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Take the Stress Out and Keep the Ho-Ho-Ho In the Holidays

This can be a very, very busy time of year for many. There’s the shopping for the holidays, preparing food for celebrations with family, friends and company, decorating the house, and wrapping gifts, . . . all while trying to keep up with the ongoing commitments you already have. Phew!

Your children on the other hand just sit back and wait in anxious anticipation, right?

Wrong! While parents are scampering around stressing about everything that needs to get done children can absorb holiday stress without even showing it. Children can also get lost in the shuffle as the new busyness challenges a mom and dad’s ability to stay in-tune to and really notice their child’s subtle moods, level of anxiety, and degree of overwhelm.

Are you aware that the amount of holiday stress you are handling may be passed along to your children?

Never forget that young children pick up on your feelings and your moods. You are a life force for them – a constant barometer that they regulate their selves with and set their moods to. If you are stressed or anxious, you children will be as well.

Despite your best efforts to minimize change during the holidays and downplay the hype, your kids are being bombarded with holiday talk from friends at school, as well as media messages from businesses, television, and the Internet. Between the holiday hype, the confusion that comes when things are less predictable, and the negative energy you may be giving off, it’s easy for any child to become anxious, over-stimulated, and difficult. As a result, behaviors can erode quickly and children can dissolve into heaps of uncontrollable blabber that are prone to violent outbursts.

Let me guess? THIS is not your idea of a peaceful holiday. So here are three very important strategies that will help prevent this from occurring in your household.

1 - Design a ‘sensory-friendly holiday’ environment. As the big day approaches it’s important to keep your child’s unique sensory sensitivities in mind. The sooner you start, the better results you will have. Consider your child’s sensory sensitivities and make a plan for each:

- Touch sensitivity - Teach your child ways to politely let visitors or hosts know they don’t want to be touched. This can come in the form of verbal statements or non-verbal signals. Alert visitors and hosts in advance.

- A sensitive nose - Be cautious of scents you place around the house during the holiday season such as scented candles. Unfortunately, even the wonderful smell of a fresh cut Christmas tree might be overwhelming to some children.

- Light sensitivity - Always have a supply of cheap yet fun sunglasses on hand to shade your child’s eyes from glaring department store lights or Christmas tree blinkers. You never know where you will find them.

- Sound sensitivity - Wherever your travels take you during the holidays, bring earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones during big family gatherings or busy stores. Plugging your child into some calming music can be a lifesaver as well.

- Sensitive tastes and tummies - Knowing what your child’s allergies and food issues are, let your host know in advance. If the list is too long bring alternative food and don’t apologize for it.

Paying attention to the things in your child’s environment that can easily over stimulate his senses will increase the potential for joy and calm.

2 - Maintain a predictable routine. As much as your child may look forward to the upcoming holiday festivities any ‘unknown’ can trigger anxiety. Children with special needs do best when they know what is happening next. Therefore, it’s very important that you communicate what will be occurring on a daily basis. A visual schedule is a great way to do this.

Depending on your child you can present the entire schedule at once or choose to relay what is happening on a day-to-day or week-by-week approach. When your visual calendar starts before school vacation, you want to create two schedules – one while ‘in’ school and one when ‘out’ of school, unless your child is home schooled.

Being home from school for holiday break is different from going to school everyday yet the days still need to be predictable. Creating a schedule or calendar for each will help prepare your child for the shift in daily activities and minimize meltdowns.

3 - Consider a low key holiday. There’s no rule that you have to celebrate the holidays the same way you always have. Toning it down doesn’t mean it won’t be enjoyable. It will be more enjoyable if it reduces anxiety and minimizes meltdowns. That’s what you want, right?

Start by making a list of the things you typically did in past years. Then ask every family member to pick the two things they can’t live without when celebrating the holiday. Consider eliminating everything else to make your holiday load lighter.

If you can’t bring yourself to eliminate all but the two things each person picked, choose one or two this year with the intention to eliminate more the following year. Downsizing will help minimize negative energy and boost positive energy into your holiday so that everyone feels more happy and relaxed.

Taking action now with the strategies mentioned above will reap many benefits in the weeks to come. Whether your family celebrates Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or . . . please know that I sincerely wish you a holiday season that places smiles on everyone's face.

For more strategies and tips to help create the holiday you dream of, click here to access this ebook on Kindle, Autism Parenting: How to Have a Happy Holiday with your Child on the Spectrum.

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