5 Tips to help an overwhelmed child enjoy Christmas

Christmas is quickly approaching, and our kids are so excited, aren’t they? The smells of Christmas dinner, the anticipation of visiting loving family, the sight of brightly covered mystery packages under the tree, and the squeals of laughter and conversation can all serve as sensory overload for a child. Whether you have a young one at home or child with special needs, some of our kids become overwhelmed on Christmas day.

Consider these helpful tips to make the special day more enjoyable for all:

Pace the opening of gifts
When it is your child’s turn to open gifts, he or she may not be ready to proceed.  Often times, the opening of gifts is the most overwhelming time of the day for a child.  They are asked to wait and take turns, or they rip the gifts open so fast, they become overwhelmed by the very prospect of all the colors, noises, and excitement.
You may need to reconsider the pace which gifts are open. Consider different gift-opening options.  You might try opening a couple of gifts at a time, then take time to open and play with them in another room before unwrapping the rest of the gifts. You may choose to keep some gifts unopened or hidden until a later time.
You know when your child’s stress meter is rising. Be alert and free to roll with it.

Allow your child to explore gifts on their own time clock
We adults have our own expectations about what Christmas day “should” look like. When living with an overwhelmed child, our expectations often clash with our child’s needs. Try to become aware of your own expectations and be willing to adjust for your children.  You may want to start playing with that cool toy and engage your child in exploration, but your child may not be ready.  Let your child lead the way of exploration when he or she is ready.
Offer frequent praise and nurture
When all the family members are engaged in conversation, television or games, it is easy to overlook your child for a good period of time…..until your child has an explosion. When overwhelmed for a long period of time, some young children or kids with special need’s begin to act out. The stimuli has been mounting within them and they explode!
Check in with your child frequently. Cuddle up with them, give them eye contact and specific praise. Praise the positive behavior that you desire to foster. What kind of praise reinforces your child the most? Is it a high-five, a kiss, a tickle game, or an m&m? Be generous with your reinforcements! They will go a long way to sustain your child and possibly prevent the next explosion.
Take calming breaks
Teach your child to take a break from all of the excitement. Through a hand signal, an index card, or a tap on the shoulder; your child can learn how to say, “I need a break”. Just as you are learning when to offer those breaks, your child can learn how to recognize when they need one. Until that time, consider taking your child on a brief break every hour to hour and a half.  The break may last about 10-20 minutes.
Find a quiet room to hang out together, go for a walk in the fresh air, or walk out to the car to get something together. Does your child have items that help them calm down? Put those items in a small backpack to keep accessible on Christmas day.  It may include a blanket, a squishy ball, lotion, or a small dvd player with their favorite cartoon. When the schedule of the day’s events are so unreliable to a child, their familiar items offer a calming effect.
Calming breaks can go a long way in preventing a child from becoming overwhelmed.
Make a game plan with your spouse
Before the big day, talk about these tips and your plan to implement them with your spouse.  Discuss the values to your family when you implement these tips.
What roles will you share during the day?  What vulnerable moments do you anticipate in the day?

When it’s all over…learn from the day

When the day is over, take some time to mull over your child’s day.

What things worked well?

What points of the day were more stressful for your child?

What can you do differently that will help the next big family event run more calmly for you and your child?  What will you do the same?

Jot down some notes and keep them in a place to remind you as you approach the next big event.  I like to keep notes on my cell phone calendar and in other strategic places I turn to when planning for the next season.  These reminders will help you be mentally prepared for the next event.

Take heart, tapping into your child’s needs and fostering positive outcomes is a process. Learn to give yourself some grace, as you live through this journey together.

Blessings to you and your family, this Christmas season!

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