Holidays with the Child Who Struggles with Change in Routine
Updated: Dec 9, 2019
This topic hits very close to home. Having a strong-willed child with ADHD and a son on the spectrum who fell apart at changes to his routine made me a bit of an expert at navigating holidays with extra care and planning. Hold onto your stockings, holidays can be a wild ride with the child who HATES changes to their routine. From visiting family and friends to hosting special events, trips to the mall, sleep disruption and sugar-rich foods… everything is slightly different over the holidays and that can be deeply challenging for some kids. Our schedule-bound kids need extra support and empathy when the magic of the season threatens the comfort of their routine. Don’t fear. There are some highly effective things we can do to help minimize the discomfort for them:
1. Preserve some aspects of their schedule:
No one knows your child better than you. You know their weakness - for many, it’s getting overtired, for others it’s getting too hungry and for some, it’s being dragged along to visit friends/relatives. Narrow down the biggest triggers for your child and then make a plan, (and stick to it!) to keep several parts of their daily routine the same. Keeping bedtime roughly the same is key in most households, followed closely by serving meals at approximately the same time. Routines feel safe and comforting to most kids and efforts to keep them intact can reduce stress on the child.
2. Build-in some downtime:
The calendar can easily become jam-packed over the holidays. While adults can generally flit from one event to the next with relative ease, it’s just not possible for most children to do so. Building in some time between activities for our kids to play, rest, create, snuggle or just lallygag can pave the way for a smoother transition to the next planned activity. Kids are highly sensitive to our energy as parents. Our stress trickles down to them and can be completely overwhelming. The more we try to rush them, the more they fall apart. Kids are an excellent reminder to slow down and appreciate the little joys of the season!
3. Factor in enough rest… Zzzzzzzz:
Dozily watching Rudolph on tv under a cozy blanket, taking a nap or just relaxing with books are an excellent way to refresh and recharge. As lovely as it is for us all to enjoy some peaceful time, kids need downtime. Weighted blankets or weighted vests can offer a soothing break for some kids. Building in a break will make the next leg of the journey more enjoyable for all!
4. Active playtime:
As critical as downtime is for kids, so is active time. We can hardly expect kids brimming with an abundance of energy to sit politely in Grandma’s parlour or endure a long car ride while being well behaved. We have had family road trips when we stopped to let the kids burn rubber in a fast-food indoor playground, or stopped at a park or put everything on hold to stop at a toboggan hill on the way. Kids aren’t tiny adults. They have energy that needs to be expended - meeting their needs makes it more likely that they will be able to meet ours. Exercise is a great way to rid children of anxiety and boost mood as well!
5. Grandma’s rule:
Grandma, may I have another cookie? Sure! As soon as you finish your apple slices.
Grandma knows that the best way to negotiate with our kids is to ask for what we want from them first and then oblige their request after. Grandma’s also know that happy, healthy kids need fruit and veg - even over the holidays! There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the treats of the season, but too many treats can lead to feeling unwell and even a bit grumpy. Keeping some of the regular healthy foods in the holiday rotation is another nod toward keeping the routine closer to the same.
6. The dreaded H word… (homework):
This is age-dependent but critically important. For kids who are highly routine dependent, the holidays can feel chaotic and frantic especially if the child is school-aged and has homework to complete on the break. It is not only ill-advisable but rather unfair to let the work build up over the whole break and then panic the night before school resumes. Doing a tiny bit each day, or most days will keep stress down by giving the child the sense that they are not falling behind or deferring their work. It is another way of keeping the routine loosely in check and a great way to teach time management.
7. Minimize stress by clarifying expectations:
Discussing specific expectations for behaviour ahead of time can take some of the stress away. For example, in the car ride over to Aunt Janet’s, practice how you would like your child to greet the host, what to do with their plate after eating and how to receive a gift, (if a gift exchange is on the table). You may also want to discuss rules around pets, breakable items or areas of the house that are on and off-limits. Kids want to be socially successful! Much of the time, their social mistakes are due to not knowing how to handle the situation or what to say. If we arm them with a script ahead of time, they’ll be ready to make a great impression and feel more comfortable!
8. Hand over some of the decision making:
Not every decision has flexibility, but some do, and when they do, it’s a great chance to give your child a voice! For example, if you need to go to the grocery to buy cranberries, giving your child the choice if you’ll leave now or after their tv show has ended models respect and compromise. Remember: it’s not a choice IF we’re going to the shop, but sometimes we can offer the choice of when we go. It is not a choice if we’re going to have vegetables with dinner, but we can share the choice of whether to have carrots or peas. Getting involved can mean getting on board for reluctant kids.
9. Extra cuddles and cozy clothes:
At the end of the day, if the light of your life isn’t coping well with the hustle-bustle despite your best efforts, remember the power of a hug and an encouraging word. Kindness and empathy. We’re all different and experience life uniquely. Listening to your child’s struggles, validating that you know it is a challenging time for them, but you’re proud of their efforts, is the way to go. Blankies, stuffies, cozy pyjamas or a favourite soft hoodie might be the exact thing for soothing and comfort. Whether it’s a phase or whether disruption in routine will always be a challenge for your child, the way you respond to their concerns will mean the world to them and make a tricky situation easier for them.
Paula Presswood is a former teacher turned entrepreneur. She can mostly be found blogging, doing yoga, drinking tea, chasing around after her three teenagers and sampling delicious appetizers with her crazy magician husband. She is Co-founder of Presswood Entertainment and The Thoughtfull Board. Follow Paula on instagram