Holidays present opportunities for families to share traditions, activities and memories. Though fun, things can get overwhelming. Parents of typical children, along with those with special needs, may find such events to be very stressful — and even avoid them. Others may choose to have one parent, or a caregiver, stay home to avoid exposing their children to potentially challenging experiences or to avoid exposing others to their child’s challenging behaviors. 

What seems fun to some children can be stressful to others. By anticipating challenges, however, you might actually enjoy those times. Here are some tips that might help save the day: 

Tips for surviving family gatherings

• It’s not easy, but try taking care of yourself first. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, exercise and nutrition.

• Say no to events that don’t work for your family.

• Feel comfortable scheduling a trusted caregiver to stay with your child for events they might not tolerate.

• Ignore comparisons, judgments and well-intentioned remarks made by people who do not understand your child. Some family members carry information cards about their children’s conditions to give to people who do not understand.

• Rehearse scripted responses to use when others interfere. For example, smile and say, “Thank you, but we just need some quiet time away from people right now.”

• Family gatherings are not the time or place to lecture or correct family members about autism, ADHD or any other special need. 

Tips for helping your child enjoy activities

• Prepare and read stories that teach about the event.  

• Don’t over-schedule events or activities.

• Choose fun experiences that will not be overwhelming.

• Select activities your child prefers.

• Rehearse and practice activities such as greetings ahead of time.

• Provide activities that offer a physical outlet for energy or aggression.

• Forewarn your child before the end of the activity. Have transition plans in mind. 

• Adjust the timing and pacing of activities to meet your child’s individual needs.

• Stop activities before they become overwhelming.

• Know and respect your child’s tolerance limits.

Tips for changes in routines

• Create a holiday or special event schedule and calendar.

• Plan visuals and timers in advance making changes predictable.

• Upon arrival, show your child where to take a break to make it familiar and comfortable before it is needed.

• Have a scripted phrase such as “Oh look” to alert your child to changes or transitions.

• Be prepared — bring a survival pack including printed or picture schedules; high protein snacks; extra drinks; restroom supplies like preferred toilet paper or wet-wipes; transitional objects; comfort items like a hat, blanket, preferred electronics or favorite toys; individualized supports such as noise-canceling headphones, chew toys, music and books; and changes of clothing.

• Provide supports for your child. Examples of physical supports could include preplanned movement activities, quiet breaks from stimulation or cues your child can use to request a break. Visual supports could be picture cues, checklists or picture schedules.

• Provide a relaxation activity before and after high stress activities

• Respect your child’s tolerance for decorations — how they look, sound and feel. The same with activities: How noisy they can be, how many people will there be, what types of activity is expected, how interesting it is to your child or how competitive it is.  

• Know when to stop. Recognize the early warning signs that indicate your child is uneasy. Have a preplanned exit strategy; rehearse this with your child in advance. Be prepared to leave before your child has a meltdown.

Have fun in your family’s own way. Remember, you know your child best. Trust your own instincts and focus on having a good time. JN

Raun Melmed, M.D., is director of the Melmed Center in Scottsdale and medical director of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center. He is the author of a series of books addressing mindfulness in children including “Harriet’s Monster Diary - Awfully Anxious But I Squish It,” where the titular character learns from her bubbe how to manage stress.

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