Helping Your Shy or Special Needs Child Enjoy Holiday Family Time

Spending precious time with extended family during the holidays is filled with joy and traditions but by its nature can bring anxiety to children who are shy or have special needs. Starting with the customary hugs and kisses and obligatory, “look how much you’ve grown!!”, can bring unintended discomfort at the intensity of attention and sensory noise and touch. christmas-tree-snowWe want this special time with family, but navigating these issues for our children without irritating other family members or traditions can be challenging.

Here are my Mom tested tips:

Prepare your child with what to expect tailored to their age, maturity, and challenges. For example, children with autism often benefit from a social story which is like a brief, picture oriented script that provides prompts for what to do when different things happen, such as: You will see many relatives who are so happy to be with you who may hug or kiss you. It is nice. You do not have to hug or kiss them if you don’t want to. Smile and say, “Hi! So great to see you!”

For relatives our sons haven’t seen in a long time we remind them who we’ll be seeing and how they are related to us. We remind them about the last time we saw them and some things we did together to help them connect.

Plan activities that will engage your child with family members. Is there a common activity your child and other kids in the family would enjoy playing together? Is there a passion your child and one of the adults or kids in your family share that you could mention to each of them ahead of time? Look for bridges that bring them together in quieter, more approachable way for your child.

Gently remind your family or friends of your child’s sensitivities. Compliment them on how much you appreciate how caring they are about your child’s shyness or special needs. If it’s been a while since your child has seen them you can update them on your child’s interests and issues and what approaches you have been using. For example, you could let them know that Johnny has been a little shy and takes a little time to warm up. He loves trains right now so it would be great if they could ask him what his favorite trains and wait a bit to hug him because he get a little overwhelmed with a lot of people in the room, even though of course everyone is loving family. If he/she has autism or another disability, highlight what you’re worrying over (i.e. he thinks literally so be aware that if you say things that are too subtle he may not understand your meaning) and goals you are working on (i.e. we’re encouraging Susie to find one topic to talk about briefly. We’re letting her leave the dinner table but first she has to finish her dinner, talk with us a bit, and then ask to be excused).

Think about any food needs that you need to navigate. Does your child have a special diet or allergies? Or picky about what they’re willing to eat? It’s hard to ask too much when the host family is trying to accommodate everyone. However, serious allergies or food issues need to be handled. You can offer to bring something. If you’re visiting from out of town you could go get some items or help fix something.

Anticipate special holiday traditions or activities that might cause your child unintended anxiety. For example, visiting Santa is so much fun but a sensitive child might not feel comfortable with sitting on Santa’s lap, or might need prompting ahead about what to expect and to plan for what they want to wish for. Other religious events while fun and meaningful could have sensory implications such as noise, or expectations for sitting quietly.

Be prepared to improvise through any awkward moments. Stuff happens that hopefully no one means any harm from. Your child inadvertently walks in when a family member is discussing something about autism which you haven’t told them they have yet. Or your family member compares two siblings or cousins. Sigh. My first priority is always my child’s feelings in these situations so I try to talk to them as soon as possible to feel out what they heard and perceived. Sometimes it turns out your child didn’t hear something that worried you, or it didn’t bother them. If your child is the type that appears to “not be listening,” people may assume that’s the case and not censor their words…and that can be when they really do hear something that could confuse or upset them. Figuring out how to handle the adult who said it is challenging. My main advice is to count to three slowly in your head before snapping and trying to address it in private.


The most important thing is for everyone to enjoy each other’s company during the holidays and appreciate that precious time together. While of course trying to avoid those awkward moments.


Wishing you very happy, peaceful holidays!

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