Creating Positive Holiday Experiences for All Children

The holiday season is upon us; a time to be with those we love, and a time to celebrate the ending of the current year as we await the new one. Food, presents, and parties mark the hustle and bustle of the season. For a lot of us it’s a dance between time, friends, and family. Many children look forward to the holiday season every year, enjoying the festivities and busyness; the change in routine. It can be fun having less homework and later bedtimes.

This isn’t a universal experience, however. For children with neurodivergence such as attention deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD as we all know it by) and/or autism spectrum disorder, the holidays may be just as stressful and overwhelming as it is fun. So how do we help our neurodiverse kids enjoy the holidays and avoid overwhelming them? Here are a few things that you can do to help maintain their mental wellness and allow them to experience the joys that the holidays bring.

  1. Maintain routines. Maintaining structure and familiarity in a time that is so busy and filled with different social gatherings and interactions can help a child remain grounded. A child that is used to a routine and suddenly is off of it can cause disorientation and confusion. The child no longer knows what to do and what to expect/is expected of them, which can lead to heightened anxiety and a decrease in emotional regulation. Something as simple as reinforcing their nighttime routine, screen routine, etc. can help a child feel secure and avoid dysregulation.
  2. Talk about communicating boundaries. The holidays bring us around friends and family we may not have seen much throughout the year, and with that may come physical affection and increased “intense” (think Aunt So-and-so grilling her niece/nephew on all the details of their life in the past year) socialization. A child may not be comfortable hugging, kissing, and constantly socializing. Forcing a child to interact in a way that is uncomfortable can set them up for failure, unhappiness, and heightened emotional states. Teaching your child to communicate boundaries can help them to interact in a way that is comfortable and enjoyable. Take a few minutes with your child to learn what is comfortable and uncomfortable for them, and help them develop a simple, appropriate statement to say to friends and family that may interact in a way that is too intimate for the child. This can be as simple as “I am happy to see you, but could I give you a high five instead of a hug? I don’t like hugs.”
  3. Back your child up. After you develop ways to talk to friends and family about boundaries with your child, back your child up when they set their boundaries. There are expectations of affection that adults have for children, and Uncle Bob may not accept that boundary and demand a hug. This can place your child in a difficult position in maintaining that boundary, because they have been taught to listen and respect adults. That’s where you come in and reinforce the boundary. Backing your child up could look as simple as saying, “Uncle Bob, Hailey says hello by giving high-fives, not hugs. Let her give you one of her awesome high-fives!” This reassures your child that you are there for them to help navigate some potentially uncomfortable situations, which can make all of the difference in keeping a child comfortable and emotionally regulated. It also gives you the opportunity to step in if an adult isn’t listening to your child, and to remove your child from the situation. Explaining to family members about neurodivergence can be difficult, but you can help set your child up for success in spending quality time with friends and family in a way that is comfortable and accessible to them by doing so and backing them up.
  4. Just listen. When your child communicates feeling overstimulated, acknowledge that and let them decompress. Help them utilize self-regulating techniques such as belly breathing or stepping aside somewhere to let them have a quiet moment. Doing all of these things can allow your child to participate in the holidays fully, and help decrease stress and anxiety for everyone throughout the season. Happy holidays, you’ve got this!