Holidays & celebrations

10 Holiday Stressors for Kids With Learning and Attention Issues

By Amanda Morin

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Holidays can be a time to make memories and spend time with family. They can also be a time of stress for kids with learning and attention issues. Here are 10 stressors to look out for, and ways to help.

269Found this helpful
Brothers sitting outside a church dressed in matching sweater vests for the holidays
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Dressing Up

The problem: Some kids are sensitive to the texture of certain fabrics. Others just don’t like wearing things like tights, ties or dressy shoes. The feel of dress clothes can be so annoying, in fact, it can cause kids to get upset.

How you can help: Consider whether it’s better to have casual and calm or fancy and fussy. 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 he can.

A young boy having his turn sitting on santa’s lap while other parents with children wait in line
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Seeing Santa

The problem: Kids who have spoken language issues may struggle to tell Santa what they want. Those jolly whiskers can be scratchy and uncomfortable for kids with sensory processing issues. And kids prone to impulsivity may blurt out that Santa isn’t real.

How you can help: Before your visit, practice with your child what to say to (and about) Santa. Consider, too, asking one of Santa’s elves to hand Santa a note explaining your child’s needs.

Parents looking on as their two children open a present together
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Gift Getting

The problem: It can be disappointing for a child when he doesn’t get a gift he wants or likes. Kids who struggle with self-control or social skills may not always have the skills to hide their disappointment and express thanks to the giver.

How you can help: Talk 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.

Grandfather serving food to his grand daughter at a family holiday dinner
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Holiday Foods

The problem: Holiday foods can be stressors 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.

How you can help: Try using “thank you” bites. After a small taste of a new food, your child can say, “no, thank you” or “yes, thank you, I’d like some.” But also bring along food he likes to make sure there’s something he’ll eat. Forcing the issue isn’t worth compromising everybody’s holiday cheer.

Back view of a mother and daughter standing outside hugging and admiring holiday lights together
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Party Crowds

The problem: Noise and chaos make many kids anxious, but it can be especially hard for kids with sensory processing issues. Physical contact can be another stressor. Hugs, kisses and even a light hand on the back as someone passes by can set them off.

How you can help: Take your child out of the fray. Find an out-of-the-way spot from which he can watch, smile and wave. If noise is a problem, ask the host if there’s another room your child can hang out in.

Grandmother and granddaughter snuggling and chatting
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Small Talk

The problem: Chitchat about “how much you’ve grown!” or “how’s school going?” is common at holiday gatherings. Some kids with learning and attention issues are uncomfortable talking about school. Others struggle with conversation skills.

How you can help: Role-play social interactions and help your child come up with answers to common questions. Teach polite ways to redirect conversation, such as asking questions of the other person. Before you go, agree on a signal your child can use when he needs you to jump in and help.

Siblings working on christmas cards and ornamants
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Holiday Projects

The problem: Making an egg-carton menorah or a gingerbread house can be frustrating—especially to kids who have trouble with motor skills or following directions. And attention issues can get in the way of finishing a project.

How you can help: Put your child in charge of some of the project planning. When he’s the one choosing, he’s more likely to be motivated to see it through to the end. Try also to focus on the process, not the product. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be fun.

Close up of teens performing with musical instruments
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Performances or Recitals

The problem: Many things about school holiday performances can be stressful for kids. They have to learn lines, master dance moves and adjust to changes in school routine. Kids who struggle with reading, spoken language, memory or motor skills can have an extra tough time.

How you can help: Talk with your child’s school about expectations for the performance. How often will he be rehearsing? How you can help him prepare at home? Create a game plan for your child to leave the stage if he gets overwhelmed or needs a break.

Brother and sister having a quiet moment sitting on a window seat drinking cocoa from mugs
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Holiday Decorations

The problem: Bright blinking lights and loud holiday music can be overwhelming for kids who are sensitive to sights and sounds. Piles of presents displayed at home may be too tempting for kids with impulse-control issues.

How you can help: Set up a “holiday-free” zone at home—somewhere your child can go that’s free of those sights and sounds. Let him bring an activity to other people’s homes and ask if there’s a quiet place he can hang out. And you might consider hiding the presents until you’re ready for your child to open them.

Back view of a father with his arm around his daughter whispering in her ear
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“Naughty or Nice”

The problem: Kids hear a lot about who knows if they’re “naughty or nice.” Add Elf on the Shelf or the Mensch on a Bench to the mix, and kids who think very literally may not understand they aren’t really being watched.

How you can help: Consider letting your child in on the secret and having him help with your Elf on the Shelf’s antics. Reading fables and fairy tales together lets you talk about how they use exaggerated circumstances to convey a message. Just like stories about being “naughty or nice!”

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You want to choose holiday gifts that the preschoolers and kindergartners in your life will love. It’s even better when those presents match their interests and abilities. Here are some of 2015’s hottest toys, according to forecasts by major retailers like Amazon, Target and Kmart—and what to consider about them in relation to your child’s strengths and challenges.

Understood does not endorse or receive financial compensation for the sale of any of these products.

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Traditional holiday crafts can be tough for kids who have issues with fine motor skills. If your child has trouble drawing, cutting or gluing, consider these fun alternatives. Some even can help build motor skills!

About the Author

Portrait of Amanda Morin

Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Sheldon Horowitz

Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D., is senior director of learning resources and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

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