Holiday traditions are what make the season memorable and festive for many families, but they can place stress on families who have a child with special needs.

Traditions are often a seasonal routine but a deviation from an everyday schedule. They could be filled with loud noises or new people or new food, and could even be physically taxing for a child. That being said, participating in traditions as a family can build strong bonds and beautiful memories.

The best tip for making everyone feel included and successful is to think ahead of time about how you can “grade” a family tradition. Grading the activity, or modifying to the “just right fit” is a great first step to successful performance.

If the multi-step process and motor planning required for decorating cookies is too much, have your child be in charge of shaking on the sprinkles, or mixing different colors of frosting. Sing carols that are repetitive to avoid reading complicated lyrics. Have prepared activities available for kids during annual family gatherings in order to avoid cousin Christmas craziness.

The holidays can be overwhelming for everyone, but especially for kids. Different expectations, changes to routines, no school, more family and friends around, and an overwhelming amount of new sensory experiences can make kiddos feel dysregulated.

When you’re dashing through your holidays this season, here are some ways to help the kid’s bells stay jingling:

  • Listening to soothing holiday music and watch the holiday lights.
  • Building a snowman or helping to carry heavy presents for some proprioceptive input.
  • Look up some holiday themed yoga poses (such as “elf on the shelf” or “chair pose”!)
  • Cozying up with soft blankets and the Night Before Christmas.
  • Lighting holiday scented candles- or in some cases blow them out!
  • Play in the snow or roll out cookie dough for some tactile play.
  • Spend extra time winding down for bed- away from screens or large groups- so that not a creature is stirring when Santa Claus comes.

Reading social stories that reflect upcoming holiday events and doing “trial runs” that imitate family traditions prior to the holidays can be a lifesaver when the real event takes place. Children enjoy knowing what’s coming and who can blame them? As adults, we also find discomfort in novelty and prefer to be prepared.

We can’t expect a child to act according to social rules that they have never been taught and practiced. Some ways to help your child prepare for family holiday traditions include:

  • Practice sitting at a table with decorations and candles in the middle. If they are not used to this, they may perceive decorations to be toys just for them!
  • Eat some of the holiday foods ahead of time and ensure that at least one of the foods presented at a family meal will be familiar to allow your child comfort during what can be a sensory complex meal.
  • Set up a safe space for your child to play quietly if the family event becomes overwhelming. Bring a few familiar toys, place them in a quiet room, and foreshadow to your child that this is a place they can take a break at the onset of a family event. Gently guide your child to this place if you note them beginning to “wind up”. This proactive step can prevent many meltdowns!
  • Reflect on your holiday traditions ahead of time considering your child’s sensory and behavioral needs. Anticipate that the traditional family caroling could be a trigger? Consider bringing noise cancelling headphones or allowing your child to opt-out of this particular tradition.
  • Reward your child at every step of the way when they are excelling! Positive praise will grow their confidence and help them maintain a positive attitude.

Written By:
Katie Brown, MS, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist

Bethany Domoto, MS, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist