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  • Writer's pictureMaritza (Mitzy) Pardo M.A., BCBA

Happier Holidays: A Caregiver's Survival Crash Course

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

It’s that time of year, again, where families gather to celebrate an array of end-of-year holidays. While most families enjoy this time of year, many special needs families feel that the holidays are synonymous with chaos and a general sense of restlessness. The disruption in school schedule and winter break poses challenges on its own. As caregivers, we have to consider the threat of sensory overload from new sights, smells, crowded spaces, or increased interactions with others. Despite how small any one particular detour from the “norm” may seem, the slightest disruption from the daily routine can bring about large consequences. This may seem all too familiar for many families, and maybe, you already have a plan to handle these situations. However, for those who would like some additional support, reminders, or are entering the Holidays with a new diagnosis, we have compiled a list of tips to help prepare your loved one to get through this time of year with a little more peace and confidence.

Plan Ahead

Whenever possible, prepare for upcoming changes through verbal warnings and visuals. The key is to bring some familiarity to your child in advance, so the change is less of a surprise.

  • Verbal Warnings: Start verbally preparing and introducing the Holidays to your child days, weeks, even the month prior.

  • Visuals: Use a calendar, whiteboard, photos and/or social stories to prepare for the winter break from school, the arrival of family members to the home, or even things to expect during holiday festivities. Note: for those of you who have services and therapists, you can ask them to help with the preparation of visual tools.

Ask For Help

It may feel difficult to manage all the changes and unexpected events that come with the holidays; just remember, asking for help is always an option. Many friends and family members may be able and willing to participate in a more active role, but unsure as to how and if their help is desirable. You can include them with assisting daily errands to babysitting for an hour to give you some time to rest or catch up on tasks. For those who are not able to ask family or friends to step-in, you can seek professional respite and/or in-home care services as they are often provided to special needs families through the regional center or medical insurance.

Manage Sensory Overload

Many families already have the assistance of an occupational therapist to help guide them with sensory overload. However, for those that do not, you can incorporate the suggestions below to help increase your child’s tolerance inside and outside the home.

  • Pair familiar items with novel textures, sights, or scents: create your own sensory experiences that incorporate some of the novel holiday items your child may not be able to tolerate just yet. For scents, try adding cinnamon, nutmeg, pine scent, etc., one at a time to their regular play-doh. For textures, try adding shreds of wrapping paper to a familiar toy bin, or even use wrapping paper as drawing paper, or make Holiday cards out of it.

  • Crowded Areas: If you are going to a hotspot for holiday goers, (i.e., a mall, grocery store, promenade, Christmas tree lot, etc.), the use of headphones with their favorite music may help ease aversive sounds and increase their sense of calm.

  • Gatherings: When gathering over the holidays, identify a “calming-area,” in the home where your child can go to when they start to feel overwhelmed. To learn more, go to the occupational therapy blogs of and

Incorporate Choices and Compromises

Many of us get to choose how we want to enjoy the holidays, from home décor to which gatherings we will participate in with family or friends. And while some children may enjoy the same preferences as their parents, it will be the polar opposite for many. Presenting choices whenever possible, may help your child feel like they still have some control in their day, helping you to avoid unnecessary power struggles, tantrums, or full-blown meltdowns.

  • Incorporate their preferences in your choices/decisions: your child may not want to visit Santa for a picture yet might be okay taking a picture with a holiday toy or even in Holiday clothes. You can easily insert a digital background with Santa on it, getting the image you want while compromising on the execution. There are many creative ways to capture the season without exhausting the experience.

  • Compromise: for the sake of the bigger picture, the more compromise you can offer may help in reaching the final goal with less frustration in getting there.

In the end, it’s typical to experience some holiday stress, but for many special needs caregivers, the stressors can be much more intense, so plan ahead and make special accommodations better suited to your unique situation. Most importantly, manage your own expectations of your child. It can truly be the key to enjoying more of what the season has to offer –for both you and your child.

Happy Holidays!

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