How To Navigate Christmas With Children Who Have Special Needs.

Author of 5 books, podcaster, parent trainer, husband and father.

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It's a question we face every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas: How can we navigate the sensory overload of this season with our children? We've discovered a few keys...

The malls are decorated with garland, bows, and lighted wreaths suspended in mid-air between stores and shops.
Display windows have followed suit with decorative frosting in the corners and mannequins dressed in cold-weather attire. Starbucks debuted their red holiday cups, and radio stations are beginning to play Christmas music on loop. There’s no doubt about it — the holidays are here.

For many, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time for gathering with family, opening presents, feasting on amazing food, and traveling to see relatives that live in other states. But, for those of us who are raising children with sensory processing needs, attachment issues, anxiety disorders, high stress, or FASD, it can be one of the most stressful times of the year. The excitement, over-stimulation, rich food, change in schedule, and disrupted routine can spell disaster.

We’re in that boat as adoptive parents. For years, we dreaded the holidays, particularly Christmas morning — still do to some degree. The excitement and energy surrounding it almost always resulted in a full-blown meltdown from one or more of my kids with sensory processing needs. Often, it was a snowball effect. One would go, and either trigger the others, or provoke the others and the day would be lost. The struggle with anxiety, impulsion, and over-stimulation from chaotic or high-energized environments was too much to handle.

For years, we dreaded it. We began to lose hope. That is, until this time last year. That’s Kristin came up with an idea.

“Let’s not open gifts in our house this year,” she said to me one November evening.

I was confused. “Do you mean, go to your parents’ house instead?”

“No,” she replied. “Let’s open them somewhere else.

“Like where?” I asked.

“What if we asked someone to use their space, just for opening presents, nothing else? We could do that and then come back to our house for Christmas Day dinner.”

And that’s precisely what we did. We had a connection to an after-school program who owned a house just north of where we lived. It was only a mile from our house. But it made a world of difference for our children with sensory-processing needs.

It’s a big question we’ve asked over the years, right after Thanksgiving hits — how do you navigate the holidays with children who deal with special needs that may be triggered by all of the excitement and fanfare surrounding the season? We’re still learning how to do this for the most part, but we’ve found a few key ways to help reduce the overload …

  1. Pay attention to location. Perhaps your home is a trigger. Perhaps the room you open gifts in is a trigger. If you have this option, try moving to a different location for the big morning. It may not be feasible, but it was something that worked for us. Even a relative’s home may be a better option. Often times, the place they are most familiar with becomes the biggest trigger for meltdowns or sensory overload.
  2. Create a safe space. We have some good friends with a son who has sensory processing needs, much like ours. He has lots of trouble on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas morning. Really, anytime lots of people are gathered around, watching him open gifts (as grandparents, aunts, and uncles will do at Christmas), or focus lots of attention on him, he has trouble. They tell their son, before holiday gatherings, that he can take time away in his room or in a quiet place if he feels like he’s nearing overload. We have followed this same measure with some of our kids. When you intentionally create a space that is safe for your kiddos, you’ll enable them to find peace through hectic holiday gatherings.
  3. Allow time for preparation. Those same friends do something else I think is key. They prepare well in advance. They have conversations with their son about what is to come. It doesn’t always fully help them through moments of high sensory overload, but it has made a big difference. We follow along the same lines with lots of conversations with our children who suffer from alcohol-related nuerodevelopmental disorder (ARND). Their brains cannot handle lots of overload or excitement. But, walking them through everything well in advance has made a big difference with the outcome of the day.
  4. As much as you can, stick to routine. I know — this is hard to do if you’re traveling, or even with the holiday break in general. There’s no school routine, no work routine, no one has to get up early, and you can pretty much stay up later if you want (because there’s no work or school to contend with). I get it. Same deal in our household. But, routine is king when you’re parenting children with major special needs (like ARND or sensory processing needs). As far as it depends on you, stick to routine. You may not be able to fully, but if you can to some degree, you may find that meltdowns are shorter lived or few and far between.

The biggest piece of advice I can give to anyone who is parenting children who have a difficult time during the holidays, is be aware of your kids’ needs. It sounds simple but often, it’s hard to remember, especially during the chaos of the season. As much as we wish we could do the things that normal families do during Thanksgiving and Christmas, we can’t. We have to modify — tweak the world around us — to accommodate our precious children. We want them to enjoy the holidays as much as anyone else. That’s true for our family, and I’m sure it is for yours. Taking small steps, and paying attention to a few key aspects of our children’s ability to process through a bright and chaotic season, can make a world of difference.

Are you in this boat as a parent? What have you learned? Share your story with us in the comment section below…

(This piece originally appeared on Mike’s column on Disney’s Babble)

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Mike and Kristin Berry are the Co-Founders of The Honestly Adoption Company and have been parents for nearly two decades. They are the authors of six books, and the host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is the executive assistant to Mike and Kristin Berry. And she is the best in the land. In addition to providing a warm and friendly response to the many emails our company receives on a weekly basis, she also manages Mike and Kristin’s speaking and meeting schedules, and makes sure that team events go off without a hitch.

Nicole Goerges

Nicole Goerges is a Content Contributor & Special Consultant for The Honestly Adoption Company. She works with Mike and Kristin as a recurring co-host for the Honestly Adoption Podcast, and co-host of Kitchen Table Talks, exclusive video content for Oasis Community, along with Kristin. She is a fellow adoptive mom, and former foster parent.

Matt McCarrick

Matt McCarrick is the Content Production Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. If you’ve loved listening to our podcast, or enjoyed any of the videos trainings we’ve published, you have Matt to thank. He oversees all of our content production, from video edits, to making sure the tags are correct on YouTube, to uploading new videos to Oasis, to hitting publish on a podcast episode, he’s a content wonder!

Karen Anderson

Karen Anderson is the Community Engagement Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends the bulk of her time interacting with, and helping, people through our various social media channels, as well as providing support for Oasis Community members through chat support or Zoom calls. In the same spirit as Beaver, Karen is also passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and supported. Karen is also an FASD trainer and travels often, equipping and encouraging parents.

Beaver Trumble

Beaver Trumble is the Customer Care Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. Chances are, if you have been in need of technical support, or forgotten your password to one of our courses, you have interacted with Beaver. He is an absolute pro at customer care. In fact, he single-handedly revolutionized our customer care department last year. Beaver is passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and encouraged.

Kristin Berry

Kristin Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Content Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends most of her time researching and connecting with guests for our podcast, as well as direction, designing and publishing a lot of the content for our social media channels, blog and podcast. She loves to connect with fellow parents around the world, and share the message of hope with them.

Mike Berry

Mike Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Marketing Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. He spends the bulk of his time and energy designing and building many of the resources you see within our company, as well as social media and email campaigns. His goal is to use media as a means to encourage and equip parents around the world. He is also the co-host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.