The Christmas holiday season is meant to be a festive and more relaxed time of year, with extra time to spend with friends and family. Yet, it can be a stressful time of year for many, and this is compounded for families that have children with special needs. A failure to plan ahead is often the biggest contributor to holiday stress over the Christmas/New Year period.
Most parents with special needs kids feel that they are too busy to sit and plan, but what they don’t always realise is that failing to carve out time to proactively prepare for life transitions, like school holidays, can actually rob them of even more time as problems emerge that could have been avoided.
It is common for children’s symptoms to get worse over the holidays, because they are thrown out of their comfort zone and routine. This can negatively impact the whole family. But holidays don’t need to be this way.
Here are some tips which can help your family experience more enjoyment over the break:
Start the holiday period with calm parents
Children, particularly those on the spectrum, can be like little radars that detect any change in the emotional state of their parents. Behavioural problems in the kids will be escalated if the parents have not taken time to calm themselves before the beginning of the holiday period. If both parents can take some time for themselves before the holidays start, things can seem more manageable.
Start the holiday period with calm kids by allowing them to chill out in their home environment
Before the holidays even begin, children are already saturated in second-hand stress, as their parents deal with extra functions, tying up end-of-year work, Christmas shopping and the like. Allowing your children the chance to wind down is crucial. If you have planed to go away, try to do this after they have had that time of rest, even if it is only for two or three days.
Provide your special needs child with as much consistency as possible over the holiday period
The school term is one of structure and predictability. For some children, it may include a high level of visual supports. If so, it is beneficial to try as much as possible to have that consistency across into the holiday period at home. This might mean structuring in some activities for the morning, that they know will happen each day. It might mean including a visual schedule at home if that is what your child normally benefits from.
Choose activities and environments that match your child’s abilities
We often have in mind things we would love our child to experience, only to be disappointed when they meltdown, and the planned outing comes to an unhappy end. It is good to think hard about what our child will be able to cope with. For example, when playing in a park, some children might prefer to do a sensory exploration activity where they go looking/feeling the grass/bark/sand etc. Other families might like to set up a treasure hunt game. Families should also consider the time of day they might be visiting certain places, depending on whether their child copes in crowds, noisy environments, hot temperatures etc.
Allow your child to have enough time to enjoy his/her special interests throughout the holiday period
For a child on the Spectrum, daily life can be exhausting, and an appropriate amount of time to do what they love will life their mood and energise them to do other things.
Stock your cupboard with fresh board games and books
Children on the Spectrum often have minds that crave constant stimulation, so being prepared with books on topics they are interested in and games that require strategy is a step in the right direction.
Allow ample time for your child to commune with nature
People with special needs often find themselves recharged by nature. They can be energized (and calmed!) by running on the beach, swimming in the waves, riding on a horse, or just by looking at a bug, in a world where they are not ignored or pushed away.
Expose your child to something new when they are ready
Once your child is refreshed, holidays can be a time to introduce them to something new and create a memory which will help them begin to associate holidays with positive experiences. Some children may have to be prepared beforehand for the new activity.
Whether it be a ride on a horse, a farmstay, a visit to a science museum, a new experience can help refresh them, and it may even become a strong interest which may lead your child to their future career!
Never expect things to be perfect
No matter how hard we try, the holidays will always have ups and downs, and it is good for parents not to become too discouraged when things go wrong - even if it is at the dinner table on Christmas day! Keep expectations realistic, and you may be pleasantly surprised.