Seven Holiday Stress Busting Ideas for Families with Special Needs

by | Dec 14, 2016 | P2P


Seven Holiday Stress Busting Ideas for Families with Special Needs

The leaves have turned, the weather’s cooler. Holiday decorations fill the shopping malls, catalogues fill my mailbox. The holiday season is upon us again. Fond memories: cookies baking, colored lights, music and holiday gatherings.

Reality hits.

Every trip to the store becomes a battle of the wills-holiday decorations and new toys.  My adult daughter with Down syndrome wants to sit on Santa’s lap. I say no. Holiday shoppers glare at me.

One son, who has OCD, stands in line to see Santa. Loudly announces, “That’s not the REAL Santa, he’s wearing the wrong color pants.” Younger kids in line start to cry as I slink away!

I remember the Christmas Eve spent in the state psychiatric hospital. There is nothing so “merry” as opening your presents under the watchful and disapproving eye of Nurse Ratchet!

Our adult children begin the tug-of-war over who will come with whom to whose house on which holiday! Picture this:   blended family of step-children, former spouses, present and former grandparents, aunts and uncles, foster and adopted children who bring with them birth parents, birth grandparents and birth aunts, uncles and cousins, add in friends who have become as close as family and parties related to employment and community work.

You end up with a scheduling nightmare over the course about twelve weeks!  Add that many of your children have special needs and “not so fond” memories of the holidays.  And almost three weeks of no school!  “Hustle and bustle” of the holidays becomes stress to its limits!

We could pretend the holidays don’t exist. Take all the money spent on the holidays and have a nice vacation on an island that has no holiday traditions… without children or assorted relatives of course!  Or we could shift our holiday thinking!

Author Ann Svensen identifies when you need to “bust some stress”:  If you are irritable or losing sleep; you’re losing or gaining weight; you feel tense–muscle aches or headaches or you just feel overwhelmed!  Add that our children have lower stress tolerance too, require more care, require more patience, seem to absorb our own stress and you have an equation for a not-so-happy holiday.

After decades parenting children with a variety of needs, I’ve adapted advice from the article above and my practical experiences to help “bust” your holiday stress: 

  1. Lower expectations. Be realistic about what you can do. Change traditions — equally good, but unique to your family.   We have a new holiday tradition. No one comes for Christmas Eve-kids go to bed early, we have a romantic holiday dinner by candlelight. We watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and go to bed.
  2. Take time out– rethink what’s stressing you, and look for alternatives. Change your demands to preferences: Tell yourself, “If I have time, I’ll do this and that. If not, I’ll only do that.”  I used to stress out making sure the children exchanged gifts with each other.  Now we play a Christmas game. I buy enough small gifts for each person present on Christmas Day.  We each pick a wrapped gift and sit in a circle.  I read “The Night before Christmas” and each person passes their gift to the right on the word “the.”  The youngest child gets to open their gift first or exchange with another. There’s more fun and laughter and less stress than our original tradition.
  3. Be sure to “share” the fun! Even the youngest child or the child with the most significant need should be given opportunity to be a part of tradition by giving of themselves.
  4. Don’t give in to the “gimmies.” It’s okay to tell your child that a gift is too expensive. Use traditions to make holidays fun rather than adding financial stress.
  5. Be realistic about relatives and friends. They won’t always understand the needs of your family. Be honest and clear about what you can and cannot do related to family gatherings and gift giving. Remember that you have to live with the consequences of too much over-stimulation and too many changes in your child’s schedule. Be an advocate for your child and yourself in these situations. And try not to feel guilty when you need to say, “no”!
  6. Be realistic and sensitive to your child’s needs and plan accordingly. Hire a baby sitter to eliminate taking your child on the extra shopping trips or holiday parties that might not be appropriate for him/her. Trade respite time with another parent in order to decorate or clean the house for company.   Bring comfort items and foods if you do attend a party and leave before everyone is stressed, if you need to!
  7. Have a sense of humor. Remember that what may seem like a horror story to you now will find itself in the “book” of family memories as rather funny in a few years! Remember the time….

Stressors that impact our “typical” children can be multiplied tenfold when you add disability to the mix.

Do the best you can and put a big red circle around the week the kids go back to school.

Then give yourself an end-of-the-holiday gift – take a long hike, finish up leftover chocolate, see an afternoon movie, spend a day in your pajamas reading a good book- whatever makes you feel at peace and rested.

Have a truly happy holiday season!

Robin Bolduc was the original project director for Parent to Parent of CO. She was “introduced” to the world of disability when she adopted her daughter with Down syndrome in 1988. As she registered her daughter for kindergarten, she was told “we have a special place for children like her.” Robin’s journey into the world of disability advocacy began so her daughter could attend her local school. The school district dubbed her “Attila the Mom,” a title that she wears proudly. Robin and her husband Bruce have yours, mine and ours including fostering and adoption and are now happily enjoying grand parenting as well! They split their time between Boulder and the mountains, enjoying the beauty that each offers.

How do you “bust” your holiday stress?  Share your thoughts and ideas with us on our Online Parent Support Group!  Email your thoughts to:   Not a P2P member?  You can join us by completing our registration form at:  It’s quick and easy and it’s free!

For more ideas about coping with holiday situations, visit:


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