5 Tips to Prevent Holiday Anxiety for Your Child

December 20, 2014

in Ask Dr Lisa, Autism Challenges


“Dr. Lisa, my husband and I are very worried for Christmas Day at his mother’s house. I love his family, but some of the guests there do not understand our son’s poor social skills in getting along in crowds, opening gifts, hugging and kissing loved ones and sitting at the dinner table. For the most part, we survive gatherings like this, but it usually comes with a meltdown at some point and a loved one telling us we are not firm enough with our son. I am not sure they understand Autism Spectrum Disorders and my husband wants to skip going to his mother’s all together. Do you have any suggestions so we can enjoy the day with our son and family?” ~ Tonya

The holidays. A time for joy and gathering of loved ones. Many people wait all year to celebrate festivities and traditions with those they cherish. A time for fun and play.

Well, not for all of us.

Holidays for parents with kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders can be downright dreadful. Not knowing what may set a child into a meltdown or how to prevent Uncle Charlie from reminding you how lame your parenting skills are is not fun. There is no joy in never being able to predict if a smell  of a certain food or perfume, the sound of a person’s voice or the hugs, kisses and pulling of the cheeks will make your child feel like he is being painfully tortured.

May the truth be told. He is.

You see, a child with ASD does not integrate sounds, touch, smells, and other extraneous factors as a typical child may. Instead, his nervous system has difficulty integrating sensations from the outer-world into the brain. What this means is a child can hear a sound or take in a smell and as his brain neurologically interprets it, his body may feel physical pain and respond inappropriately. Although this integration is not a typical response for the brain, it is actually quite common for the child with ASD.

Holidays for your child may be a gathering of loved ones creating sounds, smells, crowded rooms and social demands that his brain just is not ready to jive with.

It can create anxiety nightmare for both parent and child.

I have been there many times (and still am from time to time), but I can assure you that each time you attend a holiday gathering and you implement some adaptive strategies or plans that will prevent meltdowns and neurological overwhelm, you are teaching your child and loved ones how to overcome neurological barriers related to ASD. You can see how I helped my son do this in my Autism book. 

In time things will get easier, but it is not overnight or without hard work and heartache.

Allow me to share some of our secrets that helped our son overcome anxiety and meltdowns during the Holidays.


1. Keep a Routine

During this time of year, stick to your normal routine as much as possible. Keep bedtime, waking up , mealtimes and such as routine as possible, leaving a few gaps for those moments you will be attending or having a holiday gathering. This is very important because unstructured days and randomness can create meltdowns very easily. Holiday anxiety can disrupt routines, so stick with your old ones as best you can.

2. Short and Sweet

When attending or hosting a holiday gathering, keep it as short as possible. I know this sounds rude, but the longer you hang out or have people over, the more time you are allowing for your child to have his meltdown. Remember, his nervous system is trying very hard to stay regulated and respond to stimuli appropriately. Give it a break and keep the time limited. Holiday anxiety is heightened this time of year, so short and sweet is okay.

3. Provide an Event Schedule

Another great idea when attending or hosting a gathering is to provide your child with a schedule of the event. Discuss with the host ahead of time and provide a schedule your child can refer to. Include what time the guests arrive, what time is dinner, what time is opening of the gifts, what time is dessert and what time the event ends. A schedule prevents holiday anxiety for a child because it tells him/her what is going to happen next which is a key factor in preventing meltdowns and failure to transition.

4. Practice Opening Gifts

Before a holiday gathering, practice the skill of opening a gift with your child. Give him/her some gift bags and wrapped boxes with random items in them such as a sock, spoon, shoe, etc. (think of things that your child would not expect). Practice giving and receiving the gift. Keep eye contact, have your child smile and say thank you. Practice opening the gift slowly and not ripping it open. Teach your child to look at the gift, smile and say thank-you even if he already has the gift or does not like it.  Do not expect your child to know the social skill of opening gifts if you have not practiced or taught the skill- this will make holiday anxiety worse.

5. Make a Prevention Plan

Ask your child what things make him feel uneasy or upset at gatherings. Try to find out if he is worried about hugs, kisses or Grandma pulling on his cheek. Is he worried about being forced to sit near smelly food? Does he not want to eat the food served? Once you can figure out what may create a meltdown, you then can put a plan into play to prevent them. For example, my son disliked kisses and hugs. He said they hurt him. His dislike of hugs and kisses showed too. He would stiffen up and bend away from the person trying to hug or kiss him, forcing them to twist and turn as he bent into a pretzel to escape. It eventually ended in him running away and yelling no and words said to me about how he lacks manner and respect.

One night as my son and I snuggled in bed, I told him that Grandpa’s feelings are sad when you don’t want to kiss or hug him. He thinks you do not love him. He started to cry and said to me how very much he loved him, but kisses and hugs hurt his skin. I said okay, then what should we do? He said “how about they kiss my hair. It does not hurt my hair. And, I will hug back with one arm so I do not feel trapped.” I told him it was a wonderful idea and that Grandpa will love this.

I will never forget his smile that night. Love lit up his room and heart. I remember too telling his Grandpa about it, and although at first he thought I was being too soft, he went with it. Do you know that within a year my son was giving him hugs and within two he could let them plant a huge kiss on him? It took time and practice, but today my son is 14 and now hugs his relatives before they even get their coats off.

Everyone in my family has learned (over time) that my son needed time and patience with social skills. We now can look back and understand that he was always this loving boy we know today, it just took his brain and nervous system a longer time to figure out how to safely express that love.

Ask your family and loved ones to help teach social skills instead of expecting them. Having everyone understand what creates holiday anxiety for your child’s nervous system will also help all of you work together in implementing adaptive strategies and plans on how to prevent holiday anxiety, making your gatherings more relaxing and fun!

If you liked these 5 tips and need a few more successful ideas, click here to listen to our recent Chat with the Experts call on Social Anxiety and the Holidays (when you click to page, scroll down tiny bit).

Also you may want to try my free printable Worry Thermometer Guide to help your child and you prevent holiday anxiety and worry turning into anger and meltdowns. I walk you through it with this very successful guide. Download my Anxiety-Free Holiday Plan to refer to during such a merry and yes, stressful time of year.

Have a Blessed Holiday!






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Photo is by Dr. Rebecca York @ YorkWellness.com

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