5 Tips to Alleviating Stress for Students and Their Families During the Holidays

The holiday season doesn’t have to be a stressful time of year for you and your child with special needs. Whether it is a disruption to routine, new people in the house, going to new places, eating unfamiliar food or being overstimulated with sights, sounds and smells, the general consensus seems to be to plan ahead, and that preparation is the key to a successful holiday season.

We hope these tips help your whole family enjoy this fun time of year.

1. Schedule “down time”

It’s easy to get overloaded with festive preparations during the holidays, so plan daily down time where you are making special time for your kids – even if it is only 5 to 10 minutes of giving them your undivided attention.

Make sure you aren’t going from one thing to another with no break. You will want to schedule quiet times and familiar “places to chill out”. Be fully present with your child and try to see how the situation(s) that they are in could be occurring for them. Remember, if you are stressed, your child will pick up on this as well, so try to not trigger your own stress, which will have a trickle down effect.

2. Plan travel carefully

When you are visiting friends or relatives, pack a bag with items your child finds comforting or enjoys playing with – toys, games, stuffed animals, etc. If your child gets over stimulated, find a quiet corner or a back room and pull out the bag.

If you are travelling, remember that everything can be magnified—wait times at restaurants, hotels, stores, etc….and that crowds are everywhere. Make sure your child wears a form of identification (bracelet or medical id tag, for example) with her name and your cell phone number on it in case you lose sight of her.

If your child has sensory issues, best to be prepared with your own “bag of goodies” for your car or plane trips. Some ideas for that bag are:

  • All medications and supplements (in case your bags don’t follow you!)
  • Change of clothes
  • Extra snacks that work within your child’s diet/regimen; preferably food that is high in protein to avoid the sugar rush/crash of high glycemic index food types/processed foods

3. Decorate carefully

Children with sensory issues, autism, or ADHD can sometimes find the holidays overwhelming and stressful from a sound, site and smell perspective. Be aware of excessive holiday lighting, heavy cooking odors and other things in the environement that might trigger your child. Try to have your home remain a sanctuary/comforting place for them—whatever that means to them individually.

4. Employ gift “hacks”

This was something I learned from a cousin of mine who is on the spectrum…often, children can find the unwrapping of gifts overwhelming because of the noise, and the unfamiliarity of the items in the gift—and often—the more gifts they get, the more anxious they can get.

By having one or two “familiar presents” and wrap some favorite toys of theirs. For children with trouble with fine motor skills, consider bags instead of wrapping papered boxes. Use the practice of “exchanging gifts” as an opportunity for engagement and dialog about what people like and showing appreciation and gratitude.

5. Do “practice runs” at home before visits in different environments

If you are visiting family and friends with different lifestyles, rhythmns, rules or preferences than your own, reviewing some of those differences at home before you visit is always a good idea.

Try to familiarize your child with what they will be experiencing as best as you can. Maybe pictures and stories of each relative, the house, the pets, etc. to have them familiarize themselves with what they will encounter. And, of course, pack their favorite toys, videos, and pillows.

Assigning your child a task that they feel comfortable with and can “own” can be comforting for them. Perhaps it’s greating people at the door, or walking the dog(s)—whatever it is, review the possible itineraries and interactions. Manage expectations and social interactions to the level your child can handle. Maybe being around loud cousin Dominick for several hours is just too much.

It’s the holidays—so enjoy the moments with your family and know that when and where kids are involved, things are never “perfect”. The idea is to focus on the blessings rather than the shortcomings, as that is the spirit of the season!