Helping Your Child Handle the Holidays

extra needs holiday holiday stress parenting special needs Nov 22, 2022
Boy hiding his face while receiving a gift

The song says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”. Yet, for many families, Thanksgiving and the month of December are NOT so wonderful. Are you one of those families? Are your holidays more stressful than festive?

The holiday season can be a time of excitement for children, exhaustion for parents, and stress for EVERYONE! Even if you don’t celebrate certain holidays, your children will be exposed to holiday advertising, music, movies, stories, TV shows, and books, not to mention the energetic “buzz” in the air as it seems that many people are busier, and often, more stressed, than usual.

For families with children with “extra needs”, this time of year can present extra challenges. 

Parents are overextended, children are overwhelmed, and many parents find themselves feeling disappointed or sad that their family doesn’t have the type of holidays depicted on TV, in movies, or experienced by other families, in real life and on social media!

 If your family is facing challenges and you or your children are struggling this holiday season, here are some ways to help you handle the holidays.

1-Accept your children for who they are, as they are, and accept your life as it is!

Your child has challenges that may make the season different and more difficult. Poor impulse control can make it difficult to leave gifts undiscovered or unopened or holiday cookies and candy uneaten. Your child may need to cover their ears during loud holiday songs or at noisy stores. They may be uncomfortable wearing “holiday clothes”. They may be impatient or agitated during family photo sessions or parties. Instead of being irritated, frustrated, and annoyed, just accept that this is the reality of your life and offer yourself and your child empathy and compassion.

Be honest with yourself. Don’t deny or fail to acknowledge your feelings. If you’re disappointed or sad that you aren’t having the type of holiday that you remember as a child or that you dreamed of having for your own children. Take a moment to recognize and acknowledge those feelings of “this is different than what I had expected.”  Then ask yourself, “Is there something that I can change to make this situation different?” If so, do it. If no change is possible, accept that this is the situation, and with that understanding, move on. This is the reality of your life. Now what?

Once you ACCEPT what your life is, you can figure out what you are going to do with your life and decide how you’re going to feel about your life.

2- Have realistic expectations about what your children can handle. Try to avoid creating situations that are destined for failure. It would be better to have realistic expectations and set your family up for success.

Attendance at holiday parties may be brief and require “prep” time and discussion. Traditions may need to change. Gifts may need to stay out of sight until times of gift exchange and opening. Settle for more comfortable clothes to encourage happier faces at parties and in photos. If you can’t handle baking 12 dozen cookies for the neighborhood cookie swap, opt out! If gift giving to extended family members is too costly or stressful, LET it go! Choose gift certificates or make new traditions. You can spend less time baking and shopping and more time “being” with your children.

If the “surprise factor” of the holidays proves to be unbearable for your child and adds to the stress of the holiday, you may want to “hint” that a certain gift will be received or not received This can help your child avoid extreme disappointment or surprise during gift-giving. Letting your child know to expect certain people and events will help them manage some of the stress of the anticipation of the season.

3- Be proactive– If you know what your child’s challenges are, anticipate your child’s needs and act before a problem occurs.

Set the stage for success. If your child is uncomfortable walking into a crowd, try to arrive at holiday parties or events early. If your child gets overwhelmed around groups of excited children, find a quiet place for your child to have a calming moment. If your children need activity, take them outside for a walk or a chance to run around. Check in with your child, and respect what they communicate to you. If they say or show that they need a break, give it. If your child is showing signs of being overwhelmed and struggling to maintain control, don’t ignore it. It’s better to intervene than to have your child experience a meltdown!

4Be prepared– Always bring something your child can play with, especially if traveling to a child-free home!

Pack some Lego sets, puzzles, books, blocks, cards, and games. This can be the difference between a fun, successful holiday celebration and a frustrating day of constant correction. Boredom may add to challenges of the day.

Be sure your child is fed and rested before going to a party or celebration. If there is a chance your child may need to leave early, but others may want to stay, bring two cars or arrange for a ride. If necessary, you may have to have someone, or everyone, stay home and have an alternate celebration.

5Be on your child’s side– If family members or strangers don’t understand your child and the challenges they face, intervene if they attempt to criticize, insult, punish, or judge your child (or you).

Don’t give others the opportunity to treat you and your child badly.

6- Help your family and friends to assist in making the holiday enjoyable for your child.

Hopefully when they realize your information is not a criticism of them, but rather a desire to be able to pleasantly spend time together, they may be more receptive. It may mean no one rushes to your child and envelops them in a tight hug, voices are quieter, or music is not so loud.

 7- Be involved– As much as you may want to socialize with family and friends and relax and “enjoy the day”, you may have to be “on duty” to help your child with the challenges of the day.

Playing with excited cousins, sharing toys, respecting personal space, and controlling behavior, excitement, voice, and physical activity may be a lot for your child to handle. If you can be present to keep things from getting out of control or to monitor that your child is engaged and not getting into trouble or being harassed, your child can have a much more enjoyable day.

8- Be sure you take care of yourself– If you’re tired, over-extended, and financially stressed from dealing with end-of-year stresses, visiting relatives, and holiday obligations, you may have less patience and resources to deal with the increased needs of your high needs children.

You need to make your self-care a priority rather than a “luxury” that never happens. Take time for a walk, get adequate sleep, eat healthy meals, meditate, go see a movie, or spend time with a friend.  (Grab my list of "Ways to Practice Self-Care Without Leaving Your Home" here.

9- Be Consistent–Try to maintain eating, sleep, and activity schedules as much as possible.

A hungry, sleep-deprived child (and parent!) will have a much harder time dealing with any challenges that the holiday presents.

 10- Be Safe–You may be going to homes that don’t have children and are not “child safe”.

Never assume that a home or room is safe for your child. Visitors to your home may have items in bags or suitcase that can be dangerous for children. During the holiday season, children can be especially curious looking for hidden gifts, playing hide and seek, and exploring new places.

Guns, medications, drugs, cigarettes, e-cigs, chemicals, and cleaning products can be life-threatening for your child.  Ideally, no guns should be in homes with children but if they are, they should be stored safely locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition. Know the number to Poison Control. (Poison Control 1-800-222-1222).

 11- Be Flexible­–If the holidays are different from the memories of your own childhood or your visions of how you wanted the holidays to be for your children, you and your children can figure out what works best for your family.

You may discover some new and wonderful ways to celebrate as a family!

No matter what the demands of the holiday season are, with some preparation and guidance, you and your children can still enjoy the celebration!

Happy Holiday Season! 


If divorce or separation is part of your family's story, click here to grab my free 2 part Holiday Guide to help you navigate the added challenges of the holidays!

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