Reduce Holiday Stress
Reduce Holiday Stress for Children with Special Needs
The holidays can be an exciting time for families with young kids but it is important to remember the holidays can also be an extremely challenging time for children with special needs. There are many stressors for children or adolescents with special needs during the holiday season that translates to increased anxiety. Here are some practical and simple ways to reduce stress and anxiety for children during this time of year:
- Keep routines intact- Children who struggle with changes in routine are feeling anxiety about the unknown. The holidays bring many unknowns in that surprises are often the crux of excitement of this time for many typically developing children. Children struggling with Autism and anxiety may not understand why extra parties or outings are necessary and going to these parties or outings may involve tasks and expectations that are unknown. All this increases anxiety. Keeping routines intact as much as possible will help ease some of the stress associated with new events and activities popping up in the holiday season.
- Give warnings of major changes- Keeping routines in tact will not always be 100% possible. So when this is not feasible, find the right ways to communicate this information in advance. Some children do better with knowing well advance that there will something new to navigate; others have increased anxiety when there is too much time to dwell on a change. Write social stories, or a compilation of simple pictures and 1-2 sentence blurbs about what will happen when the family "goes to Grandma's for Christmas day." Check out parent-friendly resource for examples. Don’t mistake questions for failed warnings. When kids don’t know something, it is an extremely appropriate and learned skill to ask questions to understand better what is happening. Reinforce this skill by answering as many questions as possible to ease nervousness and anxiety.
- Talk to teachers- The holidays at school equals parties and special programs. Teachers know this can be a fun time for kids but even teachers are stressed and often overly busy juggling schedule changes and managing different families’ holiday practices. Classrooms thrive on routine and structure. Check out this great resource from Responsive Classroom to help navigate this issue and how to talk to your child's teacher about helping your child specifically through this time. Children who struggle with change and routine will feel the stress of these changes in their school routines. It is important to chat with teachers to discuss upcoming changes and how to ease the stress for your kids that prefer to keep everything status quo.
- Reduce over-stimulation- Everywhere you look, there are lights, advertisements, music, screens, etc. with a lot of flashy messaging. Very quickly we can become inundated with stimulating lights and messages and be on overload. This is very true for children who are starting at baseline of high sensory sensitivities. Be aware of the exposure to visual and auditory stimulation throughout the day and adjust when necessary. For example, instead of planning a day of shopping, coordinate shopping trips without your little one, shop online, or spread out shopping trips. An easy activity for kids is to have them close their eyes for even 10 seconds. An easy "close your eyes and count backwards from 10" is simple enough a child in the middle of Target looking like he is about to lose it. Eileen Bailey has some other practical tips for children with ADHD who are struggling with over-stimulation.
- Give kids involvement- Involve the kids in the decision making process. Ask the kids what their preferences are and give choices whenever possible. When there are limited choices, be aware of the out-of-control feeling they may be experiencing and find ways to give them control back in other parts of the day.
- Talk to visitors about sensitivity- Your kids may not be eager to meet or hang out with new people or family they see once a year coming to stay in your home. Or the opposite, your child might show over excitement or over-stimulated behavior when seeing someone they haven’t seen in a long time. Allow for an adjustment period. Talk to the adult(s) who is visiting about their expectations. If there are complicated family dynamics, ask them to table certain issues while the kids are present or until after the holidays. Having a child with special needs during the holidays can be enough stress, adding complicated family issues, is really an adult matter that should wait.
- Stick to usual bedtimes and usual mealtimes- All individuals thrive and do better when their biological needs are taken care of. Sometimes we underestimate what a good night’s sleep can do for our sensory and mood regulation, but the evidence is in the research. Try to stick to normal bedtimes and mealtimes during the holidays. The thinking that “staying up is a treat” is a little outdated and is only a treat if the child is not having to pay for it the next day with huge meltdowns and lack of emotion control.
The holidays are a mixed-emotion kind-of-time. Media and tradition tell us it should be a fun and exciting time for children and families, but this can actually exacerbate the problem for parents who don’t understand why their kids don’t have a “normal” attitude toward the holidays. Sometimes this time of the year can just feel like a cruel reminder that our kids don’t fit into a “typical” mold. When it starts to feel like this, it is important to remember everyone is dealing with something. Even individuals and families who seemingly “have it all together” are often dealing with something. To stay in a positive mind-frame, stay away from social media and don't fall prey to comparison games. When it starts to feel unfair, like “why can’t we have a peaceful, normal holiday time,” start to look at ways you can create your own peace. Strip away the expectations of the holiday “shoulds” and instead strive to make it a customized experience for you and your loved ones with special needs.
Written by: Josi Garcia is the Co-Founder of ZimZum Consulting Collaboration. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, holds a Masters degree in Special Education, and has experience working with schools and families supporting individuals with special needs.