Tips for Managing Holiday Stress in a Neurodiverse Household

The holidays can be stressful for anyone, but for households with one or more neurodiverse family members, what’s typically a time for celebration and excitement can feel overwhelming.

With stressors ranging from noisy, crowded airports and socializing at gatherings to flashing lights and a sudden lack of routine, the end-of-the-year hustle and bustle can feel more like a nightmare than the fairytale portrayed in family Christmas movies. 

So what can parents do to help alleviate some of the anxiety, frustration, and even dread that holiday activities and traditions can dredge up for neurodiverse members of their immediate family? Consider these seven tips.

Prominently display a family calendar.

Even if you’re not the type to use a family calendar throughout the year, it can be beneficial to create one for the month of December when there are school closures and half days, family activities, work parties, and faith-based events, among other commitments. Consider using a simple color-coded system to indicate which activities are mandatory for all the family members, which are optional, and which are simply to alert the family that someone will be away from home at a certain time. This will help eliminate surprises and give everyone time to plan or prepare. 

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Schedule most-desired activities and events first.

If your family loves to sip hot cocoa and you drive around looking at Christmas lights or you have a tradition of decorating sugar cookies for elderly shut-ins, get them on the calendar first. No one wants to go through the holidays with a jam-packed schedule of required participation. By prioritizing your family members’ preferred activities, you’ll help ensure that they’re feeling heard and valued. In addition, you’ll be less likely to overschedule so your family can enjoy the season. 

Talk about expectations, rules, and time limits—and stick to them.

Social anxiety can be a concern for all ages, but sometimes it’s not possible to avoid these types of events entirely. If you’ll be visiting extended family, for example, be clear with your family about potential situations that could be uncomfortable (or boring!) and set realistic expectations. “Your aunts and uncles may try to hug you, but you are allowed to politely decline and offer a fist bump or handshake instead.” Or, “We’ll be going to Grandma’s house for dinner from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. I’d like you to sit with the family when we eat the meal, but you can go to a quiet room and play on your tablet before and after dinner.” If you promise your child that you’ll leave the activity by a certain time, do your best to keep your promise. 

Include everyone in the decorating process.

If you decorate your home for the holidays, consider getting the entire family involved in the process. This will not only help them feel included, but it will also reduce the chances of someone who is neurodivergent unexpectedly feeling overwhelmed by the massive changes. Although coming home from school to find flashy Christmas lights, holiday music, a fresh tree, rearranged furniture, and a heavily decorated house may feel fun for some, others may not like the change in environment or the sudden sensory overload. 

Play pretend to practice upcoming situations.

Going through airport security or being pulled aside for an individual screening can be scary for anyone, let alone someone who is neurodiverse. The same might be true for participating in a ritual at your religious institution or even exchanging gifts with a Secret Santa at your playgroup. You can help prepare for potential scenarios by practicing the basics at home or even finding a video online to help demonstrate how things might play out. For the anxious family member who may not be familiar with attendees at the event, consider showing them pictures of specific people to familiarize them with who they’ll be meeting. 

Bring items to calm, soothe, and entertain.

Many parents of neurodiverse children and teens keep a “go bag” of favorite or helpful items to take on excursions outside the comforts of home. Going to a holiday concert with a child who is sensitive to loud noises? Consider packing noise-canceling headphones and another small device with a soothing playlist of songs. Heading to a restaurant with extended family for what will no doubt turn into a three-hour dinner? You may want to pack some healthy snacks to fill the wait, some word puzzles, a Rubix cube, their favorite stuffed animal, a fidget spinner, and a tablet and headphones for entertainment. Depending on your child and the setting, you may even want to pack a blanket and pillow for an escape to the car for some decompression. 

Consider unboxing toys in advance.

If your child will be opening a gift at a friend’s or relative’s home, consider asking them to unbox the toy before wrapping it. The forethought can significantly decrease the potential for frustration by allowing them to immediately play with the item. Additionally, you may want to consider bringing an inexpensive gift for your child to unwrap and play with in case the original toy requires batteries, is too messy or loud, or isn’t age-appropriate or interesting for them. The last thing you want is for a well-intentioned gift-giver to end up with a carpet caked with glitter slime or a crying child whose toy won’t work without eight D batteries.

Put these tips to work for you this season to help ensure every member of your family has a relaxing and fun holiday break. With a little extra effort and a commitment to find activities that everyone can enjoy in their own way, you’ll wrap up the year with memories everyone can cherish for years to come!

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