December 2022

How to survive the holiday season – The parents’ guide for a happy holidays!

By Ruthie Bashan, MA-AT, LSW
JFS Clinician

The holiday season is upon us, and for a lot of families this means happy social gatherings, gift exchanges, good food and lots of laughs. For families who have children with sensory issues, behavioral challenges and/or other, different needs, however, the holiday season can be a time of increased stress and social isolation. The following tips aim to help parents navigate their children’s needs and challenges in ways that leave the entire family best prepared for the holiday season.

For some children more than others, change of routines and new situations can increase stress and overwhelm. This is why the holiday season can be a peak time for meltdown and tantrums. Preparation before, attention during, and positive reinforcement after can help your child manage these changes more effectivity, while decreasing, even preventing, emotional meltdowns.

  • Pick and choose holiday events: Remember, you don’t have to accept every invitation you get. Go to the most important events, or consider splitting up and having your child stay with a babysitter or another caregiver.
  • Let your child know what’s up: Start preparing your child for any change in their routine a couple days before the event.
    • Create a visual reminder: In the case of a few upcoming events, prepare a calendar with all the events, and display it in a place where your child can see it.
    • Review the calendar with child, and keep reminding them of any upcoming change (“so tomorrow after school, we will be going to Aunt Mimi’s house. And on Tuesday we will visit Bubby’s house…On Thursday cousin Moshe will come to our house for dinner”).
  • Set clear expectations with your child:
    • Explain timelines: For example: What time should your child start getting ready for the event? When are you leaving? How long will it take to get there (by foot? driving?)? How long do you plan to stay?
    • Set clear expectations: Outfit (“You don’t need to dress up, but you need to change from your school clothes”): Screens (“you can be on your iPad on the car ride, but no screens once we get to Bubby’s house”): Engagement (“you don’t have to remain sitting for the whole dinner, but you need to be with us during candle-lighting”).
    • Explain the house rules of whenever you go, and make sure to offer “what yes” whenever you give a “what not”: “It is ok for you to open the fridge at Bubby’s house, but it is not ok to do so at my boss’s house. If you are hungry or thirsty, let me know and I will help you”; “Aunt Mimi does not like it when kids jumps on her couch. If you feel like you need to jump, you can go to the basement/ outside/ come and tell me and we will figure it out.”
    • Discuss “What ifs” and make a plan: Plan a way for your child to let you know when they have had enough or if they need a break. Explain ahead of time what will happen if you see that they have a difficult time to regulate their emotions/behaviors “if I see you are getting too worked out or overwhelmed we will leave, so you can calm down.” Be clear that this is not a punishment.
  • Set clear expectations with your spouse:
    • Plan an escape route: Before you go to an event together, agree on a way to signal that “it is time to go NOW.” You may consider to arrive in two cars, so if needed, one of you can leave with your child, and the rest of the family can stay and enjoy the rest of the party. Decide who will leave and who will stay ahead of time.
    • Take turns: Before you arrive at the event, agree on who’s taking which shift, who may be looking after and addressing the special needs of your child during dinner, and who may be able to relax during dessert.
  • Check in with your child during the event: Sometimes children don’t know to recognize that they are getting overwhelmed until it is too late. Instead they might say they have a headache or are “too hot.” Check in with them during the event and ask them “how’s your head feeling?” or “are you hot?” That can help cut back on behavior problems.
  • Find a “calm space” to retreat to, in case you child becomes antsy. It could be a quiet corner or a quiet room at the host’s house, or you can sit for a little bit in the car.
  • Give your child a job: Children behave better when they feel useful and belong. Consider giving them a (fun) responsibility—for example, “assigning” your child to take pictures of the family with your phone; entertaining younger cousins; planning/leading an arts and crafts activity, or a family game.
  • Prepare a “relaxing box” to treat tantrum and meltdowns on spot:
    • Prepare with your child a “relaxing box” or “feel-good kit” with comfort items like a favorite book, fidget toys, stress balls, small snacks, maybe even a set of comfy clothes. If you see your child is getting overwhelmed, invite them to open the relaxing box in a quiet place.
  • Before, during, and after the event, provide positive reinforcements and give small rewards!
    • Help your child to reach behavioral goals and meet expectations by setting a short-term reward system. For example, you can say “if you can get ready to leave in 10 minutes, we will read another story at bedtime tonight.” It is important that the reward is small and given in a short time frame. “Earning points” for a bigger praise is less effective when you need immediate response.
  • Pour on the praise!
    • When your child is doing well during a holiday party or a gathering, show that you notice. Tell them quietly that they are doing great and how proud are you of them: “It was so kind of you to give up the toy to your cousin” or “You are doing such a great job listening to other people without interrupting” or “Thank to you for helping Bubby to clear up the table.” Recognition and praise mean a lot to children, especially when they are trying so hard to meet expectations.