Holidays can be stressful for anyone, let alone for a child with special needs and his family.
Attending holiday family gatherings can be especially stressful for these children and their families. What should be a time filled with wonder and merriment, can quickly fade to disappointment, perhaps even meltdowns and the need to leave early.

Tips to a Less Stressful Holiday Gathering

We at Delaware Family Voices understand, and would like to share with you our tips to help you have a less stressful, more fun-filled, holiday family gathering.

Prepare your child in advance

Help reduce potential anxiety by explaining why you are going to the gathering, as well as review expectations while there. Show him photos, tell him social stories, outline the plan of where and with whom you will be. Think about other ways to minimize surprises that might set your child off. Providing details in advance that can calm your child might just be the ticket for a calm, enjoyable gathering.

Prepare the relatives before you arrive

Call in advance of your arrival. Explain your child’s unique differences, including why certain actions may cause her stress. Discuss how to best communicate with your child, as well as what to do if your child appears distressed and you are not immediately available. For example, if your child cannot tolerate scented candles, ask if they may not be lit while your child is present. If your child does not like to be hugged or kissed, ask relatives to wave.

Discuss your child’s differences with the other children

Consider explaining your child’s differences with the other children at the gathering, especially those who may not know him. Be prepared with simple, age appropriate explanations of your child’s disability, abilities, and interests. Also provide ideas that would encourage other children to include your child in their play when appropriate.


Review where the gathering will be held

Make sure your child will be physically comfortable while at the gathering. If your child requires a wheelchair, review how your child will get around during the gathering and if there are any modifications that can be made. Will the dinner table accommodate her wheelchair? Are there any particular hazards that could easily be removed for the duration of your visit? If needed, discuss any concerns with the hosts prior to your arrival. This will help avoid an unpleasant situation during the gathering.

Avoid food meltdowns

Review the menu with the hosts – then bring alternative choices if your child won’t eat what is being served. Alert the hosts if there are any food issues. Help them to understand why your child might be eating a sandwich or only rolls and mashed potatoes instead of enjoying that tremendous spread they spent hours preparing.

Don’t fight the fashion fau-pax

If your child has clothing issues or sensitivities, don’t force him to wear that fancy outfit if it means a potential crisis. If a collared shirt is going to cause friction, let it go. If buttons will become a fidgety issue, forgo shirts with them. Letting her dress in comfort might help everyone enjoy the event longer.
If a formal family photo is planned, perhaps bring that button-down shirt or collared dress to be worn only for the few moments it will take to snap the photos. Just be sure to prepare your child before it’s time to put on that special outfit, letting him know that it can removed as soon as the photographer is finished.


Establish a graceful exit plan before you arrive

Go to the gathering with high spirits, but have a contingency plan for if things get out of hand. An exit plan can be as simple as a phone call or text from a trusted friend or family member. Perhaps a special “call and rescue me” text from you to trigger that person to call, allowing you to graciously bow out of the gathering. If the gathering isn’t too far away, consider taking two cars, allowing some members to remain behind.
Your escape might only need to be a few moments away, after which you and your child can return to the party.  If your child is calmed by yoga or breathing exercises, or other exercise, take him to a quiet room or outside for a break. Consider taking a walk outside if you see your child needs time to unwind.

Bring your own activity supplies kit

If your child finds solace in an iPad or other electronic device, bring it, even if the gathering is considered a “device-free” event. If possible, include a new app or a new game to stimulate your child’s interest for a longer period of time. If loud noises might be an issue, bring noise-cancelling headphones, perhaps playing your child’s favorite calming music. Other kids might prefer coloring or drawing in a quiet room.

Volunteer to watch the kids

Keeping an eye on the kids might allow you to intercept a potential meltdown before it happens. Keeping on top of possible triggers and redirecting potential situations that could set off your child can prevent an outburst as well as provide for a great opportunity for all the kids to interact in a fun and enjoyable way.
Another alternative is to have a trusted teenager or young adult who knows your child well, to keep an eye on your child and her interaction with the other children.

Stay calm in the face of negativity

It can be hard to remain cool when someone seems to be criticizing your child or questioning your parenting skills. In such situations, it is even more important to stay calm, as oftentimes your child will pick up on your stress. If needed, graciously walk away, take a walk outside, find somebody else to talk with. Just do your best to remove yourself, and your child if involved, from the negativity. Don’t let the situation damper your holiday fun.

Limit your child’s time at the gathering

Determine in advance how long you believe your child will remain comfortable in the social setting. Then, make your plans around this schedule. Also consider informing the hosts prior to your arrival that you might only be able to attend for a limited time. This can help prevent hard feelings if the hosts note your early departure.

Most of all, trust yourself!

You know your child best. If something doesn’t “feel right” then follow your parental instincts. If you need to leave early to prevent a melt-down, then do so, even if others are attempting to convince you otherwise. In the end, do what’s best for you and your family.


When you get home, take a few minutes to rest and congratulate both yourself and your child on his accomplishment. Consider rewarding your child for her good behavior. Then sit back and enjoy the rest of the holiday!

A heartfelt Thank You goes a long way

Don’t forget to send the hosts a thank you note. This will go far in showing the hosts your appreciation in how they helped accommodate your child as well as help smooth the way for future gatherings.
Do you have any tips you’d like to share with us? Something you have found especially helpful? Please share in the Comments section below.

Happy Holidays to One and All!

From our house to yours, we wish you a very merry, happy, and stress-free holiday season!

Ann     Carrie     Kerry     Peggy     Carol

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