Surviving the Holidays: Tips for Children with Special Needs

By AASLDecember 2, 2019

As parents of children with special needs, we have a lot on our plates and worrying about the holidays on top of it can feel stressful. Don’t fret though! With just a bit of planning, holiday festivities can run more smoothly and help your child with special needs enjoy the season! Here are some tips to help!

1. Reduce The Stress.

Schedule in quiet times and create chill-out zones in your home. Yes, you heard correctly…put quiet time into your child’s calendar and treat it as an appointment. If not, all sorts of tasks, to-dos, and chaos will take over and quiet time will be hard to come by. The point here is stress reduction.

Holidays bring about new situations, people and places, as well as deviations from the regular routine. This can be overwhelming to a child with special needs. Try to find ways to reduce the stress on your child and on yourself (especially since children will be able to sense if you are extra stressed, too).

2. Introduce your child to friends or family members you’ll be spending holidays with.

If you take care of new introductions or reintroductions before the actual holiday, you can avoid a lot of stress. When your child sees these people in person and sees familiar faces rather than strangers, he’s less likely to be as anxious during the holiday festivities. If these loved ones live in town, try scheduling a quick visit with one or two of them at a time before the holidays.

If they don’t live in town, try video chatting, so your child can get used to the new faces and voices. Give your loved ones a heads up on why you’re doing this and give them tips to help them have a successful interaction with your child. (E.g. If your child doesn’t like loud voices, ask your family to keep their voices low on the video chat or in person. If he loves horses or legos, tell them to ask him about those topics when they meet. This will give your child a greater chance of comfort with that person and will help reduce unexpected worries later.)

3. Prepare with pictures.

Show your child pictures of the people she will meet and homes and places she will visit, to prepare her for the holidays. If she’s already video chatted with people, great! If not, pictures can be a good second option. Tell stories about the family members and friends she’ll see like you’re reading a book. This will capture her interest. Social media is a great tool to help your child get acquainted with new visitors. (E.g. If your child has a cousin Jamie who’s a gymnast, tell him about Jamie and find some videos on Instagram of Jamie doing gymnastics. Talk him through who Jamie is and what she does.)

Pictures of places can help too. If your child has trouble adjusting to new places, ask your family or friends whom you’ll be visiting to send pictures of their homes, so your child can familiarize herself with the places she will visit.

4. Bring a food dish that your child is used to and likes.

Just like new people can be intimidating, new food can be overwhelming too. If your child has strong food preferences or aversions, bring his favorite foods to the holiday dinner. If there’s a dish you can make that your child likes and others will like too, make enough for everyone and keep a portion of it aside for your child. This can also help avoid possible inquiries about why your child is eating different food than everyone else.

5. Ask For Help.

Friends and family may not know how to help you. Spell it out. Remember, you live with your child every day, so raising her is second nature to you. Those who aren’t around her daily, are not (by no fault of their own) “in the know.” Don’t take anything for granted and be sure to give them as much information as possible about how they can help. Even a list may be beneficial to reference!

If you feel funny doing this because you feel like you’re making demands, it doesn’t have to feel that way. How you present the request can change it from a demand to a friendly plea for help…and there aren’t many people who wouldn’t respond to a plea for help from a friend or relative. (E.g. Instead of, “I need you to put your dogs in another room when Aiden comes over,” try “I’m a worried about Aiden. He’s so afraid of dogs. Would you be able to help me by putting the dogs in another room?). You get the idea!

6. Set expectations.

Remind friends and family what your child’s typical behavior looks like on a good day and on a bad day. This will help set expectations and help avoid discomfort and unintentionally not-very-helpful questions about why he’s doing this or that.

7. Wrap familiar toys.

If you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukah or any other gift-giving occasion with a child who doesn’t like new things, try wrapping up toys your child already plays with and giving them to her as gifts. That way, she can enjoy the experience of unwrapping like everyone else, but can be spared the discomfort. If you want your child to have new toys, try introducing them before the holiday and allowing her to become familiar with them. Then, you can wrap them up for the holiday and give gifts that are both familiar and new!

8. Give your child a schedule and a job.

If your child struggles with uncertain situations, giving her a schedule and a job will allow her to know what to expect. She can even reference this written schedule and check off jobs and activities as completed. For instance, she can open the door to let guests in at 4:00, have some scheduled quiet time at 4:30, help mom clean-up hors d’oeuvres plates and put items in the trash at 5:15, play with cousins at 5:30, and call everyone to assemble for dinner at 6:00, etc.

9. Encourage gift giving and teach gracious gift receiving.

Help your child learn how to give gifts and receive them. Gifting is a great way to work on social skills and help your child engage in an activity that focuses on others and making others happy…rather than just focusing on himself. Teach him what to say when giving a gift and how to shop for a gift (e.g. “Grandpa loves coffee, so what can we give him that relates to coffee?” “Cousin Jack likes cars and baseball, so can you think of something we can give him?”).

Also, teach him how to receive a gift with gratitude (E.g. unwrap it, smile and say thank you). Teach him how to react if he receives a gift he doesn’t like (E.g. unwrap it, smile and say thank you…and explain how expressing dislike would hurt the person’s feelings). We call this a “social fake” which sometimes takes some practice that you can do ahead of time!

10. Prepare a chill-out bag and a chill-out corner.

If your child is prone to anxiety or to experiencing moments of “shutdown” or overstimulation, make sure you identify quiet places in the homes of family members and friends where she can go to be alone and have quiet time for self-calming. Fill a bag with toys, preferred sensory tools, snacks, headphones and music, or other things that you know calm your child down and comfort her.

11. Prepare a fun bag, too.

Just like your child may need assistance to help her calm down, she should also have fun. After all, it is a holiday! Make sure you pack games, toys and activities that she enjoys. If you can, pack a game or toy she can share with other children; make it something that can lead into a social interaction more easily such as a group board game that promotes team word (versus a single winner/loser). A holiday can be a great opportunity to work on social skills!

12. Narrate the day.

If your child struggles with change or with the unknown, make sure you run through the events of the day. At the beginning of each day, tell your child what to expect that day. Be as specific as you can. This will help minimize any anxiety that may come with the unexpected.

E.g. “First, we’re going to Grandma’s house at 3:00 to eat turkey with Aunt Maggie and Uncle Joe, and your cousins Jamie and Tom. Then, we’re going to Uncle Bill’s house at 7:00 to play family games. Your cousins will be there and so will their big black dog, Pal.”

Let your child process what will happen throughout the day. If something happens that isn’t part of the initial plan, take the time to acknowledge it and explain. E.g. “I said a big black dog Pal would be at the house, but there’s also a white cat and a bird too. I didn’t know that. It’s OK. They’re nice and won’t bother you.”

13. Make presents and cards easy to open…and let your family know this too!

If your child struggles with fine motor coordination, make sure gifts and cards are easy to open. These things should bring joy, not frustration! A couple of tips to help with this are putting gifts in bags instead of wrapping paper and leaving cards un-sealed or in large envelopes, so they’re easy to pull out.

Be present and Enjoy these Special Moments!

Of all of the tips above, the most important is to be present with your child and enjoy the special moments with him or her. Holidays are for making memories, so enjoy moments as they come and cherish the time spent together this holiday season!


DISCLAIMER: Information published about one particular disorder does not necessarily apply to every individual who has the disorder discussed in this article. Treatments and therapies are highly individual and must be customized to the needs of each person to be effective. Do not make changes to your/your child’s treatment plan as a result of what you read in this article (or any content published by AASL) without consulting your/your child’s physicians and therapists. This content does not necessarily reflect the opinions of All About Speech and Language or its therapists. To understand the opinions and recommendations of your/your child’s AASL therapist, schedule an appointment with your therapist to discuss your concerns.

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