6 Tips to Help If the Holidays Are Overwhelming for Your Kids With Disabilities


We made it through Halloween; now we have Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s around the corner. While this is a festive time of the year, even as a neurotypical and able-bodied adult, I can feel overwhelmed by the amount of parties, activities and family gatherings. Most kids find it hard to get regulated with the excitement of the celebrations. For kids with disabilities, feeling regulated can be especially challenging.

I parent two children with disabilities, and for my kids, this holiday season means there is too much, too fast, too loud.

In the last few years, we have established our own family traditions — traditions that work for our kids and that often involve only our family of five. The truth is, some of these traditions have become my favorite, and we look forward to them every year. We have also learned what works and what doesn’t work for our family, and we have adapted to fit the needs of our kids.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the thought of this holiday season and how your children with disabilities will manage, you might find the following tips helpful:

1. Plan ahead.

Most of us who parent kids with disabilities are used to planning ahead for most activities outside our home. The holiday season means we need to plan even more.

Some questions to consider:

Where is the gathering taking place? Will your child need their noise-cancelling head phones? Will there be a place where your child can retreat to have alone time away from other people? Is the building/home accessible? Do you need adaptive equipment? Do you need to bring food for your child? Do you need to contact family members or friends to remind them of details concerning your child?

“Make sure to remind family what topics are appropriate and not appropriate to talk about with my child. Age appropriate is not always appropriate for a child with a disability.” — Audra G.

For some kids, creating a social story of each celebration can be especially helpful. If possible, ask your children how they feel about attending “Auntie Sally’s” house, what they hope for, and what they will need in order to make it a successful gathering.

And one final question to ask: Is the host willing to make accommodations for your child? If not, is it worth your time and energy knowing your child might struggle throughout this time?

For our family, something we always do is bring our own food for our kids. While it is extra work for me, I’ve learned even when people are willing to make accommodations, to make sure my kids will have something safe to eat means we pack their food. We also make sure ahead of time there is a room we are able to use when one of my kids needs a break and we bring the iPad along.

“Ask about the home/restaurant etc. ahead of time. Just twice we have showed up to a house that had stairs to the main floor (our son is in a wheelchair). Not handicapped-accessible, we don’t go.” — Sarah JP.

2.  Make an “exit” plan.

Sometimes, no matter how much we plan, things don’t go well.

I’ve learned from experience my kids have limits, and sometimes they meet those limits much sooner than we anticipated. Now, we let people know we might need to leave early or that we do not plan on staying long. One of my friends has a “code word” with her husband, so when one of them says it, it is time to pack up and say goodbye.

Make sure you have an exit plan and every member of your family knows what it is.

In our family, for example, our exit plan sometimes consists on one of us going to the car with our daughter while we give the rest of the family stays at the gathering for a little longer. It works for us. One day, as I made my way to the car with my other two kids, the “Moana” soundtrack was blasting from the van while my daughter and husband sang along. They were smiling and enjoying their daddy/daughter time and they both have come to love their “hideaway” in the car. You do what works for your family.

“When you have a holiday with family or any other gathering have a plan of action as to what you will do if you child acts out, [has a] meltdown, etc. Sometime we make a guest appearance or leave while we are ahead, but I find when I have a plan of action, I already know that if my child starts doing this, then I am going to do this… I could take them to a quiet room or leave and have a quiet reassuring ride home.” — Heather S.

3. Chose which gatherings are important to attend and which ones you can skip.

You do not have to attend everything. Just because other families are constantly on the go does not mean we have to be as well. For example, my family does not do Santa pictures. The lines and the business of the mall during those times are not worth the effort. While there are Santa events geared towards families of kids with disabilities, it is not a priority for us and it is one less thing we feel pressured to do. We also rarely attend Christmas parties outside our family  gatherings, and we spend New Year’s Eve at home.

“It’s OK to not go to every holiday gathering you’re invited to. Taking time to be alone and just breathe is vital.” –Sarah C.

4. Create your own traditions.

Choosing not to attend all parties or gatherings your are invited to doesn’t mean you will have a “less than” holiday season. The beauty of family is we can create our own traditions.

One of our family’s most cherished traditions is setting up the Christmas tree the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We begin in the evening, play Christmas music, sing along and put ornaments and lights on the tree. When we are finished, we sit by the fireplace to drink hot chocolate with marshmallows in the glow of the fireplace and Christmas lights. We talk about the many blessings we have enjoyed in the year. It is my favorite tradition, this has come to mean Christmas to us. And every year I cry during this time because my heart feels full. I could skip anything, but not this.

Don’t worry about what makes other people’s holidays meaningful, think about what can make yours a time to make memories with your kids.

“Create new traditions that work with what your child can handle. You don’t have to be traditionless, just creative. Don’t be afraid to decline parties. Invite folks to your home so your child has a safe place to escape, like their room. If you do go somewhere, make sure there is an escape place that is safe. Bring electronic devices or favorite toys. Or, see if there is a bedroom with Netflix or Amazon to chill and veg out safely. My one son takes a month to open his presents. It’s too overwhelming otherwise. He gets to enjoy it for weeks. Maybe we should learn from him!” — Tracy S.

“Every year my son (who has several chronic but invisible medical conditions along with autism and ADHD) gets overwhelmed and overstimulated from family at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and often certain family members do not understand him and get frustrated with him, which often results with him saying the day was ‘the worst ever.’ So this year I’m going to attempt to get some private time during the festivities for just me and him (I’m a single parent) to relax and have some kind of peace. Heck, I might even say that we’ll do presents and dinner and skip out on anything else except maybe one family game (for Christmas). Thanksgiving will be different because we’re going to be guests out of town so I’m thinking I’ll bring his Nintendo DS and other activities for him to do alone if needed.” — Jamie J.

5. Stick with routines and schedules.

We are that family who observes bedtime no matter when or where. And we do this because when our kids are well rested and keep their routines, everything else seems a little more manageable. If a party starts at 6:30 p.m.: “We will love to come, but I just want to let you know we will only be there for an hour or so.” If the party starts after 7:30 p.m.: “Sorry, we won’t be able to make it.” And sometimes for some kids’ activities starting early morning, we skip those too because our kids like to take their time in the morning when it is not a school day.

This has also pushed us to host most family gatherings. It is easier on my kids when they can stay home. I make a menu and delegate. If my kids get overwhelmed, they can retreat to their room or my room for peace and quiet. My kids are also able to go to bed even if we still have people at home.

Our family, for example, does not celebrate on New Year’s Eve. My kids go to bed at their regular time. January 1st we celebrate being a family of five as it is the anniversary of our daughter joining our family via international adoption. It is a meaningful time, a personal family tradition that works with our routines.

You know best how flexible your kids can be. Keep their routines in mind.

“Routine routine routine. Try to stick to it. If you go to someone else’s house ask for a safe room. Somewhere your child can go and [decompress].” — Christine D.

6. Keep it simple.

Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to check all the boxes of what we are “supposed” to do. Keep things simple. This is especially helpful for kids who have high anxiety.

“As a family we did not talk about the holidays when she was little because my daughter had anticipatory anxiety. Now that she is older, we cannot hide it and she feels she has to talk about it all the time.” — Sheila H.

There is so much happening around holiday times that home can be a “safe haven” for our kids. As parents, we don’t need the extra work. Personally, I need peace more than having my kids participate in the church’s Christmas program, for example.

“Keeping it simple. I panic, worry, over plan and exhaust myself thinking about gifts, activities, getting around and all that entails with my two autistic girls. You know what? They love lights, decorations and Charlie Brown. I don’t feel bad about cancelling, I don’t feel bad about avoiding crowds. We redefine it for us, and that’s what works. We make therapeutic activities into holiday themed ones — keeping it all in their comfort zone.” — Sophie V.

And remember, there are many other parents of kids with disabilities facing similar challenges as you are. Your family is not the only one having to make accommodations and changing plans. You are not alone.

Thank you to the parents who contributed quotes for this piece. 

Thinkstock image by Rawpixel Ltd

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