21 Special Needs Holiday Stress Management Tips

After this doozy of a year, who isn’t looking forward to the holiday season?  But, in order to enjoy the goodness of the season, we moms need to be intentional to avoid added special needs holiday stress.  Time with family and friends, space to intentionally turn our eyes to Jesus, these are just a couple reasons to get excited about the holidays.  However, they (family and friends), can also be major holiday stressors for a special needs family.

What Causes Stress During The Holidays?

Holiday stress can come from:

  • Loss of Routine,
  • Over-stimulation,
  • Sensory overwhelm,
  • Junk food & late nights,
  • Social misfires/traffic jams,
  • Unmet expectations and on and on.

Special Needs Holiday Stress Is Exponential

As a special needs family, every day can be challenging with doctors appointments, learning disabilities, therapies and big behaviors.  So when we add any combo of the above, we can see how things can go south fast during the holidays.  Again, why it’s essential that we special needs moms to think every “yes” through during the holidays.  The ladies in AHFAS community share how they avoid extra holiday stress for their special needs families.  

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21 Tips To Beat Holiday Stress: Special Needs Moms Tell All!

 1. Special Needs Holiday Stress Tip: K.I.S.S. & Tacos  

I decided to start with Melanie this year.  I mean… this AHFAS momma as her PhD in MATH!!  She’s gotta be a source of wisdom, right?

K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, Sally!  Sometimes less is more. Talk with your spouse and together decide what is really important.   I don’t stress about making a huge meal.  We actually have tacos on Thanksgiving and love it.  I encourage (as much as I possibly can) fewer gifts.  In fact we don’t give any gifts to our children because we don’t want to add more on top of what family already gives.  More gifts = more mess = more frustration!!

-Melanie, themathprofs.com

Special Needs Moms Agree, Simple Is Often Best

Erika Spence, adoptive mom, agrees with Melanie’s heartbeat for simplicity.

Keep it simple. One or two gifts, not a lot of events or parties.  In our home, the rule is one gift and simple stocking stuffers.

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2.  Do Your Own Thing Guilt-Free

Another Erica, homeschooling mom of two kids with dyslexia, anxiety and sensory processing struggles, says this.

Think outside the box.  The holidays don’t have to be spent exactly like everyone else.  We don’t all have to rearrange the house and put up trees and spend a fortune on things.  If you and your family absolutely love those things and it brings joy, do it.  Not your thing?  Then don’t!   Don’t be afraid to try out some new traditions that fit your family.  It could be the best thing ever.

3. Stop Trying To Make Everyone Else Happy

Tricia is on board with Erica’s suggestion as well.  

We had to tell our family that we were only going to one event a day.  So that means we do:

  • my side on Christmas Eve.
  • his side Christmas Day or vice versa.

And we only do one Thanksgiving and one Easter.   We tried for years to make everyone happy and go to 2 or 3 different events every holiday.  It was a nightmare and exhausting.  Now, Christmas day is opening presents in our PJs, eating cinnamon rolls, and taking naps.  There are no expectations on Christmas day beyond that.

Tricia Asbra, MAT, special needs mom of 4, (one through adoption)

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4. Leave Early To Avoid Holiday Stress

Know your family’s limits.  And don’t be afraid to leave early.  Doing what’s best for your family is more important.  The others aren’t the ones to be around dealing with the consequences, so their opinions don’t get to rule the day.  

-Aryn The Libraryan, mom of 2, (one highly-sensitive), www.arynthelibraryan.com, Helping Bookish Christian Women one page at a time.  

5. Pick & Choose What’s Best For YOUR Family

Kate agrees with Aryn.

Don’t be afraid to pick and choose what events or parties you attend.  Do what feels right for how you want to celebrate the holiday. And do what makes you most at peace with yourself and your family.

Kate, Mom on one boy, 10 years old, adhd, highly sensitive & extremely smart

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6. Bring Your Own Food (Even If People Think You’re Weird)

I have my child on a strict no gluten, no dairy diet.  So I just bring plenty of our approved treats.  I bring enough to share of course.  And I act like it’s no big thing.

Maggie, momma raising a child with moderate non-verbal ASD,  Maggie’s Fresh Kitchen

7. Think like a Boy Scout

Be like a boy scout and be prepared! Think ahead and try to get in front of as many possible situations as you can. The more prepared you are, the more calm you are likely to remain when something inevitably goes wrong.

Amy, Mom of 4 (Cerebral Palsy, ADHD, Anxiety, SPD), Real Talk with Amy

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8. Noise Cancelling Headphones

I learned the hard way to always ALWAYS double check the itineraries of town festivities.   As well as to always travel with noise cancelling headphones.

Apparently, Alicia learned this lesson the hard way twice.

Once was during a tree lighting ceremony in a new town we had just moved to.  The other time was when my boy was four and we took him to the beach.  Both places, fireworks went off and we had ZERO clue it was part of the evening’s agenda.  My oldest was a sensory avoider and a RUNNER.   We almost lost him both times as he ran into the crowd. 

9. Check The Itinerary 

His fight-or-flight kicked in and he took off running!  When we finally found him, he was banging on business doors to desperate to escape the noise.  I held him inside my winter coat and ran as far as I could to get away.  It didn’t help the sound was bouncing off all the downtown buildings.  He and I both cried through it, but we made it. My son is 15 now and verbal and he can handle and enjoys fireworks!  However, we now always travel with noise cancelling headphones and double check the itinerary!

 – Alicia, Mom of 3 boys (2 biological and 1 adopted through the foster care system);  ASD, SPD, RAD, Microcephaly, Mood Disorder, Shaken Baby Syndrome)

10. One Thing A Day 

My tip to limit special needs holiday stress is specific to my SPD kiddo.  It’s simple, but it works. We only plan ONE THING A DAY. JUST ONE.  If we break the rule, we plan nothing the day before or after to cushion the overstimulation. 

11. Pre-Teach & Share The Plan With The Kids

Practicing some family traditions at home is very important.   For example, we all sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve.  So we pre-teach them a few songs so they feel prepared when we are with extended family.  Also, my husband and I always explain the plan in advance.  We write out the overview of the week.  Then every morning we go through the schedule with our kids.

12. Familiarity Breeds Calm

We pack familiar snacks. When we stay with family, we ask them to buy the same usual breakfast foods we eat at home.

 -Stacy, (mom of 3- one with SPD) The Semi-Crunchy Mama

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How Do Special Needs Moms Avoid The Holiday Stress?

According to Kara, Hide. She says she’s kidding, but she may be on to something.  Ha!  Here’s what this mom has to say about keeping the holiday stress to a minimum.

13. Build In Margin 

After an eventful day we build in down time.   I know my kids completely fall apart the day after a big day.  We also make sure to walk through social skills and expectations ahead of time.  Not too far in advance though or it can cause more anxiety and backfire.    

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14. Reassure Adopted Children About Food

Many adopted children who’ve experienced the trauma of starvation will understand Kara’s next comment.  She continues,

“And reminding them that there will be enough food, and more food later, to stave off panic.  It doesn’t always work, but we try.”

15. Expectations & Support Strategies

Kara recommends discussing appropriate behavior and self management strategies ahead of time. For example,

“If you’re feeling overwhelmed you can…”

16. Sensory Regulation Tools In The Self-Regulation Toolbelt

To Kara’s earlier point, it’s important to equip our kids with appropriate self-regulation tools.  In our home, this is a BIG one.  Instead of telling kids what not to do, we offer practical “to-do” options.  One of the many sensory friendly self-regulation tools that we use in our home is our indoor trampoline.  Specifically, my 12 year-old daughter uses this indoor trampoline to support self-regulation and have fun!

17. Vestibular & Proprioceptive Input & A Trampoline!

Our trampoline has been a God-send for my daughter, a vestibular and proprioceptive seeker.   We moved into a neighborhood that didn’t allow outdoor trampolines so we bought this one.  I highly recommend the investment if you have a child who’s always jumping, crashing, and seeks deep pressure.  For more information about self-regulation, sensory strategies, and more, sign up for the Barely Surviving to Outright Thriving course.

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18. Shared Activities To Connect Family

Every year I make sure to fill the table time with activities to engage the whole family.   I print out holiday printables like crazy because they are a simple way to engage family in shared activity.  We team up in multi-generational pairs: grandparents, aunts, siblings, kids and friends.  This also helps conversation flow for our kids who struggle socially with conversation skills. Follow me on Pinterest where I’ve pinned a ton of family holiday fun printables.

19. Self-Care Is Essential: Invest In You 

I don’t know where you are in this season with your child.  You may be where I was a few years ago.  I was stressed, confused, and isolated navigating my son’s uncontrollable behaviors.  Sadly, I felt like a failure and spent way too many holidays broken and miserable. However, by God’s mercy, my family is in a radically different place.  We are thriving. Not perfect, but thriving.

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20. Barely Surviving?  It’s Time To Thrive!

Here’s the thing.  That brutal season with my son allowed me to learn so much about God’s design of the brain.  That understanding combined with what I’ve learned in almost 2 decades of in-depth Scripture study has taught me one thing.  The Gospel clearly demonstrates the importance of parenting our kids differently.

There’s Hope!

That’s why I’ve spent more than a year creating a parenting course for moms who know there must be a better way.  Barely Surviving to Outright Thriving is everything I wished I knew then.  Perhaps this is the season to invest in a more life-giving way to navigate the most challenging behavior?  Would love to support you, Friend.  I so get it.  There’s hope.  I promise.  Check it out today.

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21. Give Yourself Grace

Whether your child struggles with sensory issues, anxiety, or simply needs the predictability of routine to self-regulate well, we can only do our best.  Always prioritize the best interest of your specific family and don’t worry about what anyone thinks.  Often the best thing we special needs moms can do is take care of our own needs. 

God Chose You. Not Your MIL, That Neighbor Up The Street or Your Pastor’s Wife

God chose YOU to parent your child on purpose.   He’s your audience of One.  When everything feels out of control and you’re overwhelmed by feelings of failure and shame, remember that He chose you, Friend.  He doesn’t expect perfection which is why He sent His Son Jesus to do it for us.  May you rest in His freedom.  In this with you.

-Lindsay, (mom of three, 2 biological & 1 through adoption: ADHD, ASD, Anxiety & FASD), Founder, A Heart For All Students

What about you?  Do you have any hacks that may be useful to another momma?   Comment below.

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