For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Home and Family Life

Holidays and Kids with Special Needs

by Anita Gurian, PhD


Holidays and Kids with Special Needs -


Even the most well-adjusted and well-balanced child can get "frazzled" during holiday time. For a child with special needs the frazzle point often comes sooner. The fast pace, the noise, the pressure and the disruption to regular schedules can quickly add up to too much stimulation.

For the child with special needs whose family has experienced a significant stress during the past year, due perhaps to a major storm, job loss, divorce, or move, the holidays can be particularly challenging. But help is at hand. Planning ahead can go a long way toward warding off wear and tear, and will help ensure that all members of the family enjoy the holiday season.

Here are some tips:

Prepare in advance

Talk with your child about changes to your regular schedule in advance, so she'll know what to expect. If you're planning to attend a holiday event, discuss it in detail: when and where it will be, how you're going to get there, who will be there, and any activities that will take place, so that the child  won't have to deal with surprises. It may also be helpful to alert relatives or the hosts of the event to make sure they understand the needs of the child. 

If you're having people at your home, discuss the arrangements in advance, and have the child participate in preparation (folding napkins, making place cards, etc., according to ability.)

Set up a safe place for your child to go to if he becomes overstimulated and needs to cool down. Avoid attending too many festivities and allow some down time between events. With careful planning, the child can enjoy the social aspects of the holiday season.

Keep in mind your child's individual needs

Organize the family schedule with your child's needs in mind. Each child's ability to adapt varies. In a new situation, some become more shy, some more active, some more demanding, some overwhelmed by different surroundings. Still others may regress to earlier behaviors.

If your child is restless and has difficulty staying focused, plan ways to help her move around, such as helping to set or clear the table. For the picky eater, bring along some simple things he likes. Help the shy child interact with one familiar person at a time. Give the noise-sensitive child a quiet space. For some children, giving a warning before the end of an activity, such as "We're going to leave in three minutes," allows them a chance to readjust at their own pace.

If your child is part of a group of children, watch their interactions so that you can intervene if necessary or if things are getting out of hand.

Bring fallback activities

Bring along some of your child's favorite things – a book, or a game – to provide her with a sense of familiarity and allow her to retreat if things become overly stimulating. Agree with the child on a code word to signal that she needs a break.

Set time limits

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

Establish your priorities

Don't add to the stress level by expecting your child to look perfect or to behave perfectly. For example, don't make an issue of special clothes if your child feels comfortable something less formal. Don't set up strict social expectations or behavioral rules in advance, such as "Make sure you shake hands with Uncle . . . ".

Limit the material aspects of the holiday

Too much food, too many parties, or piles of presents can cause too much excitement and sometimes lead to a big letdown for children. Reinforce the meaning of the holiday and how it relates to your family's values. Plan a concrete way in which children can volunteer or contribute to gift giving for children who are in need.

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 be realistic about what you undertake.

Your kids will echo your mood. Don't be rigid in your scheduling; expect some last minute changes. Remind yourself that it's okay to let go of certain traditions and rituals from your own childhood, such as elaborate holiday preparations and decorations, that may no longer be longer practical.  Leave some time unplanned to just relax together as a family.

Date Published: December 18, 2007. Updated Dec. 2012.