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How to Help Anxious Children with the Holidays

December 3, 2017
children by Christmas tree

Tips for Triggers that Cause Anxiety and Meltdowns in Kids

By Janis D. Gioia, MAEd

Anxious children need extra comfort at the holidays.

Things that are merry and bright are often scary and frightening to kids with autism, anxiety, sensory processing disorders or other mental health challenges.

Despite your best planning, you might find yourself at the mall with one child who can’t wait to see Santa and another whose initial excitement has faded; the crowd and noise have him on the verge of a total meltdown. 

Can you calm your anxious child right now, in the line that weaves around Santa’s Winter Wonderland?

Maybe…if you catch your child’s anxiety before it gets out of control.

First:  Make sure your child is:

Not overheated. Malls at the holidays are hot and crowded.  While gentle heat calms, being overly warm causes anxiety. Taking off coats and hats might help.

Not hungry.  Hunger makes anyone irritable.  Low blood sugar can cause anxiety, sweating and shaking.  Good snacks to keep on hand include healthy fats and lean protein.  Try: soy or nut butters on crackers, cheese sticks with a small piece of fruit.

Hydrated.  Being dehydrated leads to a variety of symptoms, including anxiety. Drinking water, especially an electrolyte water, refreshes and calms a child.

Then: Try items in your portable comfort kit.

Yes, you will need to have packed one and brought it with you.  Not always easy to remember in the midst of the holiday frenzy.

Consider keeping a comfort kit in your car or on a hook to grab on your way out the door.

Your portable comfort kit should include items that have proven to calm your child in the past.

Comfort Kit Ideas:

Stress ball

Smooth pebble

Tangle Therapy toy

Small aromatherapy products

Noise cancelling headphones

Mint or peppermint gum (try Bach Rescue Chewing Gum)

Favorite stuffed animal

teddy bear for comfort kit


If you are able to calm your child and continue your Santa visit or day at the mall, great.

But if not you can always try again another day at a better time.

Leaving without seeing Santa or finishing a planned fun activity will be hard on your other children.  Be sensitive to their needs and disappointments, and offer an alternative activity or a rain-check as soon as possible.

It’s difficult to manage the needs of your child with special needs and your typically developing children.


Here are some other things that may cause your child some stress over the holidays, and some possible solutions:

Trigger: Changes in routines.

Most children with anxiety, autism or sensory processing disorders need routines to help them make sense of the world and to keep their anxiety levels in check.

The holidays bring multiple changes in routine.

Children with anxiety find unstructured time at holiday breaks to be stressful, and then there are the additional “BIG” plans that involve different routines, people, sights, smells and sounds.


If you aren’t already using a visual schedule/calendar, this would be a good time to start.

Write or place stickers or pictures on important days for your child.

For most children with anxiety and autism spectrum disorders, the best surprise is no surprise.

Talk about upcoming holiday events, but in a low-key manner.

Your child already feels the nervous energy humming in the air.  Explain things softly and calmly and give your child opportunities to ask questions or voice concerns.

Then listen and respond.

Let your child know what to expect, and consider writing a social story or two to help them prepare in advance.

Sample social story script for Christmas Eve night:

On Christmas Eve our family is very busy. Everyone will feel excitement as we wait for Santa Claus.  I will get dressed in my special holiday clothes. The fabrics might feel a little different than my regular clothes, but if they bother me,  I can always change.  

We will go to church where there will be Christmas music and candle lighting.  It might get dark until all the candles are lit.  Even if I don’t like the flickering lights, I know it will be over soon.  After church we will go to Grandma and Grandpa’s for dinner. 

My cousins will be there.  It might be loud and everyone will be very excited.  I will stay calm by taking breaks when I need to and holding my worry stone in my pocket.  Mom or dad will help me if I feel overwhelmed.  I can eat food grandma has made or my own special food that mom packed for me.

When I get home it will be time for bed, even though I might still feel excited from a busy night.  I know that my night routine will help me relax and fall asleep.  I can use relaxation breathing, my weighted blanket and my sound soother to help me relax.  I can relax and enjoy the holiday.

Read the social story to your child many times to help them visualize the holiday event being something they can enjoy and feel relaxed and peaceful attending.

Trigger: Family gatherings with unfamiliar faces.


Make a photo album or small poster of family members your child hasn’t seen in a while.  Talk about each person with your child  so they seem more familiar.

For example, “This is your Aunt Sophie who you haven’t seen in a few years.  Aunt Sophie has a little dog named Jackson who does funny tricks.”

Remember:  Your child’s needs come first.  Sometimes it’s better to get to an event early, before the excitement is at full swing, and leave early too.  Before your child gets overwhelmed and has a meltdown.

If possible, have one parent take the anxious child home if your other children are still enjoying the event.  Enlist in the aid of family members or friends who might be willing to bring your other children home.  S

Remember:  Sometimes it does take a village. To meet everyone’s needs you might need assistance.


Trigger: Family day at the movies.


First, decide if your child can handle a movie theater with the booming sound, huge screen, and smells of buttery popcorn and cheesy nachos.

Then, if the movie is a go, try to pick a less crowded showing.

Consider packing noise cancelling headphones, calming snacks and your portable comfort kit.

(A social story to prepare is always a good idea.)


Trigger: Too noisy at the mall, tree lighting ceremony, or holiday pageant.


Noise cancelling headphones, and having an exist plan if you child needs to leave.

Consider how many activities you need to do and how many invitations you need to accept.

Coloring by the fire while sipping hot chocolate is a perfectly acceptable alternative to activity overload.  🙂


Trigger: Different smells. From Uncle Bob’s strong cologne to Aunt Donna’s Crawfish Casserole.


Try applying a bit of your child’s favorite flavored lip balm under their nose.  It won’t mask the smell completely, but it will help.

The holidays are a blessed and beautiful time of year.  With a little advance planning you can help your anxious child participate in holiday activities while feeling comfort and joy.

For additional ideas read 5 Ways to Help an Anxious Child Feel Comfort and Joy this Holiday Season.

Have a tip for a holiday trigger?

We’d love to read it in the comments below.

Wishing you a season of comfort, peace and joy,




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