By: Sharon Jurman, NJ/PA Special Educator, Teacher of the Handicapped

Holidays filled with traditions can be some of the most memorable moments that families have to cherish during a lifetime. Holidays can be also be a time of anxiety, especially if a family member may have challenging behaviors. But, with some special planning and preparation, these bustling days of activity can go more smoothly and give everyone a chance to join in the festivities.

The following are suggestions to help prepare families and their children to achieve maximum enjoyment of this special time of year. Suggestions may be used by themselves or in combinations of several or all:

1. Think ahead about which aspects of your holiday traditions mean the most to you and your family. Give yourself permission to not participate in aspects that are less meaningful to you and may be stressful to your child.

2. Decide whether visiting other’s homes or hosting events at your home would make the best sense. Keeping your child in a familiar surrounding with familiar routines may be easier.

3. If you do visit someone else’s home, ask ahead of time if there is a quiet place where your child may go in case the environment is too stimulating. You may also want to go there for a visit a day or two before the actual event to familiarize your child with that environment.

4. Dress your child in familiar and comfortable clothes that are less likely to trigger sensory issues.

5. Bring home cooked meals if your child has special dietary needs or have him/her eat before visiting.

6. Show your child where the bathroom is in the home you are visiting.

7. Ask the hosts to remove breakable items that may be on display as your child may want to explore this new environment if you are visiting someone’s home.

8. Practice social greetings ahead of time, use family photos, picture albums and social stories to rehearse reciprocal interactions and familiarize the child with the people he/she will be seeing in person.

9. Practice opening gifts and cards ahead of time and throwing away wrapping paper.

10. Give yourself permission to stay just for a short visit if you are visiting someone’s home.

11. At home, remember that lots of decorations with lights, music and bells may be very distracting or tantrum producing to children with sensory or over stimulation issues.

12. Keep auditory and visual decorations to a minimum if they produce anxiety.

13. Decorate gradually to allow your child time to adjust to a changed environment and have them assist in decorating if appropriate.

14. For children who may obsess about the coming holiday or a certain gift or desired item, the following can be helpful;

  1. Hang a calendar and allow the child to put and “x” through each day that counts down to the big day(s)
  2. Set aside a specific time period each day that your child may discuss the holiday or desired item. This may be combined with a token economy or “earning” system and used as a reinforcer
  3. Author a social story that your child creates with you either verbally or through pictures that discusses the holiday or a specific desired item. Decide to read that story daily or at specified time periods as you count down to the holiday
  4. Engage in other activities during the day or evening that your child likes and praise him/her for attending and completing the activity
  5. Create simple art projects of winter or holiday favorites such as:
  •      pictures of snow falling using construction paper, cotton balls, and glue
  •      pictures of decorated pine trees using crayons, markers, confetti, green felt, and glue
  •      decorative ornaments using Styrofoam, glitter, feathers, and paste
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