Children who have difficulty with self-regulation and executive functions usually find holidays challenging. All the things that make up holidays (bright twinkling lights, crowds, parties, loud music) can make it too overstimulating.
Children become overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smells, and people. All the usual things they rely on, like routines, are gone or changed. Stress abounds!
When your child is stressed, their self-regulation will be at a low point. It’s hard for them to plan and organize so they can’t easily figure out how to help themselves. Working memory may not be strong so that compounds the problems. Under stress, flexible thinking is a real challenge. Often, children will do familiar things over and over in an attempt to keep themselves focused away from sources of stress.
But there are things you can do to help your child.
What you can do
1. Help your child be Calm, Alert, and Nourished.
Get lots of exercise but be sure to make time for calming and enjoyable sensory activities. Take the time to relax with Turtle Breathing. Do some yoga. Let your child enjoy some quiet time with things they enjoy – warm baths, flashing lights, sounds of nature, spinning fans … all those sensory experiences they enjoy. Schedule them in so you catch your child before stress mounts up too much.
Remember that wearing ‘dress-up’ clothes can be a sensory nightmare – those itchy pants, scratchy tags. Help your child choose clothing that’ll be comfortable and still appropriate to the events. You can also just decide to go unconventional and let your child wear sweatpants. You have to judge if dressing for the relatives is really worth it. Consider your child first.
Keep bedtimes as close to normal as possible. Make sure your child has lots of rest. It’s one of the best defenses against stress.
Also, if your child isn’t feeling well, don’t push for self-regulation. Just ease off and try again when they’re feeling better.
Make sure your child eats regularly (every two to three hours). Try your best to have a balance of protein, fruit, and vegetables. The holiday season is often packed with lots of sweets and carbohydrates. Do your best to sneak in foods that fuel real energy and better moods.
2. Recognize your child’s difficulty with planning and organizing.
Help them plan out their days so there’s some predictability. Make a list of things your child enjoys. Include some they can do on their own as well as some where they need adult input. Indoor activities can include crafts, coloring, playing with playdough, enjoying car or train collections, trampolining, sand/rice table, board or card games, computer or video games, drawing, reading, or watching videos. Outdoor activities can include swimming, bike riding, skating, skiing, bowling, running, or horseback riding. Show your child the activities available for that day (you choose) and let them select what they do and when. Make a visual plan like the example to the right. That way your child will remember what they’re doing and in what order. If you want, you can add times to the plan. That way, they won’t over-focus on just one activity. Even if you think your child will remember what’s on the plan, always make it visual. It takes minutes and will make like simpler for everyone.
Add activities that’ll prompt your child to help around the house. What are some things they can do to help get ready for a party or for dinner? They can make guest lists, set the table, sweep the floor, make place cards, and on and on. Even small things can help you while helping them.
Get them to help make lists of things you’ll need for traveling or visiting friends. What things should they pack for their holiday? What things do they want to take to Bobby’s house?
Another area for planning is small talk at gatherings. You and your child can anticipate some of the questions that’ll be asked. Make up lists of these questions (“What grade are you in now?”, “How’s school going?”) and comments (“Boy, you’ve really grown.”). Then put together some responses with your child. Typical small talk topics include weather, sports, movies, family, school, and food. Practice asking and answering these questions. It’ll make it so much easier for your child.
The more you engage them in organizing and planning ahead of time, the calmer and more engaged your child will be. It takes time but the investment is worth it.
3. Understand that change makes it more difficult for your child to control their impulses and be flexible. Changes in routine, activities, and diet during holidays make it hard for your child to self-regulate. Plan ahead for glitches. Write plans for “What will we do if …” our plane is late, our flight is canceled, Johnny can’t come over to play, I didn’t get the present I wanted, …. Get your child to contribute ideas. Put them in writing. Act out the situations, reversing the roles so sometimes you’re the child and your child is the adult. Play acting will help prepare them for the actual event.
Help get them ready for dealing with situations involving lots of people. You may be visiting a shop or mall, going to a family gathering, or going to a party or community event. Help your child anticipate what they’ll experience – lots of people close by, noise, music, smells of different foods, etc. Prepare them for these sensory experiences and also for what they can do to help themselves. Ask them: “What can you do if you don’t like a smell/crowd/noise?”
Make sure you help your child advocate for themselves. If they’re feeling overwhelmed by the sights, smells, etc., what can they do, where can they go? Bathrooms are often good retreats. They can be used by your child to calm themselves and prepare for returning. Give your child a timer so they spend only a limited time in the bathroom. Put together a ‘take five’ bag with your child (example to the left). A ‘take five’ bag contains things your child enjoys eating, drinking, looking at, and doing. If they’re starting to feel stressed or out of place, they can go to a quiet place and enjoy their ‘take five’ bag. The contents are calming and will focus their attention on positive things.
Yes, this all takes pre-planning and organization on your part but it’ll make the holiday season much more pleasant for your child. And, if your child is more at ease, the holidays will be more enjoyable for everyone.