own that they are thankful for. For example, “I am thankful that I am creative.” Feeling stressed? Try, “I am thankful that I am calm.” Your special needs child can prepare ahead with a drawing or sign language if they want to participate without speaking.
  • Stay Relaxed, Don’t Rush, Model Calm Behaviour – It’s simple; none of us are very good at rushing in a relaxed way. The two just do not go together. It is impossible for children or teens to rush without getting anxious or angry. Make sure you leave enough time to enjoy the journey and avoid meltdowns. Children with special needs should be given notice of transitions.
  • Write Things Down – Getting the constant chatter and lists out of your head decreases stress and anxiety. Kids love making lists. Give them a clipboard or dry erase board. Help your child make a list of what they want to do for the holiday. They might to help decorate or choose what to pack for their self-care relaxation bag. This will help you relax and will help your child feel involved. Encourage them to add happy words like laugh or draw a smiley face on their list.
  • Schedule Down Time for Everyone – Don’t overbook your child. It’s important to use holiday time for relaxation. Try staying in pajamas till noon. Pop your favorite popcorn and watch a movie when you wake up. You’ll be surprised how an hour or two of relaxation can rejuvenate your child’s body, mind, and spirit.
  • Holiday Shopping is Stressful – Avoid taking your special needs child shopping on the busiest shopping days of the year. The chaos, noise of large crowds, and long lines will definitely add stress to your life, and theirs. If your child is absolutely known to melt down during shopping, you can select a few gifts and bring them home. Use these to set up a shopping experience in your home for your child. The whole family can participate. Add a checkout counter and a gift-wrapping table.
  • Be Flexible – Relax your expectations and definitions of what a fun experience is for your child. Most of us do not need the full blown exhausting experience of holidays to reflect that we had a good time. A few positive minutes is worth a lifetime of memories!
  • Let Your Child Participate – Let your child do one thing for the holiday that makes them feel proud. Kids can collect acorns or place a few jingle bells into a bowl for a beautiful, stress-free centerpiece. Children can fold the napkins or put the forks out. Let them draw a special picture to place on your guest’s chair. Be prepared to accept their participation as perfect and wonderful. Restrain from correcting them, or straightening out the napkins, and simply allow yourself and your family to enjoy the holidays – along with your special needs child!

Needless to say, these tips for enjoying a stress-free holiday season will be helpful to virtually anyone and everyone who finds traditional end-of-year celebrations challenging. However, it is particularly important to remember just how the holidays can be stressful for your special needs child – and take steps to relieve that stress for them.

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