How to Support Kids With Special Needs During the Holidays

Supporting Kids With Special Needs During the Holidays

Getting together over the holidays can be fun and magical, but it can easily turn stressful if you have children who have sensory challenges, dietary needs, or social skill differences. They can also experience additional anxiety in large groups of people or in unfamiliar places. When our family members do not have experience raising a child with special needs–or they don’t have special needs themselves–it’s easy for them to brush off the accommodations needed for everyone to enjoy these gatherings.

Growing up, my brother and I had various needs that had to be considered to make family gatherings enjoyable for us. Fried foods and dairy caused me to have extreme stomach cramps that made me double over in pain. Heavy perfumes and artificial scents from candles caused my brother to get terrible headaches and feel exhausted. We both had high anxiety that worsened with the unrealistic expectations that some of our grown-up relatives put into place at family gatherings. Some of the expectations included: sitting for long periods of time, engaging in small talk, being expected to explain why you can’t eat the cheesecake for the millionth time, and lots of people invading your personal space.

As first-time parents, my husband and I have recognized that our three-year-old daughter gets overstimulated in certain situations. Too many people or unclear expectations and transitions can cause her to go into fits of crying. Too much sugar and not enough protein also causes major meltdowns and makes afternoon nap nearly impossible. She also doesn’t like to be hugged or touched by unfamiliar adults. (Who does?)

Thankfully, because of my own experiences with anxiety and sensory differences as a child, as well as my background in special education, my husband and I have figured out simple ways to support our daughter so we can make the most out of family gatherings.

If you’re traveling to a family member’s house this holiday season, here are some tips for how you can support your child. If you are expecting a child with special needs at your house, you may want to share this post with the child’s parent(s) and offer your support.

Be clear about your child’s needs. When our children are young, it’s important that the grown-ups in their lives advocate for what they need to enjoy family gatherings. Although it seems like something that would come as second nature for family members, it can be difficult to talk about these topics if they respond with comments like, “Oh, a little cheese never hurt anyone” or “You need to stop catering to your child all the time.” These comments can make us question our parenting skills, feel like an inconvenience, and feel hesitant about speaking up.

Communication and Calm Down Cards

Here are a few conversation starters you can use to reframe the conversation to elicit a positive response:

  1. “Hi ________ (insert family member’s name). We are so excited to see you this Sunday. I wanted to reach out to let you know in advance that we will bring our own food for ______ (insert child’s name). As you know, she can’t have dairy or gluten, so to make it easier for everyone, and so everyone else can eat more, we are going to bring some of her favorite dishes!”
  2. “Hi ________ (insert family member’s name). As you know, naptime is really important for ________ (insert child’s name). To make it easier for us to stay longer, it would be great if we could dedicate a quiet area in the house so we can go there if ________ (insert child’s name) is feeling overwhelmed or if they are ready for a nap.”
  • Bring your own dish. If you know your child will only eat a certain brand of gluten-free macaroni and cheese, bring it instead of expecting a family member to make it.
  • Pack comforts from home. Fill a bag with all the items you need for quiet time or naptime. This includes technology, such as devices to play quiet games when your child is overwhelmed, as well as their favorite music to listen to during quiet time or nap time.
  • Gather your child’s preferred toys. If your child has some favorite toys that will support them in enjoying the family gathering, pack them. Make it clear to other children at the gathering that these toys are special toys from home, and they are not for sharing. Head to your local dollar store to pick up some items you can share with all the children, or make a huge batch of play dough to share. If your child is not playing with their toys, leave them out of sight (and out of the minds of other children) by keeping them in a bag.

Value your child’s communication preference. Can you remember being forced to sit on the laps of family members you barely knew as a child? Value your child’s communication preference by printing out Communication Cards and allowing your child to choose how they want to greet their family members. Not only will you prevent a meltdown, but you’ll also show your child that their voice matters.

Stick to a schedule. Create a visual schedule to support your child in knowing what’s coming and when. Seeing the day laid out in a visual way can support your child in feeling more comfortable with the unknowns and see when familiar activities they enjoy (e.g., time on a device, playing with a preferred toy, or opening presents) are coming up. Try your best to stick to the schedule so they feel confident knowing what to expect. Refer to the schedule throughout the day.

Listen to your child. Although the simplest, this might be the most important tip in this blog. Always listen to your child. If they come to you and are ready to go, see if you can involve them in heading to the designated quiet area for some independent play (e.g. a game on a device, looking at books, or playing with figurines). If your child has a meltdown from being overstimulated and needs support to calm down, use these Calm Down Cards to help them deal with big feelings. We can be proactive by listening to our children and their needs. Not only will this make your child feel valued, but they will also feel safe enough to come to you in the future if they begin to notice that they aren’t feeling well. You can be their safe haven.

Bring books that promote inclusivity. Gather a few books to read with your child and the other children at the gathering. These books can support children in understanding how different kids need different things to live happy and healthy lives.

When we talk about our differences, we de-stigmatize them. Here are few ideas to get started:

  • Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Hugged by Zetta Elliot: This gentle story teaches kids the importance of friends accepting each other for who they are.
  • Noah the Narwhal: A Tale of Downs and Ups by Judith Klausner: Written by a woman living with an invisible disability, Noah the Narwhal is here to remind us (and the people who love us) that being valued and loved are just as constant as any chronic condition.
  • Eating Gluten Free With Emily by Bonne J. Kruszka: Written by the mother of a child with celiac disease, who also has the disease herself, this book offers a reassuring look at celiac disease in language that a child can easily understand.
  • Charlotte and the Quiet Place by Deborah Sosin: Some children are highly sensitive to sounds or may have sensory processing disorder. This book shows how Charlotte learns and practices mindful breathing on her own and experiences the beauty of silence. If you are a parent, teacher, or caretaker of a highly active or sensitive child, you need to read this book!

These suggestions will help you maximize your holiday fun while minimizing your child’s discomfort and anxiety. What are some other ways you support your child and yourself during the holidays?

Resources to Support You and Your Child:

By April Brown (M.Ed), writer and education consultant based in Austin, TX.

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