7 Tips for a “Less Stress” Holiday Season for Children with Special Needs

December_20091206_296Once again the holiday season is looming into view.

Our culture has an idealized expectations of what the holidays should be: happy children baking cookies, opening presents with glee, singing songs around the fireplace, trees decorated to perfection, angels singing, bells ringing, over the river and to the woods….

In fact the expectations are SO high, that most of us spend most of November and December trying to achieve all of that expected joy and peace, and end up a stress ball counting the days until January 2nd.

If you are reading this, chances are you also have a child with special needs in this mix of joy, peace, stress equation. And that adds a completely new layer to the complexities of managing a “less stress” holiday season.

  • You may want your child to take a picture with Santa, but he screams and tantrums as soon as he sees the Big Man.
  • Grandparents may look forward to singing carols around the tree and your girl just wants to cover her ears and stay in her room.
  • Neighbors may want to host a late evening open house that starts at 8pm and you know if your kid goes to bed after 7, the rest of the week is doomed.

Meeting all of these expectations is no fun. If you try to accommodate others’ requests and expectations, you and your family are super stressed and unhappy. However, if you say “no” to everyone around you, your family misses out on lots of the fun.

How do you balance your child’s needs with the hustle-bustle of the season? Here are few tips that might help:

1. Decide early on what activities you must do, what you want to do and what is optional.

In every family there are traditions that people want to keep. Maybe it’s Christmas Eve at grandma’s or a car ride to see the neighborhood lights. Write down the things you absolutely MUST do this season.

Start another list for things you want to do. Maybe this is a trip to the Nutcracker or host a part of your  own. No one will be devastated if these events don’t happen, but it would be nice.

Finally, list out the things that you can let go. This may be the cookie exchange with the Girl Scout troop or the after school holiday party. If it’s going to be noisy, chaotic and not make or break any long lasting relationships, have a plan to opt out of events that just add stress to the season.

2. Schedule for sanity

There are only 6 weeks in the holiday season. Between work, school, family and friends, you could book out every weekend day and night with “fun.” Resist that pull. Before things get nutso, sit down and protect time in your calendar for quiet, non-scheduled downtime. Hold is sacred. TAxing your child’s executive functioning, sensory system, focus and sleep tolerance is a recipe for disaster. Everyone needs a break to chill out and recharge before heading out again.

3. Maintain a routine

During this busy time of year, it’s easy to throw the routine to the wind. You may be cooking at 9pm the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, running to the mall at 4am on Black Friday, taking kids out of school early for trips or running to the mall in the afternoons,rather than helping with homework at home. While some of these shifts are unavoidable, as best you can, stick to the schedule that supports your children most effectively. In most cases, the chaos that will result after all these changes is not worth the few extra hours shopping, cooking or entertaining.

If you do have to vary the schedule, prepare your family ahead of time. Write down the changes. Post them in the kitchen for all to see. Preview what the changes will look like and feel like. For example, if you have shopping planned for a Friday afternoon, tell your children on Wednesday, “Friday I am going out shopping for presents. Grandma will be here when you get off the bus and she will hang out, make dinner and watch a movie with you.” Tell them again on Thursday and again Friday morning.

4. Practice saying “no thank you”with grace and conviction

Many people will make demands on your time and energy during the holiday season. Often these are family members. We can feel great ambivalence about setting limits with friends and family, but saying “no” with grace and conviction is  one of the best gifts you will give yourself and skills you will teach your children.

The first step is to decide that your and your children’s needs are just as important as everyone else’s needs. If going to an event is going to upset the apple cart at home, it is perfectly fine to say “no.”

Then, be gracious and clear. “Thank you so much for the invitation to the kids-and-adults-snowball- fight-with-egg nog-and-hockey-stick-event. Unfortunately, we are not able to make it. Have fun!”

Some people will press for more information. “Why can’t you be here?” “What’s the big deal?”

In these cases, your best response is the truth, which is always, “We have other plans.” Even if those plans are to stay home and read a book, you are doing something else and are not available.

If the pressure and guilt-trip train is in full force, you could counter offer something that would be more conducive to fun and enjoyment for your family at another time. For example, “We can’t make the snowball thing, but how about we have cocoa and cookies over here next Sunday afternoon?”

5. Focus on healthy eating and sleep

During the holidays it’s easy to let our kids graze on chips, dip and holiday cookies. Many children with ADHD and autism aren’t fully aware of when they are hungry or how hungry they are, so many won’t complain until they are in a full blood sugar-low meltdown. Make sure the kids are eating 3 health meals, that include protein, and healthy snacks in between.

It’s also important to keep a handle on health sleep.  A late night once in awhile may be ok, but regular late nights on a few weekends in a row can really upset focus, energy and behavior.

6. Have a Plan B

Despite your best laid plans to min

imize stress, eat well, sleep well, schedule as best you can, sometimes our kids still can’t stay for an event. Maybe it’s too loud, or requires too much social or sitting time. So every time you go out, have a Plan B. Plan B can be a quick break in the hallway or in the car. Plan B can be another parent or adult going for a walk with your child. Plan B could be some time on the tablet or phone in a quiet corner. Plan B can also be leaving early.

Plan B helps everyone feel safe and prepared and it avo

ids the panic and frustration that happens when a child starts to lose it and there’s no clear plan to support them in the moment.

7. Do Happy Things

Sometimes our kids enjoy things that aren’t on the Currier and Ives pictoral impression of “Happy Christmas.” Maybe they’d rather play dinosaur hide and seek, than see the Elf of the Shelf (who can be creepy, actually). Maybe they’d rather share with you a fabulous Pokemon card than cut snowflakes and hang them in the windows.

By listening to our kids and following their lead, we can have fun, happy holidays that probably look different than the family next door. And that is 100% a-ok.

Happy Holidays!