The holidays are a great time to spend some quality family time with your loved ones. However, this can disrupt your child’s routine and cause confusion, frustration, or outbursts. Without their regular routine, kids can become overwhelmed, overtired, or cranky. When out of a routine, children feel they are losing control of their environment, which can cause stress and anxiety. Preparing your child for the upcoming holidays, including helping them understand what to expect and how their routine will change, is important so that your child can feel a sense of control, and therefore, better regulate their emotions.
What to Expect:
Your child will likely feel frustrated with the changes in their routine, feeling a loss of control over their environment and unsure of what is coming next. This may include an increase in irritability, tantrums, hitting behaviors, and sensory activities like hand flapping, among other things. They may take a step backwards in their progress during the holiday period. If you are spending time with others during the holidays, your child may increase attention-seeking problem behaviors like tantrums to get attention from the group. Informing friends and family on how to handle these behaviors in advance will help minimize the duration of the behaviors.
Prepare your child for the upcoming changes:
1. Use concrete examples to indicate the upcoming changes:
Use physical objects to explain how far away the holiday changes, like the beginning of school break, are from the current day. This will help your child predict the changes coming and may help them be less confused by the sudden changes.
For example, have seven printed coloring pictures taped to the wall, and each day, allow your child to color one picture in. When all of the pictures on the wall have been colored, this indicates that the changes have arrived. Make sure to explain the idea each day. Try, “There are five pictures still left on the wall. This means there are five days left until we don’t go to school in the morning.”
You can also try using balloons. Blow up seven balloons, and pop or deflate one balloon each day until there are no balloons left. Make sure your child is with you when you are deflating the balloons so that they can visually see the indication signal go away, and create a stronger understanding that the balloon is gone. You can also give them one balloon to play with throughout the day instead of deflating it. Again, be sure to explain the purpose of the balloons each day. “There are only three balloons left, that means we’ll be going to grandma’s in three days.”
You can also explain the upcoming changes in terms of “sleeps” each night when they are in bed. For example, “Only four more sleeps until we go to grandma’s house.” “Only two more sleeps until we don’t go to school in the morning.”
Consider also using these ideas when school is getting ready to start back up, or any time you are traveling and staying somewhere that isn’t home. This will give your little one an indication of when things will return to their regular routine. Having a better understanding of how long the changes will occur gives them more control of the environment and helps them get a better idea of when things will go back to normal.
2. Discuss upcoming changes:
Discussing the upcoming changes with your child will help them understand the events that will occur and give them greater control over their environment. If they know what is coming, they may be less likely to feel anxious or throw tantrums because of the uncertainty.
Discuss the upcoming schedule. Explain how the next few days will go in as much detail as you can.
“Tomorrow, we are going to wake up and have breakfast. Then, we’re going to change our clothes and go to Aunt Cindy’s house. At Aunt Cindy’s house, you can watch TV and play with your toys.”
“In the morning, we get to go and open presents! You’ll be able to open all of the presents that are [blue] and play with them! Then we’re going to go visit grandma for the day and eat dinner with her. You can take any of your new toys with you to grandma’s house. Then, we’ll come home, take a bath, and it will be time for bed.”
For example, if you are driving a long distance for the holidays to visit family or friends, explain the process of this.
“Tomorrow, we’re driving to grandma’s house. We are going to get in the car and you can [watch 2 movies, play on your tablet] while we go there. Then, we’ll be at grandma’s and you can eat something tasty for sitting so nicely in the car!”
If you are traveling by plane, consider explaining the entire process of traveling via an airport. Include going through security, walking through the airport, waiting for the plane, sitting on the plane, and anything else you may encounter. Prepare them for the crowd of people, and make sure you bring anything they may need to cope (including noise-canceling headphones, a charged tablet and charging cord, favorite toys, snacks).
3. Try to keep parts of their routine the same:
Try to keep their routine as similar as possible to what they are used to, which will minimize uncertainty. This can include the same sleep schedule, same times for snack time, nap time, and bath time. Don’t push them to eat food they don’t typically eat.
4. Let family and friends know how they can support your child:
Inform those that will be celebrating the holiday with you and your child ahead of time how they can best support your child. This includes informing them of your child’s tendencies and preferences.
For example, let them know whether your child likes to be hugged. Inform them that your child doesn’t like loud noises and to please speak to him or her with a quiet voice. Tell your family and friends to ignore problem behaviors as best as possible, and to stay on your teaching program that you are implementing at home, including responding or not responding to certain behaviors. This also includes praising good behaviors, like sitting quietly at the table. It will be helpful if you explain what it looks like when your child is getting overstimulated or anxious, and how other people can best help calm them down.
Letting everyone celebrating with you know about these things in advance will help everything go more smoothly when the day comes.
5. Discuss and develop coping strategies with your child:
Create coping strategies with your child to carry out when they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed. This can include deep breathing, leaving a noisy room, playing on the tablet, or watching TV to get away from the stress of being surrounded by others.
You should do this before the holiday events begin, and practice throughout the days leading up to the holidays, so that your child knows what is expected of them in replacement of behaviors.
6. Help them with crafts to teach the concept of giving in a fun way:
If you want to teach the premise of giving during the holidays, engage in crafts with your child as gifts to give to others who will be celebrating with them, including parents, grandparents, siblings, and anyone else they would like to give to. The gift can be as simple as a drawing on a piece of construction paper, and if you want to get fancy, gluing pom poms or using glitter glue. The point of this is to have fun with your child and teach them about giving, so make sure to have fun and enjoy the time spent together. This should be a fun activity for all involved, and is a good way to acclimate your child to how the holidays will go.
To further help prepare your child for the upcoming holidays, use a social story.