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7 Tips for Reducing Stress This Holiday Season for Parents of Children With Special Needs

What’s inside this article: Tips and advice, from first-hand experience, for reducing stress this holiday season for both you and your children. These tips were created with children in mind who struggle with sensory processing, social interactions, and unpredictability.

When your child has special needs, huge family gatherings are a recipe for sensory overload, meltdowns, and unnecessary stress. The noise, the smells, relatives you only see a handful of times per year – these things are all anxiety-inducing and yet often expected during the holiday season.

The winter holidays should be a time of joy, not stress. As a child, some of my favorite memories include watching Christmas movies, baking with my mom, and decorating the tree with my family. 

So, when I found myself at my in-laws’ house, with 20+ people, hiding in the basement eating dinner with my oldest son, who couldn’t handle the anxiety and uncertainty of this kind of gathering, I knew changes needed to be made. 

I wouldn’t let this become his Christmas memories. 

Here are my tried-and-true strategies for reducing stress over the holidays. I hope what’s helped me will help you too.

1. Acknowledge that everything doesn’t need to be perfect

Your child isn’t going to remember that you didn’t wrap their gifts in matching paper and bows or that the pie crust was overcooked. 

What really matters to them, and makes the holidays special, is the time spent with the ones closest to them. 

Likewise, if you celebrate Christmas, decorate the tree with those homemade ornaments and don’t worry about the aesthetics.

Enjoy the time together doing activities and traditions you love, like baking or crafting, and forget about perfection. 

2. Set Boundaries with Extended Family

Sure, maybe every year, for the past 25 years, everyone gathered at Grandma’s for a huge dinner, gifts, and drinks. It’s tradition.

But, if that doesn’t work for your child or your family, then set that boundary that you will be unable to attend because your child’s wellbeing matters more. 

It’s unfair to force your child into an uncomfortable situation to please your extended family at the expense of their mental health. 

We set those boundaries with our family and instead invited certain family members over to our house, at different times, over the holidays. They are more than welcome to spend time with us at our home, where my children feel safe and comfortable and have a place to go (their bedrooms) if they need space. 

3. Start Planning & Preparing Early

Beginning your Holiday preparation early means less stress when it’s “crunch time.” 

Keeping your stress level low will keep your child’s stress level low as well. Your children can sense your emotions and attitudes and they’ll be affected either positively or negatively by the way you feel and act over the holidays. 

Having lots of time to prepare is an easy way to reduce stress. Shop early, wrap early, plan meals and gatherings ahead of time. If you’re scrambling to do everything at once, you will be stressed out.

4. Spend Time Outside

Research shows that being outside significantly reduces your cortisol levels, which is a stress hormone. 

Nature also boosts endorphin levels and dopamine production, which promotes happiness.

Incorporating outdoor activities into your family’s holiday time can reduce stress for everyone. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with snow, activities like sledding or building a snowman are great not just because they’re outdoor activities but because they provide heavy work and sensory input, too. 

A few outdoor activities we do each year: 

  • Decorating the outside of our home for Christmas
  • Taking a walk in the evening to look at the lights on everybody’s homes
  • Outdoor Christmas parades 
  • Playing in the snow 

5. Limit Alcohol Consumption

There is often extra pressure to drink alcoholic beverages over the holidays, especially during get-togethers and celebrations. 

Many people find alcohol temporarily relieves their stress. But it also affects your health, and the following day, it doesn’t feel helpful anymore. 

Although it’s acceptable to drink in moderation and drink responsibly, it’s also less stressful to prepare for the holidays when you wake up with a clear head and feeling your best. You get better quality time with your kids this way too. 

6. Ask Your Child What They Want to Do

When making holiday plans, ask your child what they want to do and involve them in making plans. 

Your child is less likely to experience anxiety when they feel like they have control over the situations they’re placed in and know their parents value their opinion. 

7. Prepare Ahead of Time

This is what I call “frontloading”, and it’s a stress-reduction tool I use year-round, but it becomes extra important over the holidays when our daily routines and schedules end up all over the place. 

This involves clearly explaining:

  • Where we are going
  • Who will be there
  • What we’re going to do
  • How long we’ll be there
  • What things about the situation/event may be challenging or triggers
  • Behavior expectations 
  • What they can do/ where they can go if they feel overwhelmed or stressed

If needed, you can use visual supports or your own social stories and narratives to help your child understand what to expect. 

Uncertainty and unpredictability are often the biggest causes of anxiety. 

And, Remember

The best and most important thing you can give your child is your time and your love. 

Be there, spend time making memories with your child that they will cherish for the years to come. 

If you’re looking for a new Christmas Tradition that is low-stress and memorable, consider purchasing a kindness elf.  These little wooden elves help you count down to Christmas with random acts of kindness both at home and in the community. 

It’s a great lesson in gratitude and empathy and gives you new unique ways to spend time with your children.

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