The holiday season is a time of celebration and togetherness, but it can also bring its fair share of stress, especially for households managing extra support needs. Balancing the excitement of the festivities with the challenges of managing overwhelm, boredom, overstimulation, disrupted routines and extra transitions between activities requires some thinking ahead to set your kids – and yourself! – up for success. We’ve put together some family-friendly tips to navigate through the holiday hustle and bustle this year:
1. Establish a Flexible Routine
Creating a loose schedule can provide a sense of structure while allowing for flexibility. Plan preferred and non-preferred activities, leaving room for adjustments to accommodate the needs of everyone in the family, especially children with extra needs. Ensure that the schedule of ‘non-negotiables’ is known well in advance, and offered in a format your child prefers (visual, written, tech-based, paper calendar, timer-based, verbal reminders). Radically accept that even the best laid plans will still face interruptions or be derailed at times … take a deep breath and try to roll with it. We can’t create Hallmark-worthy holiday magic on command – we can only provide a supportive and warm environment, set consistent expectations, and do our best to remain regulated ourselves so our kids can follow our lead when plans need to change. Sometimes the happiest family memories are the totally unplanned events – an impromptu night drive with hot chocolate to see the lights after everyone is already in their PJs, or even burning the turkey and ordering Chinese instead!
2. Offer Choices and Involvement
Empower your children by involving them in decision-making. Offer choices within the holiday plans, allowing them to participate in activities they enjoy while considering their comfort levels. When participation is non-negotiable, ask for their help and when you can, give them a meaningful job or role – and resist the temptation to ‘re-do’ their work (eg, making holiday cards, setting the table, helping prepare a particular special dish, decorating a room, setting up a holiday playlist).
3. Mindfulness and Self-Care for All
Simple breathing exercises, guided meditations from YouTube, or quiet moments snuggling on the couch in between the busyness can help ease overstimulation and bring a sense of calm during hectic times. Listening to an audiobook, taking a warm bath, playing relaxing music, coloring together – all these things can be mindful moments that help re-centre busy bodies. Prioritize self-care for every family member. Take breaks, engage in activities that bring joy, wear the fuzzy slippers, and do your best to make sure everyone has personal downtime to recharge their own way. Yes, we know – this is FAR easier said than done – but true self-care is not all bubble baths and wine – it can look like exactly what you’re doing right now – taking the time to plan ahead to give yourself the best chance of success during a busy season.
4. Transitional Activities
Ease transitions between activities by giving advance notice of the plans in your child’s preferred format (5 minute warnings, visual schedules, alarms, calendar reminders), and incorporating buffer activities. Transitioning from preferred to non-preferred tasks can be smoother with short, enjoyable activities in between or right afterward. Leverage your child’s special interests shamelessly here! Carrots work better than sticks when it comes to engaging cooperation from the troops in ‘out of the ordinary’ circumstances (like visiting Great Aunt Ida at the care facility – just let the kid take the iPad. It’s not going to permanently negate your family’s screen-time policy).
5. Communication and Understanding
Encourage open communication. Create an environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing their feelings and needs, fostering mutual understanding and support by validating the feelings (even if you don’t agree with the facts). Some families have ‘code words’ they can use for when they know they are heading into dangerous emotional territory and might not have the words to express themselves at the time. “Hedgehog” is code in our house for “I’m feeling spiky! I might need some space … or a hug … I’m not sure.” If you’re not sure what your child (or partner, or extended family member) needs in the moment – ask! “Do you need help brainstorming ideas, or do you just need someone to listen right now?”
6. Limit Social Obligations
It’s okay to prioritize and decline some social engagements. Focus on quality time spent together as a family rather than spreading thin across numerous events, especially if it causes overwhelm. If you know you’re going to have to have a hard conversation setting a boundary with an extended family member about your attendance at a big event, role play it ahead of time with a friend or jot down your key points so you’re not lost for words on the spot. Start by thanking them for including you and for understanding the needs of your family and keep your tone of voice and body language gentle. Offer an alternative option if you can – could you visit another time on your own? Could they come to your house, where your child can be more comfortable, for a shorter visit? Could you skip dinner but drop in for dessert? Opt out of events where nobody actually WANTS to be there – and try to give yourself permission to do so guilt-free.
7. Sensory-Friendly Celebrations
For children with sensory sensitivities or disabilities, consider adapting holiday traditions to create a more sensory-friendly environment. This could include noise-canceling headphones, designated quiet spaces, or adjusting lighting. It could also involve a phone call or email ahead of time to manage extended family expectations of behaviour or participation levels at gatehrings, or even getting some supporters on board for specific roles (eg – if Zack starts to get loud and appears overstimulated, it’s Uncle Dan’s job to ask him to help with a job outside for 15 minutes).
8. Embrace Gratitude
Foster an attitude of gratitude by reflecting on the positives during the holiday season. Encourage family members to share what they’re grateful for, shifting the focus from stress to appreciation. It can be as simple as noticing the smell of fresh baked cookies our loud, or commenting on how cozy a fire is this time of year. There really is so much to be grateful for, if we can get into the habit of noticing it out loud.
9. Seek Support and Resources
If you’re parenting an exceptional child or a ‘super-feeler’, the demands can be especially layered this time of year. You might want to connect with support groups or resources specific to children with disabilities or high support needs. These communities often provide valuable insights and strategies for managing holiday-related challenges and dispruted routines. This could be as simple as joining a local parent coffee group, booking a couple of sessions with your own therapist between now and the new year to support your own mental health, or registering your child for a program like our Social Sunday Holiday Transitions Special (Dec 10 & 17) or our therapeutic Winter Break Camp to build in some much-needed respite for yourself while your child builds on their own social-emotional learning in a supported environment.
10. Set Realistic Expectations
Say it with me: there’s no such thing as a perfect holiday. It just doesn’t exist. Things WILL go sideways now and then. While it can be tempting to make plans for some imaginary family, dressed in matching, clean outfits, all smiling and posing gratefully for an insta-worthy family photo, you’re far more likely to enjoy yourself if you consider your actual context and ask yourself “What does a successful holiday season look like for US?” What is the most pleasant, and least distressing way through for the actual collection of humans living in your home? Let go of external definitions of happiness or whatever ‘normal’ is supposed to be. Your family is completely unique, and if you remove the idea of meeting some external benchmark of what the holidays should look like – you may find yourself actually having fun!
The holidays can be about cherishing small moments of joy in the chaos together, making memories, and fostering gratitude in the midst of your messy, magnificent life. By implementing these family-friendly strategies and checking your expectations against reality before you plan that 12-course dinner with the in-laws, you can navigate through holiday madness … AND find those precious moments of magic with the people who matter most in the world.
Wishing you many micro-moments of peace, acceptance and joy this holiday season!