10 Tips For a More Peaceful Christmas With a Special Needs Child (or any child, really)

I remember when my now 19 year-old Caleb was a young boy and how difficult Christmas was for him. Everything changes on such a big holiday. There are different foods, sleep schedules are off, people are in and out of the house, you are in and out of different houses. It can be a very loud and confusing time for a child with sensory difficulties.

For a while I tried to do everything like a neurotypical family. I failed. This made me stressed out and both Caleb and his sister Sophie felt my stress, which made them stressed out. It was a cycle that left us all exhausted and ready for a wonderful day to be over.

Since that time, I have made some small changes that may help some of you in your own families, with someone with special needs or not.

  1. I know you hear this all the time, but try to keep things simple. Maybe this year you don’t need to wrap every outside surface with lights. When I can, I do, but I have let this go when things are challenging.
  2. Caleb was often confused by the conflicting images of Santa and Jesus at Christmas. We chose to focus on Jesus and have birthday cake complete with a candle for breakfast. This year I’m not able to make a cake so it will be a really fun Krispy Kreme donut. Will anyone even notice I didn’t spend an hour making the cake? I love family traditions so much, but sometimes they can be work that saps energy you need to lavish on your family. Caleb was just able to verbalize this year that Santa frightens him—he must have felt this way for a long time and just now gained the words to tell me. Trust your intuition with your child.
  3. In keeping with celebrating Jesus’ birthday, I borrowed something that Kathie Lee Gifford said in the 1990s. She said her kids got three gifts for Christmas because that’s all Jesus got and it’s his birthday. Bam. This not only keeps a budget in check, I have found that too many gifts overwhelm and exhaust Caleb. When gifts come in from sweet family members, I let him open them a few days before Christmas, one per day. Where a neurotypical kid loves the pile of wrappings and new toys around them, Caleb becomes so anxious. Spacing the toys out up helps him to appreciate them and maintain the sense of order so essential to his sense of calm.
  4. It took me years to learn this one: For young kids, assemble anything that needs assembling ahead of time and if it doesn’t need to be wrapped, stick a bow on it. I used to wait until Christmas Eve to get everything assembled because I didn’t want any surprises ruined. I remember one year when the kids were really little, I was up until 3:00 AM assembling Barbie’s Dream House. When the kids woke up a few hours later, I was so tired that I didn’t fully enjoy all of the excitement. If big items can’t be hidden, ask to store them at a friend’s house.
  5. When you can, wrap things in batches, so it’s not a marathon wrapping session the night before Christmas. A very good friend of mine who is the mom to five kids under age 10 told me she didn’t even wrap gifts—she bought big spools of different colored tulle and wrapped each child’s gift with in a different color. This is a gorgeous and simple way to keep things festive but not overwhelming for you.
  6. Choose music carefully. Caleb lives by a very specific sensory diet, which includes keeping sounds soothing and soft. Our favorite Christmas hymns are acoustic renditions from groups like Jars of Clay or our new favorite, Chris Tomlin’s Adore album. When more peppy pop songs come on with shouting snowmen or squealing chipmunks, Caleb retreats to his room. Beautiful, simple arrangements keep him in the room a little longer.
  7. Let go of the idea that the entire family needs to be together all day. If family members don’t understand this, quietly tell them it’s okay and walk away. Don’t apologize or make excuses. If you’re fine with it, those around you will be too. Kids with special needs have so much to deal with and they often need to retreat for a bit to be able to process everything. Give them their space.
  8. For years I kept asking Caleb to help decorate the tree. I bought him new Disney ornaments every year to encourage his participation. When he developed the language, he told me he liked the Christmas tree but not decorating it. He likes the egg nog and spice cookies so he comes for that part and then goes to his room while Sophie and I finish the tree. We all have this image of perfect family moments. There can still be beautiful moments but sometimes the picture needs adjusting.
  9. As much as possible, try to keep the big routines in place. In our home, sleep is the best medicine for Caleb. If he stays up too late, he wakes up several hours early, which only compounds the problem. We have to say no to some events but it is a small price to pay to help Caleb be the wonderful, well-behaved kid that he is.
  10. Listen to your child. One of our favorite things to do when my kids were little was to drive through professional holiday light displays. For whatever reason, this was distressing to Caleb. He likes going through neighborhoods to see lights so we do that instead. We would hire a sitter or leave Caleb with his granny while the rest of us went to the professional display.

It is so important to not let your life be totally defined by a child with special needs. There are some things they will need to learn how to handle. A family with no options for childcare would have to take that child along with them to a light show, even if they didn’t like it. At the same time, everything is magnified at Christmas. When viewed through the eyes of a child with sensory issues, it can be overwhelming to the point that it ruins their day, and in turn, ruin the day of other members of the family.

Balance is essential when dealing with anyone with special needs. If there’s a party at night, keep the day quiet and restful. Cut out things that don’t serve you anymore. Reframe your ideas of what makes Christmas so special.

Try not to feel compelled to compete with Facebook posts of perfect outings or perfectly decorated trees. So often, the pictures represent the one second the entire day that everyone was smiling. Everyone is fighting some kind of battle and none of us are immune. Not every family has a child with special needs, but there are all sorts of things that can disrupt a family. We don’t help each other by competing or comparing.

Always, particularly during a hectic time, guard your family and provide the structure your child needs. When lovely moments happen, stop and take them in. Don’t wait for the next one instead of enjoying the one happening now.

I wish you all a very merry and peaceful Christmas.