Surviving the Holidays

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

Provided by Athena Behavioral Treatment Center | By Sydnee Thomas MS, BCBA, LBA

For most, the excitement of the upcoming holidays tends to creep in as the season approaches. The air
turns crisp, and winter coats are pulled out to anticipate the coming cold. The holiday decorations begin to light up the night sky and families are seen walking amongst them, oohing at the bright and flashing lights; festive music is heard throughout. Famous holiday family recipes are pulled out and the smell of baked goods begin to fill the surrounding homes. The “holiday spirit” is felt in every avenue ventured, smiles and warm embraces are seen throughout our communities. The anxieties of holiday shopping and preparations are overshadowed by the exciting festivities and break from the day-to-day routine felt throughout the year.

Holidays with Special Needs Children

For families with children diagnosed with special needs, the joyous occasion that the holidays bring to many are instead replaced with anxiety, angst, and trepidation. With this perspective, the pending questions linger: “How can we assist those families in getting through the holiday season?” “What can we provide, aside from compassion and understanding?” To answer these questions, peer-reviewed clinical-based research surrounding applied behavior analysis (ABA), has been used to compile a few tips to assist families in navigating the upcoming holiday season.


Routine is something that we all stick to, but for our special need’ population, this tends to be a lifeline that assists them in understanding what is to come and aiding families in managing their day to day lives. A break from that routine can act as a stressor for all parties involved. To better plan and prepare for what that change will look like, a visual schedule (pictures or written), a visual calendar where days can be marked off, or simply sitting them down and having a conversation, so that the disruption in routine is not unexpected, can be beneficial. With a necessity in routine, familiar surroundings and environments also provide a sense of comfort. Adding decorations, different smells, bright lights, and different music, not normally heard in their everyday environment, can lead to an increase in undesirable behavior due to overwhelming change. To assist in preparing for that change, movies can be watched with preferred characters to show what the upcoming holiday could look like, or slowly decorating as opposed to a complete change in environment.

Opinions can be requested with an array of two choices, “Should we put up white or red lights?”. Offering choices in which décor, what games to be played, what movie as a family should be watched can assist in your child feeling like they have a sense of control over what is happening in their surroundings. Such choices can extend to visiting family members and the expectation of greetings: “Would you like to give a hug or a high five?” In such gatherings, be understanding, and ensure that loved ones also understand
that a large crowd of individuals also leads to loud noises and potential sensory overload.

Frequent Breaks

Providing your child with frequent breaks in a quiet space with preferred items or having them request a break (if able) can assist in decreasing unwanted behaviors and help your child regulate emotions. With the continued understanding of feeling overwhelmed as a family, traveling is a hardship that many parents are not willing to take on due to the uncertainty of “what could happen” or how to handle stressful moments. Feelings of inadequacy and helplessness are common when children engage in undesirable behaviors taking place in a public setting. Such situations can make navigating hectic environments to simply get from one location to the next seem like running a marathon. To ease such anxieties surrounding traveling, a task analysis is a preferred method which breaks down complex activities into a series of multiple steps. A task analysis could include writing down the steps needed to navigate an airport, crossing them off as completed and preparing your child for the next. A small, and easy to carry, comfort item that is from the child’s natural environment can also be great to ease any traveling anxieties.

Winter Coats

Winter coats add another layer of clothing that may be difficult or uncomfortable to keep on, a fine motor skill not yet mastered, and an extra task added to get out of the house to start the day. To better assist in the need of extra layers, choose, or let them choose winter accessories with a favorite color or character. Use yourself as a model to demonstrate zipping and guide their hands with yours on zipping and buttoning. Remember patience and celebrate the little milestones; “I love how you are wearing your coat!” or “Great job helping me zip-up!”

For the caregivers at Athena Behavioral Treatment Center, a main focus within caregiver training is
self-management with an emphasis on personal care. Although there never seems to be enough time in the day, it is important to carve out the time to breathe and gain the mindset needed to be effective and intentional in everything we do. Examples of such personal time could look like going for a walk, stretching, sitting outside, whatever it is that provides you with peace or healthy comfort. In caring for yourself, you are also providing the best version of yourself to those that you are caring for.


Carter, C. M. (2016). Using Choice with Game Play to Increase Language Skills and Interactive Behaviors in Children with Autism. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions.

Harding, J. W., Wacker, D. P., Berg, W. K., Cooper, L. J., Asmus, J., Mlela, K., & Muller, J. (1999). An analysis of choice making in the assessment of young children with severe behavior problems. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 32(1), 63-82.

Kern, L., Choutka, C. M., & Sokol, N. G. (2002). Assessment -based antecedent interventions used in natural settings to reduce challenging behavior: An analysis of the literature. Education and Treatment of Children, 25(1), 113-130. Retrieved from


Comments are closed.