Holidays are an exciting time of the year for most children. But changes in routine, diet, and environment can be disorienting. For kids with special needs, this can be especially true. Holiday experiences can quickly get exciting in unexpected and sometimes unpleasant ways. Here are some tips to help navigate these challenges and (hopefully) make good holiday memories for everyone!

1. Foreshadow.

Changes in routine, even “good” ones such as family holiday gatherings or time away from school, can be difficult for kids to cope with. For some kids, just a few verbal reminders might be sufficient (“In two sleeps we get to go to Grandma’s house”). For others, a visual schedule or social story might be more appropriate.

2. Stay as close to your child’s usual routine as possible/practical.

If traveling, be sure to bring a favorite pillow and blanket or other special attachment object such as a stuffed toy. Try to keep bedtime and waking routines consistent. Of course this won’t always be possible, so…

3. Go with the flow.

Use your own calming/self-regulation tools when you need to. If a meltdown occurs, it will likely recede faster if you stay calm rather than matching your child’s level of intensity. Also, have a plan for when things get overwhelming and use familiar regulation strategies when possible.

4. Keep anxiety over novel/unfamiliar foods to a minimum.

My colleague Sarah wrote this fabulous blog post about tips for picky eaters at the holidays.

5.Manage your own expectations and don’t fall into the trap of what I call “the parental embarrassment factor”.

Your child might experience a meltdown when overtired or react in an unexpected way to a non-preferred gift they receive. These are not a reflection on your character or your parenting skills. Be confident in your abilities and remember that you know your child better than anyone.

6. For those who celebrate Christmas, use an Advent calendar to help kids conceptualize the amount of time between now and the holiday.

Other more universal tools include making a paper chain, taking one link off per day or using a traditional calendar to mark the days.

7. Take advantage of activities geared towards kids with special needs.

For example, Santa Claus will be making an appearance at the CI Fitchburg Clinic next week, Tuesday December 13 from 3pm-6pm!

8. Take care of yourself!

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and eating well. Give yourself permission to say “no” to extra obligations or activities. No time to make and decorate several dozen cookies? No problem.

9. Use regulation strategies preemptively.

Build in regulation strategies into holiday activities (e.g. go for a walk to look at the holiday lights and decorations). Use regulation strategies (movement breaks, heavy work) prior to seated activities such as a holiday meal.

Happy Holidays!
Bill Guetschow, COTA/L, Occupational Therapy Assistant