Most of us picture happy kids at Christmas time. Lots of yelling and ripping paper and joy. But for some kids, all the gifts, lights, and people mean stress and meltdowns. If your child is neurodiverse or has sensory integration disorder, the holidays aren’t so merry and way too bright! The good news is that there are ways to help your child enjoy the holidays with just a little planning and prep.
The first thing you need to do to have a great holiday is let go of the way you’ve had holidays in the past. If your definition of fun doesn’t match your child’s or some old family traditions don’t fit your family’s needs, it is okay to let them go.
Spread things out
The biggest trick to making the holidays less overwhelming for your child is to spread things out. There is no reason you need to see every person, eat every food, and open every present on one single day.
As the parent, you may have lots of presents and fun planned for your child. Consider ways to spread that out. They can open just one present a day, or perhaps spread presents over many hours on the big day. Remember, the gifts belong to your child, who will appreciate them more for spreading them out. It is actually impossible to appreciate a ton of gifts at once.
Instead, let your child open presents slowly, get each thing out of the box and try it out. No, that isn’t the typical “American Christmas Morning” but it actually is a much more thoughtful way to do things. You will want to explain this idea to family and friends who tend to give many gifts to your child and discuss ways to spread out the joy of the season.
If you see family and friends over the holidays, spread out their visits. If you have a family with kids, suggest getting together before the holiday to exchange gifts. Every child loves getting a gift early, and your child will appreciate only having the single gift to open and play with.
Plan to see grandparents after the big day, maybe even seeing them for a weekday afternoon. Retired people have time for that, and your child can better appreciate a present or a family meal when it isn’t quickly followed by more holiday excitement.
Managing other challenges
One of my clearest holiday memories is being forced to wear uncomfortable dress clothes. Preplan how to not make details like clothing irritating for your child. Soft, comfortable clothes will make the day less stressful for them. As their sensory system is less likely to get overwhelmed with irritating input from fancy clothes or new shoes.
Be sure your child has foods they are comfortable eating available to snack on throughout the holiday events. Getting hungry and not trusting those fancy holiday foods is a quick trip to a meltdown for many kids. It is also easier to try a new food, if your child isn’t starving or stressed. Remember, even yummy treats can be a source of stress, especially if your child understands that family members really want them to eat a new and scary food.
If you must do multiple holiday events or ones that are likely to overwhelm your child, agree with them beforehand where they can go to hide from the chaos. Better to plan that your child will be hiding in the guest room with an iPad for a while than spend an hour hunting for them under all the tables terrified they are somewhere hurt.
Remember, your child and you will enjoy the holidays far more if you help them manage their big feelings. Holidays are full of big feelings, so be patient and plan ahead.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.