Holiday crowds, lights, noise, strangers, hugging, change in routine, and chaos. When your child has special needs, holidays could be a recipe for stress and sensory overload. As parents, we need to be flexible with our definition of what a holiday should look like. Your treasured childhood traditions may not mesh with the needs of your child. You might need to redefine what holidays look like for your family. When you have a child with special needs, a little stress-management planning can go a long way.

Children that have a low threshold for stress, anxiety, transitions, or crowds can especially benefit from learning self-regulating strategies.  However, all children can benefit from these tips and strategies.

Your Child Has Special Needs

Tips and Strategies for Handling Holidays when Your Child has Special Needs

Set Up a Safe Brain Break Space: Set up a brain break space and be sure that the other children and guests know that this space is off-limits. Your child can enjoy this designated space for downtime whenever they feel over-stimulated or just need a break. Create emotional intelligence by practicing self-awareness ahead of time. With practice, your child learns to recognize when they need a brain break before they meltdown.

Pack a Relaxation Bag: Empower children to take part in preparing for tense moments. When you involve your child in packing a relaxation bag, they are empowered, and they have the tools they prefer nearby. Create emotional awareness ahead of time by exploring what helps them to feel calm. Does music, playdoh, a glitter jar, or stress ball trigger a relaxation response? Pack headphones to reduce noise when a noisy environment challenges them.

Download the Indigo Dreams Series. Each story utilizes music and relaxation techniques.

Prepare for Gatherings: Social anxiety can be crippling. Reduce the anxiety associated with family get-togethers by looking through photos of relatives before the gathering. Play memory games by matching names to faces in the pictures. Face recognition will help your children feel more comfortable with people they may not have seen in a while. Aunt Marg won’t seem quite so scary when she bends down to greet your child.

Hugs: Let friends and family know about triggers ahead of time. If your child doesn’t like hugging, suggest a handshake or just a wave. Your friends, family, and child with special needs will be glad you did.

Use Relaxation Techniques Regularly: Incorporate deep breathing or other coping strategies into your day. Let your children see you use techniques when you are feeling stressed. Encourage them to use relaxation techniques daily. Breathing, visualizing, and positive thinking are powerful tools. Learn these techniques with your children through storytelling or coloring.

Don’t Rush: It’s simple; none of us are very good at rushing in a relaxed way. Make sure you leave enough time to enjoy the journey and handle transitions to help avoid meltdowns. Children with special needs require notice of upcoming transitions.

Schedule Downtime: Don’t overbook your children with too many parties, shopping, and socializing. It’s important to use holiday time for relaxation. Try staying in pajamas till noon. Pop your favorite popcorn and watch a movie when you wake up. You’ll be surprised how an hour or two of relaxation can rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. A well-rested child is more equipped to handle daily stressors.

With a few adjustments and looking at the holidays with your child’s needs in mind, you can establish new traditions for you and your family. Enjoy less chaos and increase peace and joy.

Lori Lite is the founder of Stress Free Kids and has authored 12 books. Stress Free Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children Build Self-Esteem, Manage Stress, and Reduce Anxiety has been named a Best Stress Management Book of All Time. Angry Octopus Color Me Happy, Color Me Calm has been awarded the Mom’s Choice Award. Lori’s content is featured in hundreds of media outlets, including CBS News, CNN Living, WebMD, The New York Times, Family Circle, and Parenting Magazine.