When you think about “the holidays,” what comes to mind? Some may experience fond memories of families coming together, homes dressed in their holiday best and the magic of doing for others. For others, the holidays evoke feelings of dread and anxiety associated with the endless chores, tasks, activities, and family time that comes along with the last two months of the calendar year. Even more stressful for some, while preparing for the holiday celebrations and attempting to complete work of your own, there are children with two weeks of winter vacation to referee and keep entertained.
Given that the holidays can be stressful for parents and kids, alike, here are some tips for getting through the holidays:
Start Planning in Advance. Lists are your best friend; make lists for meals, snacks, activities, gifts, and things to do. When it comes to prioritizing activities, work as a family to create a list of activities/tasks that are most important (e.g., gift shopping, volunteering, baking, seeing a play). For holiday tasks, assign one or more family members to each task and identify a time when this will occur (e.g., “Dad and Johnny will put up the lights on Saturday.”). Keep this information in writing and post it on a calendar where all family members can access it. Try not to over-load the schedule with too many activities; give yourself permission to leave some days open as “re-charge days.”
Promote Structure and Predicability. Even on days where nothing is planned, it will be important to build structure into each day. For example, highlight activities that will occur regularly, such as daily hygiene activities, meal times, “down time,” and bedtime. “Down time” is particularly important during the holidays. Post daily schedules in a community space in the home.
Utilize Visual Aides and Social Stories. The use of visual aides, such as count-downs, advent calendars, and/or daily schedules are helpful for increasing structure and helping family members know what to expect. Social stories can also be helpful in creating a narrative for holidays and the action-packed days to come.
Plan for Unexpected Changes. Don’t forget to remind family members that some plans may change, and give suggestions regarding how to handle the disappointment/sadness/anger that may result (e.g., “So, if plans change, what coping skill will you use to help you deal with being disappointed?”).
Create a “Coping Plan.” Identify common triggers and early warning signs that a meltdown may be building. Identify a number of coping or “calming” skills that family members can use when they start to feel upset (e.g., go to my room, lay down, breathe deeply, take a walk, talk to mom or dad), and have an “exit plan” when out in public or at family gatherings.
Clearly Communicate Expectations. Family pow-pows and “check-in’s” will be important to conduct before and during big holiday events. Review the events as they are expected to occur, the people that may be present, the behavioral expectations, and the coping plan. Also, review behaviors that will result in consequences, what those consequences are, and what would warrant ending the event early.
Try to Be Flexible with Holiday Expectations. In a time where age-old traditions reign, it will be important to adjust your expectations in a way that promotes success for your child and family. For example, shiny, breakable ornaments on a tree, while beautiful and based in tradition, may be a dangerous temptation for a child with difficulty resisting impulses.
Educate Extended Family Members. Help family members, who may not interact with your family on a regular basis, understand some of your family’s challenges by letting them know what you expect to be difficult (e.g., loud, chaotic environments; new people; trying new foods; sharing new toys). They may also benefit from learning a few strategies for what to do in those situations and may even benefit from being assigned a specific role if or when a conflict/“meltdown” occurs (e.g., remove other children from the area and distract them).
Recruit Support. Pinpoint members of your immediate and extended family members who might be willing to assist you during family get-togethers. For example, assign specific tasks or duties, such as facilitating a group activity, art project, or game, providing calming one-on-one time for a child who is over-stimulated, or taking charge of preparing foods for children with more sensitive taste buds.
Prepare for Travel. Whether by air or by land, traveling for the holidays can be tricky. Here are some tips for helping travel go more smoothly (for more on this see our previous blog about this)
- Be Prepared! Be sure to pack snacks, entertainment, documents, medications, medical equipment (e.g., C-PAP machine, feeding accessories), extra clothes, and items that are part of the routine at home (e.g., stuffed animal, white noise machine, bedtime picture schedule). Making a list of these items well in advance can be helpful.
- Emergency Paperwork. Create a document that contains essential information about your child (e.g., name, contact information, diagnosis, pertinent health information [allergies, medications, etc.], contact information for the primary care physician, and other information that would be useful in an emergency). A recent color photograph should also be included.
- The Art of Distraction. Bring along items that will help decrease sensitivity to surroundings, such as head phones, entertainment (e.g., DVD players, personal video game consoles), and comfort items (e.g., blanket, pillow).
- Talk About the Trip Ahead of Time. It may be helpful to look at maps, videos, and pictures (e.g., of airport/airplanes, grandma’s house) and to talk about the chain of events that will occur while traveling (e.g., create a social story about the process at airport security). Role playing and in-person visits may also be helpful.
- Use Visuals. A daily schedule or list of events (e.g., 1. Leave home, 2. Arrive at airport, 3. Go through security, 4. Board plane, 5. Arrive in Cleveland, 6. Drive to Grandma’s) may be a useful tool for you and your child to reference during a long travel process.
- Talk with Transportation Personnel. Airlines, Amtrak, hotels, and other travel companies are often willing to adjust procedures and schedules for your needs. Your hotel may be able to check you in early (or check you out late), if you plan this ahead of time. Also, airlines allow pre-boarding for those needing assistance. The Transportation Security Administration website provides helpful information about traveling with children with disabilities. Websites for specific airlines provide similar information unique to their company.
We hope this has helped spark some conversation in your family about how to weather the holiday season. Whatever your holiday, we wish you happiness and warmth. Happy Holiday-ing!