The holidays may be more stressful for our kids than we think!

Matthew J Meunier, M.A., Behavior Consultant

We are in the throng of the holiday season – busy getting gifts, hanging lights, finding that tree and wrapping presents. I can remember back when I was a kid and how excited I was for school break, opening presents, eating food and visiting with family members I used to see once a year. However, the holidays may be more stressful for our kids than we think, especially for children with special needs. We at Keystone would like your family to have the most successful holiday break possible; therefore, we are going to give you some strategies to help achieve this goal.
1. Recognize a change-up has, or is about to occur. Our kiddos love structure, consistency, and sameness. With the holiday break, all of this is lost. Be proactive! Begin by letting your child know that a change-up is about to happen in their daily routine.

2. To combat this change-up, use visuals like a daily schedule. For example, create a schedule and include three things that are going to take place in the next hour; this will help your child expect and understand what is going to take place. Visuals assist your child in understanding what is going to happen, what the expectations maybe, who may be coming over, etc. In order to keep that sameness going, and to create structure during the break, develop a daily schedule with your child with the events that will be taking place on each day. Do not make the schedule complicated. Using a piece of paper with three events that will take place is more powerful than creating an elaborate daily schedule.

3. Write a social story! You may be asking yourself “What is a social story?” A social story is a story written from your child’s perspective on what to do during a social situation or event. This may be especially helpful for a child that has holiday parties to attend, difficulty with unexpected guests, or if you are planning on having many people over during the break. If you would like more support or assistance with writing a social story for your child ask your child’s provider at Keystone. The following are guidelines to writing a good social story:

  • It sounds more like a “to do” list than a source of helpful information and suggestions;
  • You sense that it was written with a sole focus on eradicating a problem behavior;
  • It seems as if the goal of the story is to just get a child to comply with an adult’s rules or expectations;
  • It contains negated verbs (i.e. not…);
  • There are first person statements – i.e. statements written in the child’s “voice”- that refer to a child’s mistake or negative behavior (the combination resulting in a self-depreciating statement);
  • It contains second person statements;
  • It contains the word “should”;
  • You realize the stories for this child always provide new information
  • There are statements that, if they were interpreted literally, would not be accurate or true, and/or
  • The title identifies a desired behavior, as in, “I Sit Quietly in my Desk.”
    (this criteria was developed by Carol Gray)

4. Work with your child on techniques to help calm their body when they feel overwhelmed or stressed out. Techniques like breath and counts, taking space, squeezing a stress ball, hugging a pillow, asking for squeezes, etc. are good tools for your child to learn. These tools are helpful in calming their body during stressful situations. Practicing these techniques before a stressful situation, by role playing, can help prepare your child for how to react once it occurs. Being prepared can help minimize the anxiety and stress that would have happened without these skills and techniques. If your child is not able to role play you can practice these tools by modeling for them what to do. You will be amazed how much your child is watching you.

5. If your family goes to a holiday party, or hosts one, make sure there is a safe place (i.e. spare bedroom or an office not being used) to take your child if they require a break from the commotion. When our kids have meltdowns in public places or at social events it can be an awkward situation for us. But what about how difficult it can be for the child? Think about it for a second; imagine you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed out and you cannot take any more of what is going on. The worst part is you don’t know how to escape it or communicate how you feel. This is how it can feel for your child during these moments. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you have safe areas where no one else is around. This will allow your child some time alone to regulate their bodies in order to deal with social pressure. You may need to use a timer to let your child know how much time s/he has in this room in order to transition smoothly. Using the schedule you created can also be helpful in preparation and transition.

Hopefully these strategies will be useful during your holiday celebrations. If you need other tools or suggestions to use during the break do not hesitate to talk to your provider. From all of us at Keystone we wish you and your family a happy, healthy and successful holiday break!

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