Formal events can be stressful for kids who learn and think differently. But when you know what to watch out for, you can cut back on challenging behaviors (or avoid them altogether).
Here are seven common triggers for kids at formal events.
1. Restrictive clothing
Some kids are extra-sensitive to clothing textures. Others are simply miserable wearing things like button-down shirts and fancy shoes. For these kids, dressy clothes can be irritating to the point of causing a tantrum or meltdown.
What to do: Focus on making your child comfortable, not picture-perfect. Look for clothes with natural fibers like cotton. Remove any tags, and make sure the clothing isn’t too small. You can also have your child change clothes after a ceremony. If your relatives get annoyed, let them know that everyone will have a better time if your child is more relaxed.
2. Too much sitting quietly
Worship services, long dinners, and ceremonies can feel impossibly long for kids when they’re expected to be silent and still.
What to do: If you want your child to attend, bring small, quiet toys to play with. A stress ball or some Silly Putty can be helpful for older kids who need something to fidget with. Sit near an exit so your child can take breaks without disturbing people.
Or maybe your child can join at the halfway point. You can even share an information card with your faith leader about what your child needs to be comfortable at a service.
3. Physical contact
Hugs, handshakes, pats on the back, dancing closely to one another — formal events are full of hard moments for kids who need personal space. Kids who are sensitive to touch might even recoil from physical contact.
What to do: Role-play interactions with family and friends beforehand. This shows your child what greetings might look and feel like. If your child really can’t handle casual touches, encourage smiling, waving, and making eye contact during hellos and conversations.
4. Unclear rituals
Kids may feel anxious and get restless if they’re just told to quietly go along with what’s happening. They might not understand the sequence of events at a religious service, for instance.
What to do: A few days before an event, talk to your child about what will happen: the location, time frame, who’ll be there, behavior expectations, and how the event will unfold. The morning of — or even during the ride or walk over — run through it again. During breaks, remind your child what comes next.
5. Too much stimulation
A noisy room full of people can be way too much for kids who are sensitive to sights and sounds. It’s also hard for kids who struggle with focus.
What to do: Bring headphones or earplugs and solo activities like coloring books your child can retreat into. You might have to compromise on how long to stay at an event, too. Leaving early may be better than staying and having your child be miserable.
6. Making small talk
It can be scary for kids to have to talk about themselves with relatives and family friends they haven’t seen in a while. They might clam up or nervously talk nonstop.
What to do: Talk about conversation basics and practice conversation starters. Have your child practice with you, siblings, and friends. If you’re not sitting next to your child at dinner, remind your child to come and find you if feeling overwhelmed.
7. Unfamiliar foods
Meals are a major part of most formal events. For kids who are picky eaters or who have sensory challenges or allergies, unfamiliar food can be a trouble spot.
What to do: Pack and bring what you know your child can eat. Encourage your child to try what looks interesting, but don’t force it. A big day isn’t the right time to insist your child try something new.
Learn more about food challenges and the holidays.
About the author
About the author
Lexi Walters Wright is the former community manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.
Jenn Osen-Foss, MAT is an instructional coach, supporting teachers in using differentiated instruction, interventions, and co-planning.