By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
With thoughts for those local families whose children face extra challenges dealing with the hustle and bustle of the season, Five Counties Children’s Centre has shared some tips for making the holidays merry and light.
“Whether celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Winter Solstice, the holiday season comes with high expectations, changes in routine and extra stimulation that can be overwhelming for some kids,” Occupational Therapist Ashley Parsons noted in the press release.
“As parents and families, it’s important to reduce the stress and anxiety created by the holidays to make it a more enjoyable time for everyone.”
It’s important to realize that it’s not just children on the autism spectrum or those with sensory-processing issues who feel such an impact, Parsons added.
“The pandemic has disrupted large gatherings and in-person celebrations, creating a situation where many kids aren’t equipped or don’t know how to socialize or engage in play with others outside their immediate families.”
The key is preparation as you gear up for the holidays and strive to help children understand and adapt to what is planned. In the case of a family visit, for example, let your kids know in advance where you are going and whom you will see.
Parsons shared other preparation tips, such as calendars to help mark events and count down the days together. Visuals – photos, maps, videos – are good to share with children who have communications challenges.
She also suggested creating a social story to help them learn ways to respond or interact in social settings.
“Social stories are great tools for giving details about a setting or visit, what happens there, and what actions or behaviour are expected from a child,” Parsons said.
“To be beneficial, social stories should be specific to the child and use simple, encouraging words to answer the where, when, who, what, how and why of the situation.”
The press release offer further tips to make the holidays merry and less stressful.
Decorate less, or do it gradually – While holiday decorations add to the spirit, they can also be disruptive for some kids. Pulling out pictures from previous holiday seasons can help them adjust to what’s planned (if you don’t have photos, be sure to take some this year). Having children participate in the decorating can ease the process, as can taking a step-by-step approach – set up the tree one day, for example, but wait until the next day to start decorating it. Once decorations are up, set clear guidelines about what can and can’t be touched.
Give gifts the right way – Most children get excited over holiday gifts, but they can be overwhelming for some kids. If a child starts to obsess over a desired gift, find ways to manage that interest.
Parsons gave the example of a five-for-five swap – give your child five stickers that can be exchanged for being able to talk about the gift for a five-minute period. To help manage expectations, help your child make a list of realistic items he or she wants – then share the list with family members and friends who can “register” to purchase one of these gifts.
Change for the better may not be better – Many children thrive on routine, and holidays throw off schedules. Having familiar items on hands – favourite books, toys games, activities – can help calm stressful situations. These are especially important if you are travelling for the holidays (in which case, rehearse in advance what will happen and what can be expected to east a child through any change or disruption of routine).
Food for thought – That holiday meal with friends and family members may not be enjoyable for kids who are picky eaters and those who don’t like unfamiliar foods. Some kids may also have allergies or special dietary requirements. Have some of your child’s favourite foods on hand for dinner (either by bringing them yourself or ensuring they are included in the menu). And identify a quiet area where, if needed, your child can go to eat on his or her own if the meal-time ruckus is too much.
Take a break – Have a plan in case holiday visits or festivities become too overwhelming. Agree on a signal with your child that he or she can use to say a break (or perhaps some alone time) would be welcome. Work with your host to find a pre-determined quiet space where your child can de-stress, perhaps with headphones equipped with songs or stories that will calm your child and shut out some of those surrounding noises.
Dress for success – Ensure your child wears clothing that is familiar and comfortable to minimize any discomfort at a special holiday dinner or event.
Prepare others for what to expect – Be open and honest in helping loved ones understand your child’s needs. Offer strategies on how they can help reduce energy and stress for your child, and help them see that (for example) your child may prefer not to be hugged. Share potential triggers that could cause your child to become upset, and stress to them the importance of remaining calm and neutral to avoid outbursts.
Finally, Parsons reminds everyone of the value of recycling, for the environment and for kids.
“You know your child best, so look to what has worked for your family in situations or holidays past,” she said.
“With a bit of planning and preparation, you and your child can enjoy a wonderful holiday season that is merry and a bit light.”