11 Ways to Alleviate Holiday Stress for Special Needs Children

The holidays are fun for all children, but many special needs children feel stressed by the overstimulation of the holidays. If your child is routine-oriented, for example, the fact that one string of days might throw their schedules off balance could lead to outbursts, unexpected behaviors or temper tantrums. Having a lot of chaos or new family members around that you don’t see as often can also cause anxiety in children with special needs.

Here are some ways you can make the holidays more enjoyable for your special needs child, without throwing out the “fun factor” for everyone else:

  1. Let your child choose special tasks. If you are decorating the tree, for example, let your child sort the ornaments in colors, or by size, or by style, etc. Whether it is hanging the stockings or lights, or any age appropriate task, your child will look forward to that job.
  2. Take what is special to your child and make it part of your tradition. If your child loves bouncy balls, make a decorative montage of bouncy balls hanging underneath the stairwell, for example. It could be angels, Sponge Bob, or a particular Disney character, etc..., why not decorate the entire tree with ornaments associated with that character?
  3. Be mindful of sensory challenges. Think of your child’s sensitivieis, either to certain smells, foods or even loudness and quiet. Some kids who need a lot of quiet time might not enjoy holiday music from morning to night, and others who might have smell sensitivities might be set off by strong scented candles and other scented decorations, soaps, etc. Be mindful of these to avoid frustration or an outburst.
  4. Move at the pace of the child. Things can get wild and crazy with gift opening, but sometimes a special needs child might get hung up on the first gift. Let the child explore each gift on their own time, rather than pushing too much chaos on him or her. Use every ounce of patience with your child as you can muster.
  5. Don’t force your child to eat holiday meals. Perhaps your child is a picky eater and only prefers a certain type of food. You can encourage your child to try the holiday preparation, but if this causes distress, make your child his or her favorite routine meal. Don’t ruin a special day due to a tantrum over food.
  6. Fidgeting. Adult conversations can seem mundane to kids, so if your child likes to fidget with a toy, don’t make it a big deal. Or you can encourage participation by asking the child to go around and have everyone tell a short, funny holiday story, such as their favorite or most memorable gift.
  7. Let your child help. Include your special needs child by asking him or her to help you stir the food, set all of the napkins and cups on the table, or some other task. This makes the child feel needed.
  8. Appropriate toys. Your relatives might not know what to get a child with special needs, so suggest things that your child would find interesting.
  9. Don’t be overly critical. When you decorate the tree, make pie or do holiday crafts with your child, don’t be overly concerned if the child puts all of the ornaments in one spot. Just encourage your child and you can always reposition them later.
  10.  Take a break. It can be stressful dealing with a special needs child, as you already know. If you feel your line of frustration boiling to a point of difficulty, ask your spouse or another relative for a “time out” for yourself. Go get your hair done, nails, or do some self care.
  11.  Remember patience is key. Keeping a level head is critical to enjoy this time of year, especially if some relatives or friends say something that might set you off. Never have a meltdown in front of your child.

Applying some of these things might ease the stress during the holidays. This also applies to taking care of an elderly person, as well.