The holidays can be very difficult for children with disabilities. Changes in their routine, both at home and at school and unexpected family and friends coming for visits can be the cause of stress and anxiety. Many children may not cope well in these chaotic social situations that can occur around the holidays. The excitement and heightened activities can cause confusion and upset.
Over my many years of working with severe behaviors, I have created a list of strategies to help families help their children survive and enjoy the holidays.
1. A great way to start is with videos and books that describe the upcoming holidays in fun and entertaining ways. Some may even use favored characters that your child may relate to! Homemade social stories that include photographs of friends, family members or people you want to familiarize your child with, participating in previous holiday festivities are another great way to help them prepare for upcoming events. Using videos of past holidays that include friends and family are a great way to help them remember all the fun everyone had. Starting the month before the actual holiday will give you plenty of time to discover what activities may cause an upset and help you make preparations accordingly. Getting friends, neighbors or relatives to help role play or practice the celebration ahead of time can be fun as well as helpful.
2. Picking out costumes of favorite characters or that you know will be comfortable to wear, like pajamas, can be put on multiple times before the actual day so they become familiar and give you time to make modifications if you need to!
3. Putting a big calendar, that you can write on, up on a door or wall and that is easily accessible to everyone in the family can help keep everyone organized as well as prepare your child for upcoming events. Make sure you write regular activities as well as special activities down on it as soon as you know they are happening. This would include parties at school, no-school days, shopping days, when company is coming, when school is starting again, etc. Make it part of your daily routine to review the next day’s activities before bedtime and if possible, have your child help cross off the days as they go along. This is a great time to review what they did that day, how much fun they had and what to expect with the upcoming activities as well.
4. If possible have your child help with preparations for the upcoming event. Picking out costumes or special clothing, wrapping gifts, decorating, help with food preparation and helping to plan some of the activities may help reduce anxiety.
5. Make a list of the different activities that will happen during the event and who will be coming. Discuss this ahead of time with your child so they will be well prepared. Have them help you make a separate list of favorite activities that you know they will enjoy doing. If you need to, you can even plan when your child can do the favorite activities so they will be evenly spaced throughout the whole event. It may help to have a quiet place to go to relax if they become overwhelmed with the noise and confusion of the party. A special corner or room would work. In it, place some favorite reading materials, quiet puzzles, maybe a set of headphones with their favorite music to listen to. A timer in the quiet area can help them prepare for their transition back to the event. You can remind them that when it rings, they will need to rejoin the party.
6. Get excited. Have fun! Even for events like Halloween, your child may only be able to go to one house but praise and celebrate their accomplishment! This will help them feel more positive about the next event. Take lots of pictures and videos. These can be used to make a new memory book that can help you and your child prepare for next year!
Victoria Dalool, M.A., is a Clinical Director for Pacific Child and Family. For more information about Pacific Child and family, visit their web site here.