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Holidays and Kids with Special Needs

by Anita Gurian, PhD

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It is easy for children – especially those with special needs – to become frazzled during the holiday season. The fast pace, noise, pressure, and disruption to regular schedules can quickly result in over-stimulation. Planning ahead, however, can go a long way toward warding off extra stress, and will help ensure that all family members are able to relax and enjoy the season.

Below are some tips to help get you through the holidays smoothly:

Prepare in advance

Surprises can be stressful. Talk with your child in advance about upcoming changes to your regular schedule so he/she will know what to expect. If you're planning to attend a holiday event, for example, discuss in detail the who/what/where/and when of the event a day or two before it occurs. It’s also a good idea to alert relatives or event hosts to your child’s special needs.

If you're having people at your home, discuss the arrangements in advance, and include your child in preparations (e.g. folding napkins, making place cards, etc.) if he/she is old enough to help.

Set up a safe place for your child to go to if the situation becomes too stressful or stimulating. Also, make sure to plan for some down time between various events.

Keep in mind your child's individual needs

Children have varying abilities to adapt to new and stressful situations. Some children become more shy, some more active, some more demanding, and some overwhelmed. Pay attention to your child’s individual reactions to new events and respond accordingly. If your child is restless, for example, plan ways to help him/her move around, such as helping to set or clear the table. For a shy child, help him/her interact with one familiar person at a time. Make sure the noise-sensitive child has a quiet space to go to when things become overwhelming.

Bring fallback activities

Bring along some of your child's favorite things (e.g. books, games, etc.) to provide a sense of familiarity and to allow for retreat if things become overly stimulating. Plan ahead with your child and agree on a code word to signal that he/she needs a break.

Set time limits

If you're planning to be at a party, gathering, or restaurant, set a reasonable time limit with your child and stick to it.

Establish your priorities

Don't add to the stress level by expecting your child to look perfect or behave perfectly. Allow your child to wear clothes he/she is comfortable in, and don't set strict social expectations or behavioral rules in advance.

Limit the material aspects of the holiday

Too much food, too many parties, or too big piles of presents can cause too much excitement and sometimes lead to a big letdown for children. Instead of focusing on these things, reinforce the meaning of the holiday and how it relates to your family's values.

Praise your children, don't bribe them

Remember to reward good behavior, but beware of bribes. The promise of a big special reward can backfire if the child's concern about not getting it adds to his stress. Small, unplanned rewards, such as vouchers for special time or treats, to be redeemed during the course of the holiday, can reduce stress and improve mood.

Take a deep breath, and take care of yourself

Stay calm and flexible, and be realistic about what you undertake. Your kids will echo your mood. It’s also a good idea to leave some time unplanned to relax together as a family.

Updated Dec. 2014.