Special Needs and Holiday Stress


Blog2The holiday season is a special time of year filled with family, friends, lights and decorations. Even though all of these things seem to make the holidays, to our kids with special needs and sensory processing difficulties these “special things” can turn into a very big stressor. Why?


  • The lights and decorations can be too much for them to visually process
  • Increased amount of people (both known and new) and music can be too much to auditorily process
  • Decorating causing changes in our kids known environments and therefore more challenging for them to adapt to and navigate around
  • Transitions may be challenging for our kids
  • Anything different or new from having people in the house to new smells, sights and sounds can be very over whelming and difficult for them to adapt to, which may cause meltdowns and tantrums.

All of this doesn’t mean that you have to have a holiday season free from cheer. Below are a couple of suggestions to help the whole family enjoy the season and everything that goes along with it!

Ways to Help Things Go Smoothly

At Home

  • Discuss where and when the decorations will be going up so your child has adequate time to prepare.
  • Engage them in the process of decorating — have them help put stuff out or ask their opinion about where it should go.
  • Have a designated “Decoration Free Zone” whether it is the child’s room or favorite place to sit in the den. This area should remain unchanged and a place they can retreat if needing a holiday break
  • Have a schedule the child can follow and review it each morning. Use pictures or stickers as motivator.

When Going Shopping

  • Be prepared! Bring along your child’s favorite snacks and portable games/snacks to help keep them occupied when waiting in long lines.
  • Try to limit time in the store or do online shopping if possible.
  • Bring headphones or ear plugs the child can wear to filter out noise and listen to relaxing music.

When Attending a Function/Party

  • Prepare your child ahead of time with expectations of behavior/rules that need to be followed while at event.
  • Use Facebook or family picture albums to go through and find the faces of people your child may see at the party to decrease anxiety about having new people around.
  • Identify a signal the child can use if they get over stimulated or need to take a break — touching their ear, rubbing their belly, anything to let you know it’s time to remove them from a situation to calm down.
  • When arriving at an event, identify a safe, quiet place the child can go if needing to take a break or when they get overstimulated. Talk with the event host if at a friend’s/family’s house prior to the event to set up a location, if possible.
  • Use a social story to discuss greetings, introductions and other appropriate social situations that may arise during event. Ask your child’s treating therapists to assist if needed.
  • Be prepared with foods you know your child will eat if they are a picky eater (or have food allergies) to avoid anxiety/frustration at meal times.
  • Prepare your family and friends ahead of time for your child’s needs. Specific detail is not needed, but suggesting “Brian prefers high fives over hugs & kisses,” or “Susie likes to listen to music when there are a lot of people around” may help.
  • Don’t forget to wear “comfortable clothing” to avoid uncomfortable squirming.

These are just a few tips/reminders to help you and family adjust to the craziness of the holiday season. Please don’t hesitate to talk with your treating therapists for other suggestions/recommendations. You know your child best and it is important to plan and prepare in order to make your season merry and bright!

Happy Holidays from all of us at The Therapy Place!