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Holiday Resilience: Planning Your Child’s Happiest Holiday Season Yet

By: Angela Nelson, Ed.D., BCBA
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Sister and brother making winter holiday gingerbread cookies with a mother

The winter holidays bring fantastic celebratory occasions and traditions, but they are also packed full of changes in routine, new and novel environmental stressors, and shifting expectations. These conditions can make it hard for neurodiverse children to get into the holiday spirit the same way their neurotypical counterparts do, but with the right support in the right places, every child can have a truly magical holiday season.

Parents of children with learning, social/and or behavioral challenges may want to prepare situational accommodations and modifications along with festive learning activities so everyone in the family can enjoy the merriest season equitably. That’s why we’re taking a closer look at the biggest stressors brought on by this time of year along with the greatest opportunities for educational fun. We’re providing top tips and strategies for crafting holiday considerations and educational exercises that can help your child maximize their holiday cheer this year.

Activities of Daily Living

Activities of daily living (ADLs), sometimes called “life skills” or “self-help skills,” are taught year-round, but they can be especially helpful during the holiday season. Using a systematic approach to teaching these skills can apply to a variety of ADLs this time of year:

  • Many children have difficulty wearing winter clothing. To help them build up their tolerance, have your child try wearing a snow glove for just a few seconds and then take it off. Add a few more seconds each time you practice with the snow glove until they can comfortably wear it.
  • New foods often make an appearance during the holidays. To help your child build their tolerance for exploring new foods, ask them to accommodate one on the dining table for a few nights a week. Then move the food to their plate but don’t ask that they eat it. Eventually, ask them to just smell it for a few nights, and eventually request they give it a small try.
  • The above approach can also be applied to sitting at the table in preparation for upcoming family events. Use a timer each night and allow your child to have something preferred with them at the table. You can ask your child to stay seated a few seconds longer, using the timer as a cue, for each night you sit down for dinner. With all of these examples, offering a reward for trying new things can make the process more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Academic Skills

The holidays present some wonderful opportunities for working on academic skills with a fun holiday twist. Let your child know that the below activity examples make for great educational opportunities, but they should also be enjoyable ways to get into the holiday spirit:

  • Have some festive fun with numbers! Help your child count their money, check prices on presents they want to buy friends and family members, and discuss simple budgeting. They can also practice making in-store purchases, which involves math and some social skills too.
  • Baking cookies is full of academic practice, so grab an apron and get counting! From measuring out ingredients with the correct tools and counting out dough scoops to reading recipe instructions, there are several opportunities for your child to practice a variety of skills, with some motor work thrown in too!
  • Many families enjoy the tradition of opening an advent calendar during the holidays. This is a great way for your child to work on date and number recognition and practice waiting skills with built-in rewards!

Managing Change

The holidays can bring about changes, including unique food smells, unfamiliar decorations, school breaks, vacations, and schedule differences. Try the below strategies to help your child tolerate change.

  • Many children benefit from changes occurring more gradually, such as seeing a small number of decorations come out and be put up each day or week.
  • Giving children a heads up about changes coming can allow them to better prepare. Use a visual schedule or color-coded calendar to set reminders for changes and events such as when a Christmas tree is coming/going, dates of Kwanzaa, and when the grandparents are visiting to help your child feel more prepared.
  • Allowing your child to have some choice in the decision-making process (e.g., how we decorate or what we do during a school break) can help them feel more in control and have some buy-in.

Set Expectations

Setting clear behavioral expectations at the outset rather than assuming your child knows what to do can lead to a more peaceful holiday season for everyone. Some examples include:

  • If you don’t want your child spending all day on their devices during winter break, set clear rules around their usage and communicate expectations so everyone understands the plan.
  • Some families, especially those with teens, write up a behavior contract. These often include what the behavior expectation is from each family member and what happens when the expectation is or is not met.
  • Have all family members sign the contract so the behavior contract is objective, and confusion is kept to a minimum.

Keep Behavior Protocols Running

While it might seem like a good idea to scale back on rules and therapies, the holidays are usually a time when consistency is most helpful. Some things to consider:

  • You can work with teachers and/or therapists to help you prepare and suggest ideas to maintain your child’s skills throughout the holiday season.
  • Continuing to see providers and keeping the schedule as consistent as possible can help keep your child feeling at ease when other changes might be out of their control.
  • Make sure you understand how to run positive reinforcement systems outside of therapy, just in case your providers take vacations and are not as available as usual (Pro tip: this is good to know all year round!)

While the holiday season is not without novelties and unavoidable challenges, parents can do themselves (and their children) a favor by proactively planning ahead, working on holiday-infused skills, and enacting a few accommodations that reduce the chances of holiday stressors derailing your family’s fun.

Neurodiverse children deserve to experience a joyous holiday season with their loved ones, and we hope you try out some of the tips and strategies provided here this year to help make it happen!

About the Author

Black and white headshot of Angela Nelson

Executive Director of Clinical Services at RethinkCare

Dr. Angela Nelson is the Vice President of Operations & Executive Director of Clinical Services for RethinkCare. Dr. Nelson oversees RethinkCare’s consultation services and content generation for the Parenting and Professional solutions. She began at Rethink in 2011 and specializes in working with parents raising children and teens with learning, social, and behavioral challenges, as well as organizations motivated to expand their neurodiversity efforts. Dr. Nelson holds a doctorate in education from the University of Southern California (USC), master’s degree in counseling from California State University, Northridge, a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA, and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

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