Last year’s holiday season turned into a chaotic disaster with remnants of self-regulation issues in my autistic child that lasted for several weeks into January.
I never want to see that happen again. So, I think I will avoid all breaks in routine this year.
I know that isn’t a reasonable goal. What can I do to help my child self-regulate during the holidays?
Self-Regulation Led by the Parent
The key to self-regulation during the holiday season is resting in your hands.
Self-regulation is obtainable when it is effectively orchestrated by the most influential person in your child’s life – by you, the parent guide.
When you control your own stress level, it sends a regulating message to your child that buffers and eliminates chaos. Much of this rests on the foundation of slowing down.
Slow down your pace, not only to give your child a calm model to mirror, but to also allow yourself the ability to notice when your child is either triggered or feeling stressed.
It is extremely difficult to zero in on the stress levels of others, especially your child’s when your own level of anxiety is ramped up.
With a focus during the holidays on the learning self-regulating relationship of parent mind-guide and the apprentice child, versus trying to eliminate any change in routine, you help to retain a ‘normal’ environment for your child – the environment that your autistic child enjoys and develops in.
Michelle Swan, autistic blogger, speaker, and autism advocate, shares her thoughts on how autistics process change:
“Autistic people do struggle with change and unpredictability. But it’s not just because we don’t like change.
We struggle with change because of what it costs us in terms of increased demand on our sensory system, executive function resources and how it impacts on our energy budget.
If we are well supported during a change or unexpected event we find it much easier to navigate and to manage the increased demands the new situation places on our bodies, our processing and our emotional responses to all that.”
Are you a supportive parent guide?
We agree with Michelle, that having this support makes it much easier for your autistic child to manage new situations, and to process appropriate emotional responses – to practice self-regulation even during the spirit of a holiday season.
Practical Ways to Guide Self-Regulation during the Holidays
The holidays roll around once a year, so it is impossible to call the season routine, but there is hope!
Here are some practical ways that will help you soften the break in routine for both you and your autistic child:
Create a Calendar
Create a holiday calendar that you can share with your child.
Encourage your child to cross off the days as each holiday or event approaches. Encourage your child to remain calm and to stick with his or her daily routines despite the approaching event(s).
Practice For the Day or Event
Practice the components of upcoming events with your child, for example, opening gifts.
As you practice, bring elements in that your child may need to self-regulate to, and use body language and gestures to teach your child how to appropriately react. This will give your child a reference point to use when the real event occurs.
Use this as an opportunity to teach your child that self-regulation is okay, and the appropriate action is their decision to make.
If the noise or discomfort level goes up, it is okay to feel uncomfortable. It is okay to reach for the headphones or to go into another room. It is okay for your child to say no to the hugs that they may be uncomfortable with.
Teach your child that awareness and self-care are appropriate and healthy for self-regulation.
Keep It Small
Instead of attending one large family gathering, break the holiday gatherings down to several small get-togethers.
This will help your child enjoy one-on-one time with family without feeling a sense of anxiety.
Keep Up the Routines
As you keep the gatherings smaller, you can also focus on maintaining daily routines.
This encourages a sense of stability and discourages stress. If your routine typically includes home-schooling, for example, keep that on the agenda and the daily calendar.
Prepare Family Members
Prepare your family members for strategies to use that will minimize anxiety.
This may include coaching others to remain calm and to display neutral behaviors, which will reduce the level of surprise and prevent overwhelm and behavior outbursts in your child.
This is your opportunity to teach others that your child understands self-regulation, and that this includes saying no to whatever makes them uncomfortable – such as hugging, or certain foods or environments, and that your child is encouraged to step away and self-regulate to avoid stress and unwanted behaviors.
Talk with your family about sharing common interests – including your child’s.
When common interests are shared, it can relieve feelings of tension, and it can help to create a bond and a sense of peaceful belonging in your autistic child – which encourages your child to engage in social relationships.
Remain Calm and Enjoy
The top thing that you can do for yourself and your child during the holidays is to remain calm and enjoy the season!
You are your child’s best example-setter – and when you are calm, they know it! Embrace routines for your own sense of peace, and boldly create new routines when needed. Teach your children and family flexibility as you practice and learn together.
Remember, you do not have to do this alone.
Our online learning community is designed for parents to find connection and support with others, with access to the most current resources, and an open door to reach out for professional consultation if additional help is needed.
Have a wonderful holiday season!