Preventing Holiday Kid Meltdowns - Baby Chick
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Preventing Holiday Kid Meltdowns

Learn how to prevent holiday meltdowns and tantrums in both neurodivergent and neurotypical children.

Updated March 30, 2024

by Nikki Hurst


The holidays are filled with special memories, traditions, and spending time with family. But despite the joy and many happy moments the holidays bring, they can also be overwhelming and overstimulating. The holidays can lead to meltdowns or tantrums for both neurodivergent and neurotypical children. However, taking some easy, quick steps can help make this time of year less stressful for you and your children.

How to Prevent Holiday Meltdowns

Make a Plan, and Check In

Communication is critical in preventing unnecessary stress and meltdowns during the holiday. Besides keeping adults apprised of holiday plans, it’s essential also to keep the kids in the loop! Take time to run through party plans, events, preparation, and the parts of your routine that will still happen. It may also be helpful to hang up a family calendar—with pictures representing plans if your child isn’t reading yet—so all can see what is coming up.

As you work your way through this festive time, make sure to slow down and check in with your children. Ask them how they feel and what parts of the holiday they are excited about and enjoying. Are they feeling anxious or worried about anything? Once you have feedback, it can inform your next steps.

Plan Your #OOTD

Photos with Santa and parties call for a snazzy holiday outfit; sometimes, these dressier items entail different materials than your child’s everyday wardrobe. Glitter, velvet, tights, pointy-toed shoes, etc., can be challenging for kids who are sensitive to how different textures feel.

Have your child try on their party clothes well ahead of the event to make sure everything feels okay and that they feel comfortable. If it’s new clothing, you can wash the item a few times to soften any stiffness in the fabric. It can also be helpful to have a backup outfit on hand.

Normalize Boundaries

This is a time when children may be around a lot of family members they don’t typically see, which is part of what makes this time of year special! Sometimes kids have difficulty interacting socially with new people and may not want family members to hug and kiss them. Or they may have trouble sitting at a table with other children for long periods. Before an event, communicate your child’s boundaries to other family members, if possible.

Eat and Be Merry

Children may not like the food at gatherings, and that’s okay! (And honestly, does anyone really like canned cranberry sauce?) Never force a child to eat what others make; it is acceptable for children, just like adults, to turn down the food they do not like. If your child is an especially picky eater or struggles with mealtimes, maybe bring along “safe” snacks and food options and let other family members know these are for your child. If your child is okay with it, they can bring their preferred snacks or a dish you know they like that they can share with others and join in on the fun.

Start Your Own Traditions

You don’t have to go ice skating, sing Christmas songs, or go sledding just because that’s what your family has always done. Consider an alternative if some winter activities or holiday traditions overwhelm your little one. Maybe you build a fort and watch Christmas movies with the lights off as a family, make a fun Christmas craft, read Christmas books together, or cook or bake a special dish.

There are endless ways to make new traditions and memories and create something just for your family.

Take a Break

Socializing can be exhausting. Allow breaks and alone time during gatherings, maybe with a preferred toy or sensory item. If you’re away from home, communicate with the host to see if there is a quiet place the child can go if need be. You can also work with your child on a unique signal to indicate they need quiet time.

When There’s a Meltdown

If a meltdown does occur, that’s okay; it’s part of life! Meltdowns occur because of feeling overwhelmed, not just the child acting out or misbehaving. Try to remain as calm as possible and suggest other family members do the same to avoid causing additional stress. Moving to a more peaceful environment or a quiet room with some of their favorite calming items or toys can help.

Taking steps to validate your child’s feelings and understand their needs can help settle things, make them feel safe, and learn to regulate their emotions better. To do this, you can express that you understand they’re feeling upset or ask questions like:

  • “Would a hug help make you feel better?”
  • “Do you need to have some alone time?”
  • or “Are you feeling hungry?”

Frustration, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed are typical for children. We feel this way as adults, too. But with careful planning and methods for holiday meltdown intervention, things can go a bit more smoothly this holiday season for everyone in your family.

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Nikki Hurst
Nikki Hurst OTD, OTRL
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Nikki Hurst, OTD, OTRL, is passionate a child development expert with the highest credentials from USC and many years of hands-on practice supporting neurodivergent children in achieving their goals and… Read more

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