How to make the holidays more fun for your child

By The Understood Team

At a glance

  • The holiday traditions you grew up with may not all work for your child with learning and thinking differences.

  • Tweaking family traditions can help make them fun and meaningful for your child.

  • Family traditions work best when they include everyone and give each person something they can do well and enjoy.

Family traditions can add a lot of joy and meaning to the holidays. But some of the activities you’ve always looked forward to may not work for your child with learning and thinking differences.

If your child has , for instance, picture taking with Santa might be stressful. A child with might find it hard to sit through the holiday pageant.

It can be disappointing when your traditions aren’t a good fit for your child. But you may not have to give up the traditions entirely. See if you can reinvent them so they work well for the entire family.

How can you make the experience something your child looks forward to year after year? Here are some questions to ask:

  • What activities might build on your child’s strengths and interests?
  • Are there activities you should avoid that might draw attention to your child’s weaknesses?
  • Why is this tradition important? What pieces of it matter most? What changes can you make that will preserve them?
  • Ask your child, “What do you like about this tradition? What isn’t working for you? What might make it better?”

Simple swaps to reinvent holiday traditions

Sometimes coming up with alternatives to familiar activities is fairly easy. Just a few changes can make all the difference.

Here are examples of tweaks to commonly stressful holiday activities for kids with learning and thinking differences:

The traditionMight not work for kids with…Ideas for reinventing it
Hosting a latke-making or cookie-decorating party
  • Sensory processing issues (cooking smells, too much activity and noise)
  • Trouble with fine motor skills (making or decorating treats)
  • Attention issues (multi-step cooking processes)
  • Limit the party guest list to a smaller, more manageable number.
  • Buy and serve takeout latkes or cookies. Or hold a potluck-style exchange, in which everyone cooks at home.
  • Choose a bakery or restaurant to visit as a family for a seasonal outing.
Taking turns reading A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve
  • Dyslexia (trouble reading and understanding what was read)
  • Auditory processing disorder (difficulty following the story)
  • ADHD (trouble paying attention to the story)
  • Ask your child to retell (or act out) the story — as it went or as your child wishes it went.
  • See A Christmas Carol performed as a play.
  • Listen to an audiobook version while sipping hot chocolate.
Taking a driving tour of elaborate holiday light displays
  • Issues with hyperactivity (sitting in one place or being buckled into a car seat for long stretches)
  • Sensory sensitivities (bright lights, steamy car)
Volunteering to prepare meals at a local food shelter
  • Social skills issues (interacting with guests)
  • Communication issues (talking with or understanding unfamiliar people)
  • Executive functioning issues (staying on task while preparing meals)
  • Help prepare the space the day before, when there are fewer people.
  • Have your child collect canned food from friends, neighbors, or family.
  • Help your child go through toys and donate gently used ones that aren’t played with anymore.

More holiday ideas

Key takeaways

  • When creating new traditions, avoid activities that may point out your child’s weaknesses.

  • You can create new traditions that continue the spirit of the old ones.

  • When you’re creating a holiday tradition, consider the values you want to impart to your child.

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    About the author

    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    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.