Ready or not, the holidays are upon us! Holidays are often full of family time, traditions, and creating special memories. However, they are also often full of late nights, changes in routine, and time with lots of people. This can cause stress and anxiety- especially in children. There are some small steps that can be taken to help prepare kids for the busyness of the holiday season.
1. Prepare kids with what to expect (visual schedules, social stories, etc.)
Imagine this, your boss tells you they have booked you for a 3-day conference with some colleagues you “sort of” know. They tell you the date and the location, but that’s it. As the conference approaches you would naturally have so many questions about the logistics and timelines for your trip. How am I going to get there? Am I traveling with my coworkers? Where am I going to stay? What about meals? This would be so stressful and it would be natural to have some anxiety! This is how many kids feel during the holidays. Just like how our minds would be at ease if we knew what to expect during our work trip, our kids’ minds can also be put at ease with some help in preparing them with what to expect. Depending on the child’s age and cognitive abilities, a visual schedule or social story could be very helpful. A quick Google search of holiday social stories will provide lots of ideas and resources. There are also some really great social stories available for purchase from Teachers Pay Teachers. A visual schedule can be as simple as going through the steps of the day/activities and drawing little simple pictures with the plans. Going over these steps with children, having them reference their schedule, and cross off items as they are completed can be extremely helpful in letting them know what to expect.
2. Keep routines
Some children are unbelievably flexible. They will nap anywhere, eat anything, and can always seem to just go with the flow. However, most children, even the easygoing ones, thrive with familiar routines and habits. Routines are comfortable, predictable, and safe. When the holidays are here, routines are often the first thing to go out the window which may result in big feelings and big behaviors. It may be helpful to think about how routines can become part of the holiday plans. This may mean adjusting holiday celebration times so children can maintain a decent bedtime, bringing a pack-and-play and sound machine to a loved one’s house to allow for an afternoon nap, or bringing your own high chair to a friend's house so the child has a comfortable and secure place to eat. Building in time for familiar routines can help children feel more comfortable with the novel holiday celebrations, and ideally help them be a little better rested as well!
3. Build in downtime and/or sensory breaks
Holidays are busy, busy, busy, and it may help to build in purposeful activities to help children remain regulated. If traveling by car for a long distance (or the children will have to be seated for long periods of time) building in movement breaks may help children function better throughout their day. If possible, allowing children to play outside is a great way to get in some heavy work and fresh air. Inside activities could include playing with Play-Doh, playing in a sensory bin, or having kids do yoga. Check out this great list of indoor heavy work activities for small spaces that can be done anywhere! It may also be a good idea to build downtime into your days. Putting on a holiday movie, reading books, or just taking a rest will help everyone have a good reset in their day! Taking a few moments for deep breathing can help make everyone feel a little more grounded as well. Checking in with children throughout the day can be a good idea, just to see how they are feeling. Some children can become overwhelmed by large gatherings with too many people and too much sound. Try taking a break with them in a quiet room, away from the group. This would be a great time to read a favorite book, play with a familiar toy, or do an activity one on one. Remember to build the movement and/or rest breaks into your daily schedule and let the children help pick the activities. Making these sensory activities part of their day will help everyone enjoy themselves a little more.
4. Adjust Expectations - It’s OK to Say No
We all have that family member that loves to greet you with a big hug, a wet kiss, and a lot of sensory input! While some people fully embrace this kind of greeting, for many, this is simply too much input! This is true for kids too, especially those with sensory defensiveness or over-responsivity to sensory information such as bright lights, loud noises, tags on their clothes or seams on their socks. Children don’t always have the language to let us know how they feel and it can sometimes come out in big behaviors. Let children know it is OK for them to refuse hugs from family members and give them the words to do so. Practice saying things like, “That’s too close”, “I prefer a high five” and/or “No thank you” before attending the gathering. If they are not able to advocate for themselves, label the feelings and desires for them. Letting them know that they can hang around familiar and safe people will give them peace of mind all day. Similar tools can be used when asked to eat unfamiliar or non-preferred foods as well. Let children know that it is OK to just eat foods they are comfortable with. Not pushing new and unfamiliar things will help everyone enjoy their day a little more!
5. Remember to have fun and enjoy the moments
Most of all, remember that the holidays are a time to try to enjoy family time and make memories. Try to keep in mind that things may not go exactly as planned and it should be expected that children may experience some big feelings. Approaching the holidays with this outlook will keep those expectations realistic. Don’t let a tantrum or some crabbiness ruin the whole day. Enjoy the time, take lots of pictures, and have fun!