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12 Tips for Happy Holidays

Even we adults may anticipate the upcoming holidays with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads. But too often we are faced with the realities of sugar overload, sleepless nights and children who are cranky with their new, less predictable routines. What can parents do to facilitate family fun and more successfully navigate the hectic pace, travel travails and gift overload that sometimes comes with the holiday season? How do we make the holidays manageable and enjoyable for the youngest to the oldest members of the family?

Holidays and celebrations mean lots of people, noise and heightened activity. Some children thrive on the atmosphere of excitement and unpredictability. Others with a more sensitive sensory system or a quiet temperament require more structure and need to know what to expect.

Why do children act out or fall apart at holiday celebrations?

They don't know what to expect! What are they going to do? What are they going to eat? Where are the bathrooms? Who will be there? Some children are bombarded with a sensory barrage: a touch, a kiss, a hug, a pat on the head or unwanted vestibular input (they are thrown in the air and twirled around). They receive unwanted attention, or they may find themselves ignored in a crowd of adults.

What can parents do to help increase the comfort level and hopefully prepare their child for success, or at least a bearable time, at family gatherings or in busy travel venues over the holidays?

Prepare your child. Anticipate and prepare for glitches. Let her know who will be there and what is going to happen. For example: "Uncle John and Aunt Peg and their children Sally and Chuck will be at Grandma's house. Remember how much fun you had playing with Cousin Sally last time? First, there will be time for kids to have a snack. Then, you can watch a special video that Grandma got for you. I told Grandma not to turn off the lights because that scares you. Then, Grandma and Grandpa will need your help before dinner. Chuck can help bring in firewood. You and Sally can help Grandma put special decorations on the table." This advance conversation sets the stage and can go far to reduce anxiety. You can have a similar conversation, but use fewer words, if you are talking to a younger child. Initially during the festivities, be close by during those unstructured times, such as when the whole pack of young cousins is trooping unsupervised to the basement to play.

Use visuals. Before an extended-family event, get out some photographs and talk about the key people who'll be there. Pictures taken at the last family gathering are ideal (even better if your child is in those photos). You can also create a visual schedule (using pictures or stick figures if your child is not reading). This picture schedule allows the child to cross off activities that occur. The result is that when the questions are raised about, "When are we going to leave?" you can refer her to her schedule.

Learn to read your child's face and comfort level. Just as you would rescue your spouse from a boring conversation at a cocktail party, you need to be prepared to rescue your child. Remember that there is a fine line between rescue and overprotection, and only you as a parent know your child well enough to determine when rescue is necessary.

Develop entry and exit strategies. Even the youngest child can benefit from having a plan or a prop to enter a social situation. Bringing a small gift of food or flowers to the hostess can make the child feel special, and more important, give her a role or a job to ease those uncomfortable first moments. Practice a scripted greeting: "Hi, Grandma. I made you cookies!" or a simple, "Happy Holidays!" Always have a plan to exit gracefully if your child needs to leave. Teach your child the script, and words she can use if a break is needed, such as, "Let's take a walk."

Teach and expect your child to be pleasant and polite. Practicing greetings and saying, "Thank you," before leaving will help your child be more comfortable in social settings. However, do not force social interaction, insist on your child's eating new food against her will or ask a reluctant child to perform. She may be holding on by just a thread and one more expectation or demand may lead to a total meltdown. If your child has difficulty verbally greeting relatives and friends, you can first teach her that there are other ways to greet family, including looking and smiling or waving. During those more challenging novel situations, you may simply model the social pleasantries of saying, "Please," and, "Thank you."

Model alternatives to hugs and kisses. Teach her to offer her hand for a firm handshake. Cue relatives and friends in advance when possible. Practice this with role playing at home so your child feels comfortable offering a hand to shake.

Sensory overload in an airport or on the airplane is a real hazard for little ones. Minimize crowd exposure by waiting in a nearby empty gate area for as long as possible before heading over to the designated gate for preboarding with other families.

Have gum for older children or lollipops for preschoolers to suck on during take-off and landing. Babies often find sucking on a bottle helps to ease the discomfort during cabin pressure changes. This helps to minimize the pressure difference in the ear and hopefully prevents the pain or discomfort associated with blocked eustachian tubes.

Plan carefully for snacks and meals. Take advantage of the hot water and milk available on planes by bringing along a disposable, plastic lidded bowl for instant oatmeal, a small box of dry cereal or a cup of dried noodles. If gels and liquids are allowed on board, consider packing frozen kids' yogurt tubes (likely to thaw but unlikely to get warm enough to go bad) or a peanut butter sandwich — comfort food that does not require refrigeration. Have extra snacks/foods available since mealtimes are often off-schedule when traveling, and this may help in the face of unexpected delays.

Look for toys with self-adhesive components, like magnets or felt, for preschoolers or young school-age children. Toys like these are less likely to fall between seats. Also bring favorite "loveys" (small stuffed animals or blankets), which will provide comfort as well as cushioning when your child's dozing off for a nap. Children over the age of 3 might also enjoy keeping their belongings in a small backpack that they can carry (or roll) on and off the plane. This small gesture gives them a comfortable feeling of control (over something!) on a day full of overwhelming new stimuli.

Strategically offer new toys/activities during your journey. For example, plastic cling-on shapes, such as Colorforms, can be enjoyed when played with on a nearby window; colored masking tape can be entertaining when used on the tray table. Add a novel twist to a familiar activity. For example, if your child has made a picture, offer colored stickers or stamper markers to complete the project. Giving a young child a camera designed for younger photographers can delight for long periods of time.

Play games/read books to while away the hours spent traveling. Play games, like Family Trivia (describe a photo of a family member, and have your child guess who you are talking about. Give as many clues as needed — including the first sound of the name). Play Tic Tac Toe. Share a new "I Spy" or a riddle book, which can be fun to explore together. Pull out some brochures of where you are going, and talk about what you might see during the trip. Make a "brag book" of photos of family members you are visiting, and tell the story of who your child will be seeing to prepare for the upcoming adventure.

Now, go enjoy your family holiday and trip and know that not everything may go smoothly. There possibly will be bumps along the road, but with a little preplanning, you and your child can hold on tightly and enjoy the ride, making the bumps a little less intense and a lot more manageable.

In their book Is It a Big Problem or Little Problem? authors Sharon Anderson, Judi Greenberg, Amy Freedman and Amy Egan offer practical real-life strategies to support children in a variety of everyday activities, including getting up, going to school, getting dressed and going to birthday parties. The authors comprise a developmental team from the Ivymount School Outreach Programs and provide classroom and home consultations, parent and teacher workshops and social skills groups. For more information call Amy Freedman at 301-469-0223, ext. 440.