Surviving the holidays with your sanity intact

Our families are far from typical.  So why do we try to be that perfect “Norman Rockwell” family during holiday get-togethers? Tell yourself right now that you and your family are going to enjoy the holidays in your own way and at your own pace.  Stop worrying about what others think and make the holidays meaningful for your children. Here are some holiday issues that might come up and some creative ideas to make it work for your family.

by Dawn Villarreal, One Place for Special Needs

Holiday traditions

Put your child in charge

If your child is unable to hang ornaments on a tree, there are still ways to make this enjoyable for her.  You might ask her which are her favorite ornaments so these can be put on the front of the tree where she can admire them.  You can ask your child to sort the ornaments from biggest to smallest or by colors.

When you get holiday cards in the mail, make it your child’s job to put them someplace.  You can tie a string from one end of a wall to another and have your child place them on the string.  You can ask him to sort them (by snowman, tree, horizontal and vertical, etc.).  Encourage conversation by making it his job to show the new cards to Dad or a sibling each day.

Don’t critique

If your child puts all the decorations on one side of the tree, let him.  He will be happy with his accomplishment.  Later when he is involved in other activities you can rearrange them.  If he asks, you can thank him again for his hard work and tell him you wanted to space them out a bit so everyone could see the great job he did.

Engage your child

You might find that your child is completely uninterested with the tradition of the holidays.  Engage your child by finding decorations that are meaningful to him.  Get creative!  A tree with stuffed animals is easier to decorate (just lay them on the branch) and is way more interesting for your child.  A wreath or other decorations that include trains, Spongebob or whatever your child enjoys will be special. 

Alternative decorations

Teacher stores have great holiday themed decorations that are meant to go on bulletin boards.  But you can tape these to your child’s bedroom or play room wall.  You and your child might have fun designing your own gingerbread house, decorating Mr. and Mrs. Snowman or creating a replica of the North Pole.

Baking cookies

Do your cookies have to look like holiday cookies?  If your child has severe motor skills challenges, involve your child as much as possible.  It doesn’t matter if they are misshapen or simply pre-made cookie dough squares dropped on the baking tray.  The important part is that you two did it together.

Use this time to teach new skills.  Do a search in our Resource section for “visual recipe.”  You’ll find picture symbol instructions on how to make a cookie snowman, cornflake Christmas wreaths, reindeer cookies and much more.

Respect your Child’s Sensory Boundaries

Is your child sensitive to smells?  Don’t flood your home with scented candles and potpourri.  If your child needs periods of quiet time, don’t have holiday music playing all day.  Think of your child’s sensory challenges and keep that in mind when decorating and putting together festivities.

Santa Special needs Santa day

Each year more park districts are offering a special Santa day for special needs kids.  These are by appointment so children don’t have to stand in long lines.  Ask your park district if they would consider doing this for the many special needs families in their district.  They can even promote their special day in our Events section to reach area families.

Come prepared

If you visit a regular Santa, help your child have a more meaningful experience by prepping the Santa ahead of time.  When you are next in line, have a brief note to hand to the “elf” that says, “My child has a disability.  It helps if you can….”  Then tell Santa what is helpful.  It could be talking in short sentences or asking questions that your child can simply answer yes or no.  You might also tell Santa something that your child likes so he has something to talk about.

If your child has communication challenges you might make a short script or visual book that he can show Santa.  You might make this a fill in the blank activity to get your child involved.

“Hi Santa, my name is __________.  I’ve been (pretty good, real good) this year.  I would like a ___________ and __________.


Toy list

While many kids love to go through a toy catalog and check off what they want, your child may have difficulty doing this.  There are simply too many choices.  So what to do?

Who knows your child better than you?  Go through your toy catalogs and cut out the pictures of toys you think would be interesting for your child.  Tape them all in a cheap notebook (make sure you write what catalog you got it from).  Have him check off the toys that he really likes.

If a booklet is too much you can show two pictures at a time.  Explain what each toy does.  Ask your child if she likes either toy or ask her to select the toy she likes better.  Continue with the next batch of pictures. 

Involve your child in gift giving

Here’s an activity to get your child thinking about other family members.  Make a checklist with the names of your family members.  Go to a dollar store and let them pick out a present for everyone on the list.  It allows them to do something personal for their family members without breaking the bank.  If it is difficult for your child to make a selection, give him two suggestions for one family member and help him make a decision.  Your child may or may not be interested in wrapping the presents and that’s okay.  You might find him excited later at the idea of presenting the gifts to the relatives.

Gifts from Relatives

If you are like me, you have a house full of toys from relatives that your child has no interest in playing.  So how do we get our families to purchase gifts our children are sure to enjoy?

Point your family in the right direction.  Create a list of items and email it to your relatives along with the link to the store and the product number.  Make it as easy as possible to purchase the item.

You can tell a relative that your child really enjoys picking out his own toys at the store.  I usually request a Target gift card.  Use the Target gift cards yourself and let your child go on a spending spree wherever he wants with the total dollar amount. 

Look at Toy Catalogs with a Therapist’s Eye

Family members don’t like to buy presents from therapy catalogs because they seem more work related than fun. Well take that foot high stack of toy catalogs you’ve received in the last few weeks and flip through them.  Put your occupational therapist hat on.  What toys seem visually stimulating?  What toys have a hands-on tactile look to them?  Put your speech pathologist hat on.  What games promote word recall?  What games include player interaction?  What games help foster conversation?  If you browse through catalogs while thinking about your child’s strengths and challenges you are sure to begin spotting some great gift item suggestions.

The family dinner

Picky eaters

Your family may look forward to the annual holiday feast but your child may be holding his nose at this traditional dinner.  If you want your child to enjoy the festivities, cut him some slack this one day.  Prepare a meal that you know he will like and bring it to the dinner.

This food stinks!

You may have a child who is sensitive to smells.  She’s literally saying the food stinks.  Sometimes the smell plus the way food looks (e.g., gravy poured over everything) on people’s plates may make her feel ill.  If this is your child, practice ahead of time more polite ways to say the food stinks without insulting the chef (e.g., “I have a hard time with new smells.”  “The smell of this food is too much for me.”).

You can have your child eat ahead of time and allow her the chance to find some quiet time in another room while everyone is eating.  If the child must stay at the dinner table, place him at the end or corner of the table to be as far away from the food as possible.  If the look of the food is also disturbing you might try to get a big book and have it opened up and sitting on top of the table in front of her.  It can help act as a visual shield to the offending food items.

The child who won’t sit still

Your child just can’t sit still at the table.  Sometimes the issue may be that your child’s feet aren’t touching the floor.  Try putting a book or box on the floor so he can rest his feet.  Us adults don’t realize how boring adult table conversation can be.  Bring some fidget toys to the table or something visually appealing that he can look at while he is eating.

If you recognize that moving in and out of the chair will be disruptive, you might have your child eat for a while and then let him be a helper.  Ask him to walk around the table with a basket of rolls to see if anyone wants one.  Have him interview each person at the table while they are eating.  He can ask each person the same question.  This may become so entertaining that it becomes a new holiday tradition.  (e.g., Grandpa, what’s the strangest gift you ever got?).


Your child is a sensory super hero.  She hears the slightest sound, is overpowered by smells and is dazzled by lights.  Then we expect her to be on her best behavior when everyone is talking loudly, scented candles are lit all over the house and decorative lights are twinkling everywhere she looks.  There is nothing wrong with asking a relative if there is a quiet place your child can go to if she is overwhelmed.

If you’re in a family or get together situation where a quiet place is not possible, try bringing distraction items.  An iPod, favorite book, portable game system or DVD player can help your child focus on her comfort items.  It is more socially acceptable for kids and teens to “tune out” with these items than to negatively act out in someone’s home.  As a last ditch effort, the bathroom can always provide a moment of sanctuary.

Gift giving time

Your child is unable to open presents

Relatives love the excitement of seeing the youngsters open their presents but your child is unable to do so.  Earlier in the day, before the melee of gift giving starts, you might ask each relative to spend time with your child and open the present for him.  This will be more meaningful for both your child and relative.

Your child is uninterested in opening presents

Even if you open the presents for your child, he doesn’t acknowledge that they are there.  What do you do?  Open the presents at home.  Your family might be disappointed but tell them that he is so interested in everything else that he just can’t focus on the presents.  Tell them that he will enjoy opening and play with his gifts in the quiet of his home.  

Your child is interested in unwrapping presents but not the gift

For your child it’s all about ripping the wrapping paper.  He doesn’t even pay attention to the toy.  Take note of who gave which present.  On a later day when your child plays with his toy, have him call the relative to say thanks. 

Another suggestion is to ask some relatives ahead of time if your child can help open their presents.  Your child can look forward to Grandma inviting him to open the presents for her.

Your child focuses on one present

Your child has a mound of presents but stops after opening the second present.  He got a book he likes and he wants to inspect every page.  Let him open his presents at his own speed.  You might end up taking half of the gifts home with the wrapping still on them and that’s okay.  Let him open the rest the next day.

Your child is overwhelmed at everyone opening presents

Your child may be overwhelmed by the chaos of everyone talking at once and tearing the wrapping paper off their presents.  If this sounds like your child, it’s okay to go to another room and watch a holiday TV show while the rest of the family opens presents

Another suggestion is, earlier in the day have your child, at her leisure, present each relative with a gift.  You can also use this time to build on conversation skills.  Your relative may also decide to give her present to your child at this time.  Now your child can give and receive a gift in a relaxed atmosphere.  In a half hour, go to another relative and do the same.

Your child is too excited

Your child is overwhelmed but excited and doesn’t know what to do.  Give him a job.  Have him pass out presents.  Have him organize the presents into piles according to person.  Have him put the wrapping paper into a trash bag.  Does your child know a holiday song or does she know how to play an instrument?  See if he can do a solo performance while people are opening presents.

Relative issues

Keep a level head

At family gatherings you may be with relatives who you see only once a year.  Relatives who are not familiar with your child’s disability may make well meaning but misinformed comments.  Some may make comments that appear insensitive and rude.  Try not to let it ruin your day.  Focus on your child and resist the urge to snap back.  Use these comments to help educate your relative.  Turn the conversation into something positive.

Example remarks

Prepare ahead of time by anticipating what certain relatives might say and thinking of a good answer. 

Relative - “When is Johnny going to eat something besides mashed potatoes all the time?”
You – “You make them so tasty he can’t stop eating them.  How do you make them so creamy?”

Relative – “Your son didn’t even look at my present.”
You – “I know you feel disappointed but I know that he will enjoy it at home tomorrow when things quiet down.  I’ll let you know how he likes it.”

Relative – “When’s that kid going to talk?”
You – “It’s hard because there’s so much going on but ______ has really come a long way.  He’s even reading now.”

Relative – “I don’t know why you don’t force him to sit at the table.  Everyone else is here.”
You – “On a regular day I might.  But today is such a special day and I want _______ to enjoy herself.”

Help your relatives interact with your child

You have been living with your child’s disability everyday but your relatives may only see your child a few times a year.  Some may be unsure how to talk to your child.  Help them interact so they can see what a great kid he is.

“Oh __________________ really loved our trip to Disney World.  If you ask him he’ll tell you all about it. 

“____________________ has a hard time answering those kinds of questions.  If you give him a choice or make it a yes or no question, he’ll be able to answer.”

“____________ really loves to be chased.  What don’t you tell her and see if she’ll play.”

“When __________ makes those sounds he’s really excited but can’t put it into words.”

Holiday stress

Find an outlet

The holidays can be extremely stressful on you.  Some people fall into a depression at this time of year.  If you are having a particularly bad day or the relatives are driving you crazy, please feel free to vent at our Family Challenges forum in our Discussions section. There are plenty of online disability group sites and support groups with members in similar life situations. These groups are very supportive. Many members confide that they feel closer to these "strangers" who understand what they're going through than with their own relatives. Some of these groups are listed in our Organizations section. You can also contact your national or state disability organization and ask if they know of local support groups in your area.

Everyone needs a friend. After the holidays you may wish to reach out to other special needs families. Our Friends section is populated with parent members that may live right in your neighborhood. This list is growing everyday as more families learn about One Place for Special Needs. Take the initative and email a neighbor. You might find several fellow moms or dads who are interested in getting together or staying in touch by email.

Ask for a break

Recognize when you are reaching your stress limit. When this happens, talk to your spouse, a relative or a close friend and ask for a break. Even if it's only for an hou it is important to take some time to recharge. If this is not an option, get up 15 minutes earlier to give yourself some quiet time before starting your day.

Articles on stress

For strategies on reducing stress, do a keyword search for “stress” in our Resource section. Highlights include, How to deal with the stress of raising special needs kids, Parents’ tips for making family holiday gatherings work for you and your child and Twenty ways to say no.

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