Strategies for the Holiday Season

Click a problem below to see how to address it with your child.


1. Help! My child has feeding difficulties and cannot manage non-preferred foods.

Eating and self-feeding is already challenging for many children. It requires almost all of our senses to complete effectively. The holidays are often full of flavorful, odorous, and new foods. This can pose a variety of additional challenges when it comes time for a group meal.

If your child will not eat new foods, work exclusively on tolerating new foods on the table. This will likely be expected at large group meals where many different food items will be present in front of the child that they may be unfamiliar with or have an aversion to.You can practice at home by placing non-preferred foods on the table in front of the child. When the child seems comfortable and able to tolerate this for extended periods of time, try having the child play with the non-preferred foods at the table with their utensils.

Another helpful strategy is creating a social story about the expectations during holiday meals. For example, it may not be expected that the child eat or try all of the foods, but that the child remain at the table for the duration of the meal. This can help prepare your child for what is to come.

Odor sensitivity can be difficult to manage, but one fun strategy is making home-made putty (salt-dough, edible play-doh) and incorporating spices in the play. The expectation of eating the flavor is removed, but it can help children grow more accustomed to different smells.

2. Help! My child gets overwhelmed with large groups of people.

Children may need breaks when in large groups. Create a calm down space for your child that you can carry with you. For example, you can bring a body-sock and fit it in most bags. Practice with the equipment you already have at home, and bring it with you. Consistency is key – if the child finds the tool reliable and familiar, it can help calm them.

Oral input is also typically soothing; bring gum or other chewy snacks, chewlery, or a Camelbak water bottle for the child to suck/chew on when overwhelmed. In addition, bringing a preferred or calming activity that the child can use periodically throughout the experience will allow them to decompress in their own way. This could be a coloring book, a favorite puzzle, etc. And again, social stories provide the child insight as to what to expect.

3. Help! My child struggles knowing how to appropriately respond to questions from unfamiliar people.

The holidays often bring families together, and occasionally, this means interacting with largely unfamiliar adults and children. If your child struggles with social thinking already, it is unlikely that he/she will be comfortable interacting with guests for a prolonged period of time.

Preparing a script for your child for interacting with new/unfamiliar family members may be helpful in getting the child through the experience (this includes hello and goodbye). Consider including practice for common questions asked, such as: “How is school/sports/scouts?” or “Oh wow! You’ve grown so much” or “How are your friends/pets?” Combine this with a social story!

Use the strategies mentioned in the question above above to help your child decompress from these potentially overwhelming social interactions (calm down space, preferred activity).

4. Help! My child cannot manage long car rides.

Car rides challenge our vestibular system (our balance and movement system). For some children that are over-responsive, this may mean becoming sick with stop/go movement. Motion sickness is common. In the weeks leading up to your event, consider going daily to a nearby park and getting a lot of input by going on spinning equipment (to your child’s tolerance) and swings.

Prevent your child from reading or watching videos in the car, as this demand on the visual/vestibular system is too high and can trigger nausea. Instead, allow the child to listen to music or play with a fidget that does not require their vision. Chewing gum can also be helpful in managing motion sickness.

If your child becomes bored easily in the car and movies/iPad are not options, there are many fun car games you can play with your family. One example is car karaoke! Another example is iSpy (with license plates, signs, or foliage).