Holidays & celebrations

7 Common Behavior Triggers at Formal Celebrations

By Lexi Walters Wright

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Formal events such as weddings, holiday parties, graduations and other gatherings can be especially stressful for kids with learning and attention issues. Anticipating possible triggers for behavior problems can make it easier for both you and your child.

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father helping his son dress for a formal event
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Behavior Trigger #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 attire can be irritating to the point of causing a meltdown.

What to do: Err on the side of making your child comfortable, not picture-perfect. Try to buy only natural fibers such as cotton, remove any tags and make sure the clothing isn’t too small. Or consider letting your child change clothes after a ceremony. You can assure annoyed relatives that everyone is having a better time because of his more relaxed look.

young boy playing with small toys quietly on a church pew during an event
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Behavior Trigger #2: Too Much Sitting Quietly

Ceremonies can feel impossibly long for kids when they’re expected to be silent and still.

What to do: You might consider having your child skip an 80-minute mass or spend parts of it in the church nursery or classroom. If you do want him to attend, prepare him for the amount of sitting he’ll have to do. Consider bringing small toys he can play with quietly. A stress ball or some silly putty can be helpful for older kids who need something to fidget with. If reading is a problem, tell him he doesn’t have to follow along. Sit near an exit so he can make a quiet departure if he truly needs a break.

father introducing his young daughter to relatives
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Behavior Trigger #3: All That Contact

Hugs, handshakes, pats on the back, dancing closely to one another—formal events are rife with personal contact. If touching is problematic for your child, he may feel like recoiling at every turn.

What to do: Role-play interactions with family and friends before the event so he knows how greetings might look and feel. If your child really can’t handle casual touches, encourage him to smile, wave and make and maintain eye contact during hellos and conversations.

parents sitting and talking with their young son outside a temple
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Behavior Trigger #4: Unclear Rituals

Kids may feel anxious and become boisterous 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: Days ahead, talk to your child about what he’ll experience: the location, time frame, who’ll be there, what will be expected of him and how the event will unfold. The morning of—even during the drive over—run through it again. During breaks (after the ceremony and before the reception, for example), remind your child what comes next.

teen boy relaxing sitting on a couch with headphones
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Behavior Trigger #5: Overstimulation!

A noisy room full of dancing people and flashing lights can be way too much for kids who are sensitive to sights and sounds.

What to do: Bring headphones or earplugs as well as solo activities such as coloring books or cell phone games your child can retreat into. Be reasonable about how long to stay at an event. For instance, leaving early and missing the toasts may be better than staying and having your child be miserable. You could also arrange to have a babysitter take your child home.

Mother and daughter having a conversation at a party
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Behavior Trigger #6: Making Small Talk

It can be daunting for kids to engage in dinner conversation with the people sitting at their assigned table. Your child might clam up or nervously monopolize the conversation.

What to do: Beforehand, reinforce conversation basics and practice conversation starters. Encourage your child to practice with you, siblings and friends. If you’re not sitting next to your child at dinner, remind him he can find you if he’s feeling overwhelmed.

young boy sampling a piece of pizza at an outdoor event
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Behavior Trigger #7: Unfamiliar Foods

Meals are a major part of most formal events. For kids with picky palates, sensory issues or allergies, unfamiliar food can be cause for distress.

What to do: Pack and bring what you know your child can eat. Encourage him to try what looks interesting, but don’t force the issue. Someone else’s big day isn’t the ideal time to insist your child try something new.

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About the Author

Portrait of Lexi Walters Wright

Lexi Walters Wright is a veteran writer and editor who helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Jenn Osen Foss

Jenn Osen-Foss, M.A.T., is an instructional coach, supporting teachers in using differentiated instruction, interventions and co-planning.

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