14 Tips For A Less Stressful Holiday Season

The holidays are filled with fun activities, family gatherings, and, unfortunately, stress. The disruption in structure that often occurs during the holidays make familiar routines difficult to maintain. Some people travel long distances in crowded, uncomfortable cars or spend time in chaotic, noisy airports filled with strangers when traveling to see relatives or to go on vacation. Some of these holiday-related situations are bound to be stressful for both you and your child.

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Here are some tips to help you deal with holiday stress:

  1. Plan ahead! – Create social stories using pictures and text or try roleplaying with your child to explain new situations and positive ways to respond to difficulties, such as extended family dinners, receiving gifts, travel, decorations, and more. Also, try using family photo albums in your social stories to familiarize your child with who they will see at parties.
  2. See if you can arrange a quiet place at a relative’s house, restaurant, or hotel for your child to retreat to when feeling overwhelmed.
  3. Teach your child a signal or a sign-language sign to use if they become stressed and need help. If your child knows your attention will be gained in other ways, they’ll build self-management skills and gain independence in a way that limits screaming tantrums.
  4. Take breaks if your child is exhibiting signs of distress, such as an increase in humming or rocking behaviors.
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  5. Take toys out of the box before wrapping (and ask family members to do so, too) so your child can play with the toy immediately. This means more fun and less frustrating waiting for your child.
  6. Suggest gifts to your family that you know your child would like so you won’t hear “This isn’t what I wanted” or “I don’t like this” in front of relatives who may not understand and whose feelings may be hurt.
  7. If you put up any holiday decorations and your child has difficulty with that change, put them up gradually over several days so there is time to get used to new things around the house. And you might consider shopping for decorations together (and buying things they like). Let your child help decorate and keep in mind that some decorations, like flashing lights, might be overstimulating.
  8. Let family members know about your child’s needs in advance, like if hugs are unwanted or fast blinking decorations create sensory overload.
  9. Make sure there is food available that your child can eat, even if you have to bring it yourself.
  10. Think about what is most important to you in terms of holiday traditions in terms of what your child tolerates. If that means not going to every single event you are invited to then that is okay; it’s better to have a happy and fun holiday for your entire family then it is to stretch yourself too thin trying to do everything, especially the things that are very difficult for your child. If a crowded mall is too difficult, for example, skip getting a photo on Santa’s lap. Make other fun holiday activities part of your new holiday traditions to lessen stress and tantrums.
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  11. Factor in downtime – don’t plan something for every single second of the holiday season; otherwise your child (and you!) will burn out.
  12. Create a special winter break schedule if your child needs structure outside of school or is upset their routine has changed.
  13. Put all your upcoming events on one calendar and post it somewhere your whole family can see it so you don’t overbook or double book and so everyone knows what to expect.
  14. Bring your child’s favorite toy.

It’s okay if your child can’t handle special holiday clothing or sit at the table for a whole meal or stay focused on gift giving. Just being together is the most important part of the holidays and, with enough practice, your holiday activities can become a comforting routine.