The Parish School Blog

Tips to Reduce Holiday Stress for Families with Special Needs

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Tips to Reduce Holiday Stress for Families with Special Needs

As our winter break approaches, we often feel the energy on our campus revving up.  Our students excitedly tell us about their holiday traditions or about upcoming holiday plans.  The school schedule often changes to accommodate holiday events and functions such as classroom holiday parties, holiday fundraising events, or musical and theater productions given by our students.  The energy on campus is often matched at homes and within our families as parents begin holiday shopping, preparing for visits from family or visits out of town, and attending holiday festivities.  However, all the holiday stimulation, which can often make a neurotypical child irritable, usually results in increased dysregulation, meltdowns, and anxiety or stress for our students with special needs.  Although no amount of preparation can make the holidays easy for our families with children with special needs, there are some ways to make it easier for you and your child to navigate the holidays and winter break with a little more joy.

  1. Maintain routines and provide a visual schedule.   Children with special needs thrive on routine and our students are used to structured days at school where they know what to expect. During the holidays or extended breaks from school, there will likely be routines that are forgotten or adjusted due to all the holiday hustle and bustle, increasing a sense of unpredictability.  Many of our students struggle with changes in their routine due to the lack of knowing what to expect.  Maintain regular routines when possible such as bedtime routines.  Provide a visual schedule of events for holiday activities, particularly on days with lots of transitions. It could be a written schedule or one with pictures.  Discuss the schedule regularly and provide information for each event.  As holidays wind up and the winter break comes to an end, plan to have a couple of transition days to re-establish previously forsaken routines prior to the transition back to school.
  2. Watch for sensory overload. During the winter holidays, sensory input is at an all time high. It can be overwhelming for many children with special needs who are highly sensitive.  It can be helpful to introduce new sights, smells, and sounds one at a time, combined with cozy, familiar sensory input as well.   Prepare ahead if you know you are going into an especially stimulating environment. Bring ear plugs or headphones to loud events. Possibly limit holiday decorations in your home. Attend events that have sensory friendly days or activities.  Or plan to arrive at large events early or during off peak hours when crowds are less.  As an alternative to parades or big town wide holiday light events, take a car drive to see the best local light displays.
  3. Prepare your family and friends. Talk to family members and friends ahead of holiday events. Discuss your child’s specific needs and what helps them feel comfortable and safe. This will help avoid hurt feelings when your child doesn’t want hugs from extended family or refuses to eat any of the holiday food being served.  If you aren’t comfortable sharing all the details of your child’s condition, offer ideas on how your child best responds.  For example, pointing out how your child is more comfortable with fist bumps or high fives over hugs.
  4. Find ways for your child to participate in holiday activities.  At Parish, our students have a job in the classroom that help provide a sense of responsibility, accomplishment, and contribution to the community.  The same can be done in preparation for and during holiday events and activities held both within and outside your home.  Jobs for your child might include decorating the table, pot-stirrer, light helper, music helper (turning on festive holiday music), or tape helper when wrapping presents.
  5. Simplify opening presents.  Many of our students struggle with fine motor skills, which can be a source of frustration and outbursts.  Adjusting presents and cards by loosening ribbons, unsealing envelopes, and minimizing tape can help your child feel successful and confident over the ability to complete these tasks.
  6. Designate a Safe Place.  In our classrooms, we have a designated Safe Place where our students can go whenever they feel overwhelmed or upset.  This space is filled with visuals and tools to help them calm and self regulate until they are ready to rejoin the group.  Whenever you visit a person’s house or even when company comes to visit at your own house, establish a place for your child so that he or she can retreat and re-regulate if needed.  This may be a room in the house or even a corner or nook where he or she can crawl into for a time.  Fill this space with your child’s preferred calming, soothing items such as a favorite pillow, blanket, stuffed animal, fidgets, book, coloring/drawing items, etc.
  7. Schedule some one on one time with your child.  Schedule quiet times during the day — short periods when you can give your child your full attention and tune in to their needs or connect with them around their interests. Giving your child some control during activities can help reduce anxiety.
  8. Be gentle with yourself and your child. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have time to send out cards this year or decorate the front porch. Don’t worry about finding the perfect gift for every member of your family. Give your child permission to not understand all the things you are doing to make the holidays special.  Give yourself permission to walk away from difficult situations.  Many times, during the holidays, we are focused on all the details that need to be done or taken care of that we might miss enjoying it in the moment.  Allow you and your child time to slow down, take a break, and experience the small moments this holiday season.
  9. Ask for help. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Delegate whenever possible. Ask your family for help or for respite. Create a list of things they can do to support you during the holidays —from shopping and cooking to spending time with your child while you prep for the gathering of your friends and family.

Although these tips won’t alleviate all of the holiday stress or frustrations, we hope it provides a way to bring more joy back to your winter break.  See you in the new year!

If you need help with more resources or with specific ideas for your child with special needs, please reach out to Lily Yoder, LPC, RPT, Director of Student & Family Services.