8 difficult holiday situations for kids with anxiety

By Amanda Morin

Holidays can be a great time to make memories and be around family. But they can also be a time of additional worry for kids who already struggle with anxiety. Sometimes, the additional social demands can be overwhelming and trigger negative responses. Here are eight situations to look out for, and ways to help.

1. Dressing up

Why it may cause anxiety: Sensory processing issues and anxiety often go hand in hand. This is especially common for kids who are oversensitive to the information coming in from their senses. Even 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: Consider whether it’s better to have attire that’s casual and calm or fancy and fussy. You might want to give your child a choice between two acceptable outfits. If dressy clothes are unavoidable, try to make your child as comfortable as possible. Buy soft, cotton clothing. Remove itchy tags. And bring everyday clothes for your child to change into as soon as possible.

2. Seeing Santa

Why it may cause anxiety: There’s a lot of pressure in meeting Santa Claus, whether your child has anxiety or not. But it can be particularly tough for kids who have anxiety around strangers. They may feel scared to sit with someone they don’t know. Also, kids who have spoken language issues 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.

Prior to the visit, practice with your child what to tell Santa. 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 kids with anxiety 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.

4. Holiday foods

Why it may cause anxiety: Holiday foods can cause anxiety for a number of reasons. Kids with picky palates or sensory processing issues can find the flavors, smells, and textures of traditional 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.

5. Parties and holiday gatherings

Why it may cause anxiety: Noise, music, and décor can make many kids anxious. But for some kids with anxiety, 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. They may also be worried that they won’t know how to act or respond in a new situation.

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. Maybe there’s a table that’s removed from the chaos. 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 anxiety are uncomfortable talking about school, because it can trigger negative emotions. 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 director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Jerome Schultz, PhD is a clinical neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Harvard Medical School Department of Child Psychiatry.