A Stress-Free Holiday with a child who has special needs? Tips to get you there!

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A Stress-Free Holiday with a child who has special needs? Tips to get you there!

Wendi Wojtecki
By Wendi Wojtecki
Disability Advocate 
The Arc Erie County


As the holidays quickly approach, I am reminded of the many articles and experts I have researched looking for ways to make the holidays more enjoyable for my family. You see, at my house, I have learned over time what it takes to pull off an almost stress-free holiday with a child that has special needs. Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks that worked with my daughter over the years! I hope you can try some of them and have the same amazing results that I have.
  1. Keep things as simple as possible. Easy, right? But very impactful. I went from 4 trees in my home to one. It also has both colored and warm white lights. My daughter determines IF and WHEN those lights go on, and which color. Sometimes the tree isn’t lit for days, and you know what? That is just fine. 
  2. I let my child that has special needs take part in deciding what goes ON the tree. Usually, we try to do sensory friendly crafts that she chooses. Some favorites were popcorn on a string, yarn pom poms, and collecting and stringing pinecones. Whatever it is, it usually is sensory friendly to her current needs.
  3. Keep the hustle and bustle down to a minimum. Do not drag your child with special needs to tons of holiday parties that instantly set them up for failure before they walk through the door. Think about it-all the forced hugs, the extra anxiety of seeing so many people, the lighting and over stimulation of holiday décor, the food and goodies, the sugar high, the noise! It can all be just way too overwhelming. Instead of another party, my family will do an alternative activity like hopping in the car with cocoa and a treat to go drive around and look at Christmas lights.
  4. When you do brave those holiday parties, bring comfort from home. Let them bring a backpack with a blanket, a tablet and headphones, a book, some fidgets, and food. Bring what you know they will eat and drink. Any hangry over-stimulated child cannot be expected to manage their world as we would wish at a party without some supports.
  5. We have had an Escape Phrase for a while now. It is easy to implement in those tricky social situations. Ours is silly, so I will share. My daughter simply tells her father, or I, that she is really in the mood for some steak. She does not care for steak one bit, but we know she is telling us she has had enough and has done her best, but it’s time to go! Being able to articulate to a trusted adult that you need help and need to leave is an amazing coping skill. The trust and respect are earned when you hear them tell you they have had enough, and then you do your best to get them relief. If you can’t leave, maybe it’s time to go for a walk around the block and look at Christmas decorations or ask for a bedroom to snuggle up and play a movie on a tablet in. You would be amazed at how accommodating people can be. Be prepared to act on the Escape Phrase even if you can’t really leave, and if you can leave…do it!
It may sound simple, but these 5 items can have an enormous impact on your children during the holiday season. Pick and choose your battles and be prepared to make them as comfortable as you can. Do not forget those noise cancelling headsets for holiday choir and band concerts! Overall, these tips and tricks are what work best in my family but may not be the solution to yours. Keep trying, do not give up, and remember that your holiday traditions are not any less meaningful or valued just because you must do things a little differently. I wish you all a stress-free holiday season!