By: Amy Nasamran, M.A. & Suzi Naguib, Psy.D.

As the holiday season approaches, families are looking forward to celebrating traditions, taking a much-needed break from work and school, and reuniting with loved ones. The holidays can often be an exciting and enjoyable time. Many of us are beginning to plan memorable festivities, make travel arrangements, prepare delicious meals, and search for gifts.

The rush of the holiday season can also be particularly stressful for parents and children alike, especially for children with psychiatric disorders, like anxiety, depression, or ADHD. Long plane and car rides, catching up with relatives, and being in new and different environments can cause disruptions in typical family routines. How can children who are easily anxious, frustrated, or overactive navigate these holiday-related stressors? We’ve created a list of strategies that can help all kids – and parents – enjoy the holiday season.

Include and involve the kids
Being unsure of upcoming events can be stressful for some kids. Including children in the planning process for trips and events can help them regain a sense of ownership and help them feel in charge (NASP, 2002). You can even start new family traditions and give the kids special responsibilities, like being a helper with baking cookies, putting up decorations, or setting the table.

Involving children as much as possible in the planning of events can also help them anticipate and feel comfortable about future activities (Swanson, 2005). It can help lower anxiety and stress for kids who may worry when plans feel uncertain or are different from the normal routine (Swanson, 2005). Planning together helps create a sense of structure and predictability that many children find comforting.

Provide as much structure as possible
Amidst the break from typical routines, maintaining structure (as much as possible) is key. Kids often like and respond better to structured activities (Mesibov, Shea, & Schopler, 2005). Also, behavior problems tend to diminish when the environment is structured and predictable (Mesibov et al., 2005). Below are some strategies for maintaining some structure among the holiday-related change of pace:

  • Keep bedtime, naptime, and mealtime as consistent as possible
  • Continue to engage in family routines, like reading together before bed, even if sleeping at a later hour or at a relative’s home
  • Enforce the usual family and house rules
  • When the hosts’ house rules are different, teach the expectations before arriving
  • On a particularly hectic day, go over a schedule at the start of the day to help kids anticipate and transition to novel events and activities
  • While traveling on long plane or car rides, bring a bag with many activities to keep kids occupied for long periods of time
  • Plan breaks during long trips, as parents and children alike will benefit from having a few minutes throughout a long day of traveling to decompress

Designate space for breaks
Large social gatherings can be overwhelming for some children, especially for those who are sensitive to loud noises or big crowds. Having a quiet space to take a short break can help kids feel safe and supported. Children may benefit from knowing where they can go when they need a few minutes to unwind from an overly stimulating environment. Finding and designating a special spot in your home ahead of time (or asking your host where there’s a place to take a quiet break) can be helpful (NASP, 2002).

Teach social expectations and rules
Some children may feel anxious about seeing new or unfamiliar relatives. While our relatives’ hugs and kisses are well intentioned, it is important to have different social expectations for different kids. Children with social anxiety should not be pressured to immediately show affection or talk. However, they should not avoid such events that may trigger their anxiety. Instead, it is important to teach and model effective social skills to help them manage their anxieties and navigate those social situations (Ashdown & Bernard, 2012).

Family gatherings offer many teaching and practice opportunities. We can teach kids to start small with a smile, a wave hello, or a high five. As children become more comfortable at a social gathering, they can practice their social skills. Encourage them to engage in conversations with familiar adults or share and take turns with their favorite cousins. Inform family members and friends on how they can help ahead of time – it is likely that they will be understanding and supportive.

Set aside time to relax
Maintaining good physical and mental health is essential for managing the exciting yet hectic time of the holidays. Exercise, deep breathing, and relaxation techniques are effective ways to decrease anxiety for children and adults alike (Cabe, 2001). Setting aside just minutes for physical and mental relaxation each day can help calm your mind and body.

Sunfield Center wishes your families a happy and healthy holiday season!

Ashdown, D. M. & Bernard, M. E. (2012). Can explicit instruction in social and emotional learning skills benefit the social-emotional development, well-being, and academic achievement of young children? Early Childhood Education Journal, 39(6), 397-405. Retrieved from

Cabe, N. (2001). Relaxation training: Bubble breaths. Jason Aronson, Inc.: Lanham, MD. Retrieved from

Mesibov, G. B., Shea, V., & Schopler, E. (2005). The TEACCH approach to autism spectrum disorders. Springer Science Business Media: New York, NY. Retrieved from

National Association of School Psychologists. (2002). Behavior Problems: Teaching Young Children Self-Control Skills. Retrieved from

Swanson, T. C. (2005). Provide structure for children with learning and behavior problems. Intervention in School and Clinic, 40(3), 182-187. Retrieved from