Holidays can be a great time to make memories and be around family. But they can also cause stress and worry for some kids who learn and think differently. That’s especially true of kids with ADHD and sensory challenges, and kids with anxiety. They can become overwhelmed by the added pressures that come with the holidays.
Here are eight common situations to look out for, and ways to help.
1. Dressing up
Why it may cause anxiety: Sensory processing challenges and anxiety often go hand in hand. For kids who are sensitive to touch, just anticipating dressing up in clothes they wouldn’t normally wear can cause anxiety. The texture of certain fabrics or wearing things like tights, ties, or dressy shoes may be upsetting.
How you can help: Give your child a choice between two acceptable outfits. If everyday clothing isn’t an option, try to make your child as comfortable as possible in dressier outfits. Remove itchy tags. And bring everyday clothes for your child to change into as soon as possible.
Learn more sensory-friendly solutions.
2. Seeing Santa
Why it may cause anxiety: Meeting Santa Claus can come with a lot of pressure for any child. But it can be particularly overwhelming for some kids with learning and thinking differences. Also, kids with language difficulties may worry about telling Santa what they want.
How you can help: Before you plan a visit to see Santa, ask if your child wants to go. If the answer is a firm “no,” respect that. You can also let your child know that if you do go, it’s OK to back out before getting to the front of the line.
Practice with your child what to tell Santa in advance. Consider letting Santa or an elf know that your child gets nervous around strangers and would prefer to just shake Santa’s hand. Or you can ask one of Santa’s elves to hand Santa a note explaining how your child feels and how best to interact with your child.
3. Gift getting
Why it may cause anxiety: It can be disappointing for kids when they don’t get the gift they wanted. And anxious kids might worry about whether they’re going to hurt someone’s feelings if they don’t hide their disappointment and express thanks to the giver.
How you can help: Talk in advance about the importance of acknowledging the thought behind a gift. Rehearse appreciative responses like “Thank you, that was nice,” or “Thank you for thinking of me.” Keep in mind that this will take ongoing practice.
Learn why some kids have tantrums when they open gifts.
4. Holiday foods
Why it may cause anxiety: Holiday foods can cause anxiety for a number of reasons. Kids with picky palates or sensory challenges can find the flavors, smells, and textures of traditional holiday foods hard to deal with. They may also be hesitant to try new things or speak up about their preferences. And they might get more anxious if pressured to do so.
How you can help: Show your child how to take “thank you” bites during a meal. After a small taste of a new food, your child can say, “No, thank you” or “Yes, thank you, I’d like some more.” But also bring along food your child likes. Forcing the issue isn’t worth compromising everybody’s holiday cheer.
Learn a few tips on holiday food sensitivities.
5. Parties and holiday gatherings
Why it may cause anxiety: For some kids, social situations can be especially difficult. They may be afraid of meeting new people or speaking to relatives they haven’t seen in a long time. Some kids may avoid parties or interacting with others because they’re afraid of being judged.
How you can help: Give your child a graceful out. If the party is local and you have a sitter (or if your child is old enough to stay home alone), it’s OK for your child to miss this gathering. If you’re traveling and that’s not an option, find an out-of-the-way spot from which your child can watch. You can also ask the host if there’s another room your child can hang out in.
6. Small talk
Why it may cause anxiety: Chitchat like “How much you’ve grown!” or “How’s school going?” is common at holiday gatherings. But some kids with learning and thinking differences are uncomfortable talking about school, because it can make them feel bad. Other kids might struggle with conversation skills.
How you can help: Role-play social interactions. Help your child come up with answers to common questions and practice how to engage in conversation. Teach polite ways to change topics, like asking questions of the other person. And before you go, agree on a signal your child can use when you need to jump in and help.
7. Performances or recitals
Why it may cause anxiety: Many things about school holiday performances can make kids feel anxious. They have to learn lines, master dance moves, and adjust to changes in school routines. They may also be uncomfortable being in the spotlight.
How you can help: Talk with your child’s school about expectations for the performance. How often will they rehearse? How can you help prepare your child at home? Work together to create a game plan for your child to discreetly leave the stage if it’s too overwhelming.
8. “Naughty or nice”
Why it may cause anxiety: Kids hear a lot about who knows if they’re “naughty or nice.” Add books like Elf on the Shelf or Mensch on a Bench to the mix, and kids who think very literally may not understand that they aren’t really being watched.
How you can help: Consider letting your child in on the secret. Helping out with your Elf on the Shelf’s antics can make kids feel grown up. Reading fables and fairy tales together lets you talk about how some books exaggerate to express a message — like stories about being “naughty or nice.” Kids who like to draw or write poetry might enjoy creating a funny “alternative” story. It’s hard for a laughing brain to be anxious.
Use an anxiety log to help understand when and why your child feels anxious. You can also download a worksheet to help identify holiday challenges and strategies to manage them.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Jerome Schultz, PhD is a clinical neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Harvard Medical School Department of Child Psychiatry.