Feet in wool socks near fireplace at Christmas time

6 Tips to Reduce Holiday Stress for Families With Special Needs

The holidays are packed with fun, food, festivities and for some of us, stress. For families with special needs, the unfamiliar sounds, smells and visitors can sometimes be disruptive. Minimize your stress this holiday season with six simple strategies for keeping your family member engaged and calm. Be prepared and put the fun back into your festivities.


  1. Find calm where you can. Everyone needs some downtime to renew. Schedule quiet times during the day – short periods when you can give your family member your full attention and tune in to their needs. You can even have a “code word” for your family member to say when he or she feels overwhelmed. Giving him or her some control during activities can help reduce anxiety.
  2. Set a schedule. Family members with special needs thrive on routine. Give him or her a schedule of events for holiday activities, particularly on days with lots of transitions. It could be a written schedule or one with pictures – even a calendar showing what is planned in upcoming days. Discuss the schedule regularly and provide information for each event.
  3. Watch for sensory overload. The holidays are full of stimulation. It can be overwhelming for individuals who are highly sensitive. Prepare ahead if you know you are going into an especially stimulating environment. Bring ear plugs to loud events. Possibly limit holiday decorations in your home. Remind your family member of the pre-determined “code word” in case he or she feels overwhelmed. Make your environment as calm, and if necessary as routine, as possible.
  4. Prepare your family and friends. Talk to family members and friends ahead of holiday events. Discuss your family member’s specific needs and what helps make him or her feel comfortable and safe. When visiting friends or relatives, bring along some of his or her favorite items for comfort, if needed.
  5. Keep it simple. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have time to send out cards this year or decorate the front porch. Don’t worry about finding the perfect gift for every member of your family. Skip the stores and perhaps opt for gift certificates. Simplify whenever possible.
  6. Ask for help. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Delegate whenever possible. Give the kids a job. Ask your family for help. People are usually happy to lend a hand, but you may need to give them clear directions. Create a list of things they can do to support you during the holidays – from shopping and cooking to spending time with your child while you prep for the gathering of your friends and family.

Dealing With Stress During the Holidays

We want the holidays to be perfect, but getting locked into that ideal can cause much of our stress. This year, try to take the holiday as it comes. Minimize your stress by preparing ahead, asking for help and simplifying whenever possible. The joy will follow.

For information about local resources and services, contact your local Military Family Support Center’s EFMP Family Support Staff.