Special Needs Parenting: 10 Tips for Holiday Stress Reduction

House at nightIt occurred to me the other day that I needed to ramp up my efforts on my own self-care. It’s easy to see where others (i.e., my clients) can make some improvements in this area, but perhaps it is humbling to remind oneself that the challenge to be centered during the holiday season also applies within. You see, I am a parent, a special needs parent, and a psychotherapist. I am a nurturer who nurtures—a great deal—so to all you caregivers out there, whether you are a parent, teacher, nurse, doctor, therapist, or another helping professional or caregiver, please take a moment to pause and reflect on what you might need to incorporate to reduce stress during these hectic holiday weeks. This article is meant to offer a few simple suggestions that I have found helpful in rising above a potentially tension-filled time.

It’s hard enough to manage stress during the holidays as a parent, but when you have a special needs child, the necessity to contain stress (yours and your child’s) is that much more essential to well-being. Studies indicate that special-needs parents are 50% more likely than the general parenting population—those with “typical” children, that is—to manifest depression or anxiety just by virtue of the magnitude of the demands tugging at them (Fawcett and Baskin, 2006). “Special needs” is an incredibly broad category that can encompass neurodevelopmental challenges, medical issues, and other conditions that can impact a child’s ability to function at school, at home, and in the community.

I speak from my experience as a parent of a child with sensory integration challenges. Being the strengths-focused parent (and psychotherapist) that I am, I want to highlight that I am blessed with a child who has very mild challenges relative to what many might experience as parents. That said, I am well acquainted with some tips that have helped me (and my son and family) through times when the unpredictability—of holidays, of schedule changes, of travel—has the potential to tip the scales of balance not in our favor. The following are some very simple, bite-sized nuggets of wisdom, some of which I’ve learned the hard way and all of which I share with clients to help in the quest for self-care … and, by the way, many of which I need to consistently revisit myself:

  1. Whatever you may be celebrating this holiday season (Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, etc.), lower your expectations. This concept includes letting go of the pursuit of the latest “must-have” gadget or toy. It may mean paring down decorations or relinquishing the need to have the most embellished home on the block (unless decorating “fills” you and is a stress reliever unto itself).
  2. Pause for a moment and reflect on what the season means for you and your family. Light a candle and ponder the blessings and positive imprints that have manifested for your family this year. Meditate/pray/reflect/write/generate a positive intention for your wishes for the new year as it relates to health, prosperity, abundance, right livelihood, community, social support, and well-being.
  3. Create/continue one or two rituals that are meaningful for your family, support your spirituality, and which are easy to implement. If candles are dangerous for your special needs child, perhaps a flashlight or battery-operated lantern/candelabra/menorah may be a center point by which each family member can recite a prayer or announce wishes/hopes for the new year. If decorating a tree with fragile ornaments is out of the question, perhaps ornamenting a tree with a few simple (nonbreakable) ornaments is sufficient to lower the stress threshold, yet honor family traditions. (Popcorn garlands can be fun and tasty.)
  4. Be OK with bowing out of festivities that may “dysregulate” your child. Many special needs children have neurodevelopmental challenges which require predictability and routine. The holiday season is a perfect time to throw anyone’s rhythm (special needs or not) out of whack. Keep routine as much of your child’s (and family’s) schedule—consistent bed times, nap times, feeding schedule, etc.—as you do throughout the year.
  5. Have outlets for excess energy. Does your child need a space to move his/her body without being scolded for scratching someone’s delicate furniture? Seek out indoor play spaces when inclement weather announces itself (trampoline gyms, museums that encourage dramatic/tactile/sensory play, etc.).
  6. Avoid red food dye and additives which are pandemic to holiday treats (i.e., frosting on holiday cookies and goodies). Studies indicate that food additives have the potential to contribute to hyperactivity in many children, especially those with preexisting neurodevelopmental challenges such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder/ADD and sensory processing disorder. Try to focus on healthy snacks, as difficult as that may be, including fun snacks (i.e., “ants on a log”—celery coated with peanut butter and raisins).
  7. Be OK with saying “no” to anything that does not contribute to your own or your child’s well-being. This may include holiday events/obligations that you (and/or your child) do not enjoy, or any event that depletes versus restores/fills your life energy (or your child’s). A play date with your aunt’s second cousin twice removed who does not understand sensory integration challenges and your son’s need to move his body to regulate his attention/concentration is a set-up for frustration for all concerned. On the other hand, meeting up with a pal from occupational therapy to jump at the trampoline gym may be just what the doctor ordered for your sanity and your child’s.
  8. Sleep. For adults, five uninterrupted hours (at minimum) of sleep is essential for a restorative sleep cycle and keeping serotonin—the neurotransmitter that regulates mood—where it needs to be (think of the analogy of a “gas tank” being topped off consistently). For children, the need for sleep is even greater. Make sure you do not sacrifice your child’s bed time and/or nap time in lieu of other obligations. Schedule changes have the potential to dysregulate sleep cycles and effect mood negatively (for both adults and children) by lowering that all-important serotonin. Who wants a depleted “gas tank” running on fumes? Not anyone I know of, that’s for sure.
  9. Take some time just for you as a parent. Allow grandparents or other support networks to provide care for your children so that you can indulge in some much-needed rest and restoration. This time for yourself may be as simple as a nap or a bubble bath, or it could be as decadent as a facial, massage, date with your significant other, or reading a great book/getting caught up on favorite television programs/movies. Make time for you. You work hard, and you deserve some replenishment.
  10. January comes soon enough. Do not overspend/overcommit/develop a propensity for meltdowns due to guilt, obligation, or fear. You are a more than “good enough” parent. You provide excellent care for your child. Be proud of the love and support you provide for your child. Enter the new year refreshed with hope and new goals for balance and good health. Your child loves you all year long, and you are present consistently for your child. December holidays are icing on the cake of life. Enjoy, but do not overindulge/overcommit/overspend; partake of what contributes to your joy and that of your child … and no more than that. You are MORE than “good enough.”

Happy holidays to you and yours.

Excellent resources:

  1. Fawcett and Baskin, (2006). More Than A Mom: Living a Full and Balanced Life When Your Child Has Special Needs.
  2. Winter, Judy (2006). Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea Schneider, LCSW, Learning Difficulties Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Issac

    December 7th, 2012 at 12:36 PM

    It is important for parents of special needs children to keep a check on a lot of things during the festive season.I see this with a friend of mine whose son has autism.

    The suggestions present here are very good IMHO and AI shall definitely pass them on to my friend.I would also like to add is that I especially liked the second suggestion.It is something all of us need to do because the holiday season and the meaning that it has for people has deviated so much from its real meaning.If we can get back to the real meaning of it and what it actually means for the family,as a good together time then much of the stress will go away and we can hopefully find peace in our often hectic lives.

  • Brylan

    December 8th, 2012 at 11:34 AM

    This is definitely the time of year for all of us to take a little moment to take a step back and actually be thankful for a change for what we all have. I have two very healthy kids and have never thought about the issues that face those who don’t- I know it must be so hard sometimes to juggle the things that they face.

  • zeke

    December 9th, 2012 at 9:37 AM

    I am kind of offended that you say that we should lower our expectations of Christmas- why? Don’t we desrve to have a good Christmas too? That shouldn’t change whether there are those with special needs in the home or not.

  • D Deneroy

    December 10th, 2012 at 1:33 AM

    So I guess we are back to no red food dye? My son was diagnosed with ADHD in the mid-70’s when no one had heard of it or understood it. Red food dye was a no-no for so long. Then, the doctors decided that ADHD was completely unrelated to food. So, which is it?

  • Shane

    December 10th, 2012 at 1:35 AM

    We are having to establish major new traditions in our house this year. We are celebrating the holidays away from home. We just moved, so everything is new to us. We are in a different country, so we don’t even hear Christmas carols while we are out and about. So, we’re making some new traditions with the kids that hopefully they’ll look back on with fondness one day.

  • Theresa

    November 18th, 2013 at 7:28 AM

    I believe “lowering excpectations” means to try and simplify or reduce the stress if a hectic “To Do” list. This is something I’ve been striving towards for several years. The more meaningul aspects of Christmas remain a priority, but sometimes need a litte tweaking to accomodate the needs of my ASD child. It’s all about finding balance.

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