How To Navigate Christmas With Children Who Have Special Needs.

It’s a question we face every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas: How can we navigate the sensory overload of this season with our children? We’ve discovered a few keys…

Top view of boy and father

The malls are decorated with garland, bows, and lighted wreaths suspended in mid-air between stores and shops. Display windows have followed suit with decorative frosting in the corners and mannequins dressed in cold-weather attire. Starbucks debuted their red holiday cups, and radio stations are beginning to play Christmas music on loop. There’s no doubt about it — the holidays are here.

For many, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time for gathering with family, opening presents, feasting on amazing food, and traveling to see relatives that live in other states. But, for those of us who are raising children with sensory processing needs, attachment issues, anxiety disorders, high stress, or FASD, it can be one of the most stressful times of the year. The excitement, over-stimulation, rich food, change in schedule, and disrupted routine can spell disaster.

We’re in that boat as adoptive parents. For years, we dreaded the holidays, particularly Christmas morning — still do to some degree. The excitement and energy surrounding it almost always resulted in a full-blown meltdown from one or more of my kids with sensory processing needs. Often, it was a snowball effect. One would go, and either trigger the others, or provoke the others and the day would be lost. The struggle with anxiety, impulsion, and over-stimulation from chaotic or high-energized environments was too much to handle.

For years, we dreaded it. We began to lose hope. That is, until this time last year. That’s Kristin came up with an idea.

“Let’s not open gifts in our house this year,” she said to me one November evening.

I was confused. “Do you mean, go to your parents’ house instead?”

“No,” she replied. “Let’s open them somewhere else.

“Like where?” I asked.

“What if we asked someone to use their space, just for opening presents, nothing else? We could do that and then come back to our house for Christmas Day dinner.”

And that’s precisely what we did. We had a connection to an after-school program who owned a house just north of where we lived. It was only a mile from our house. But it made a world of difference for our children with sensory-processing needs.

It’s a big question we’ve asked over the years, right after Thanksgiving hits — how do you navigate the holidays with children who deal with special needs that may be triggered by all of the excitement and fanfare surrounding the season? We’re still learning how to do this for the most part, but we’ve found a few key ways to help reduce the overload …

  1. Pay attention to location. Perhaps your home is a trigger. Perhaps the room you open gifts in is a trigger. If you have this option, try moving to a different location for the big morning. It may not be feasible, but it was something that worked for us. Even a relative’s home may be a better option. Often times, the place they are most familiar with becomes the biggest trigger for meltdowns or sensory overload.
  2. Create a safe space. We have some good friends with a son who has sensory processing needs, much like ours. He has lots of trouble on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas morning. Really, anytime lots of people are gathered around, watching him open gifts (as grandparents, aunts, and uncles will do at Christmas), or focus lots of attention on him, he has trouble. They tell their son, before holiday gatherings, that he can take time away in his room or in a quiet place if he feels like he’s nearing overload. We have followed this same measure with some of our kids. When you intentionally create a space that is safe for your kiddos, you’ll enable them to find peace through hectic holiday gatherings.
  3. Allow time for preparation. Those same friends do something else I think is key. They prepare well in advance. They have conversations with their son about what is to come. It doesn’t always fully help them through moments of high sensory overload, but it has made a big difference. We follow along the same lines with lots of conversations with our children who suffer from alcohol-related nuerodevelopmental disorder (ARND). Their brains cannot handle lots of overload or excitement. But, walking them through everything well in advance has made a big difference with the outcome of the day.
  4. As much as you can, stick to routine. I know — this is hard to do if you’re traveling, or even with the holiday break in general. There’s no school routine, no work routine, no one has to get up early, and you can pretty much stay up later if you want (because there’s no work or school to contend with). I get it. Same deal in our household. But, routine is king when you’re parenting children with major special needs (like ARND or sensory processing needs). As far as it depends on you, stick to routine. You may not be able to fully, but if you can to some degree, you may find that meltdowns are shorter lived or few and far between.

The biggest piece of advice I can give to anyone who is parenting children who have a difficult time during the holidays, is be aware of your kids’ needs. It sounds simple but often, it’s hard to remember, especially during the chaos of the season. As much as we wish we could do the things that normal families do during Thanksgiving and Christmas, we can’t. We have to modify — tweak the world around us — to accommodate our precious children. We want them to enjoy the holidays as much as anyone else. That’s true for our family, and I’m sure it is for yours. Taking small steps, and paying attention to a few key aspects of our children’s ability to process through a bright and chaotic season, can make a world of difference.

Question: Are you in this boat as a parent? What have you learned? Share your story with us in the comment section below… You can leave a comment by clicking here.

(This piece originally appeared on Mike’s column on Disney’s Babble)

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  • May

    I’m not a parent, and this is not about Christmas, but hopefully it will be relevant to someone anyway! I’ve been to several weddings lately and because I have an awesome group of friends who are very aware of disability and special needs (in fact, most of my friends have disabilities and special needs, I guess we gravitate towards each other), all the weddings have had Quiet Rooms for people to take time out in. One couple had quite a lot of trouble with the venue wanting to have a combo quiet room-coat room, and couldn’t understand why people coming in and out to get their coats and so forth would be a bit incompatible with a quiet retreat…

    I hadn’t considered the idea of home being a trigger for sensory overload. For me, it’s outside the home where overload is more likely. That’s a really interesting thing to think about, and I suspect it’ll be very important to bear in mind in the future. I hope to become a therapeutic foster carer, specialising in “difficult to place” children (I don’t like that term) so I’m always interested in finding out how people cope with different sensitivities. Thanks for this post!

    • May, this is great insight. Thanks for sharing!

  • Brenda

    Thank you very much for this great post. I’m a mom of a 2.5 yo boy who was recently diagnosed with sensory process disorder and possibly FASD, he is too young to be diagnosed and I find very helpful all of your posts. Thanks for sharing.

    • Brenda, you are so very welcome. I am glad the post resonated with you so deeply. 😉

  • Allisonm

    This is really important for our kids. Our cultural expectations of Christmas can produce huge anxiety for our adopted children who spent so many years feeling like they were on the outside looking in for the holidays. Their memories weren’t happy ones and their peers appeared to be having amazing holidays. Our first Christmas together, we made the mistake of doing way too much. In the years since, we’ve scaled way back and kept it simple. Few, well-chosen gifts, church, a Christmas tree, a lighted wreath on the front of the house, some evening drives looking at Christmas lights, maybe a couple of batches of cookies, and some kind of community service round out our December. Overwhelmed is not fun and doesn’t celebrate our Lord’s birth.

    We also, when necessary, tell our children part of what they are getting for Christmas. Having had a lot of negative Christmas experiences, our kids’ anxiety about gifts can be intense. For several years, I have even taken our youngest with me to pick out his most-wanted presents and had him help me wrap them to ease his distress–on the condition that he act surprised on Christmas morning. His joy at opening them on Christmas is so much greater when he hasn’t melted down 200 times over the worry about what he would be getting. We told our kids from the start about St. Nicholas and his special care for the children in his diocese, so we have no reason to insist on surprising our kids with gifts from Santa and the “naughty or nice” thing has no place in our home full of trauma survivors. (Note that in the story, even bad children received a lump of coal to help provide for their basic need for heat in their homes.)

    • Great insight Allison. Never thought of taking openly about what they are getting for Christmas. We do, however, ask them what they want, and write it down (in front of them). I guess that would be close to talking about it before hand… 🙂