Home for the Holidays

Smart Family Travel During the Holidays

I don’t know about you, but every year the holidays just tend to sneak up on me. I am not really sure how this happens with all of the reminders on social media, the holiday decorations that pop out before Halloween, and the Christmas movies that seem to fill my Netflix suggestions.  Yet it does every year! But if I am truly being honest, it might be more of a case of denial than the holidays actually sneaking up on me.

Like a lot of special needs parents, I have a love/ hate relationship with the holidays. I love the warm feelings, time with family, the pretty lights, the good food, and the general cheer of the season.  I hate the amount of work and sheer patience it takes to get through to the warm feelings, time with family, pretty lights, good food, and general cheer of the season.  Every parent feels the stress that comes with the holidays, but special needs parents have the extra layers of stress that come with keeping up with their child’s needs on top of preparing for this season.

More than once I have thought about just skipping the holidays – going full Luther Krank and just skipping everything.  But then I remember that I really do love this time of year, and I work up the gumption to be prepared.  I bake the cookies, trim the tree, wrap the presents, and prepare to travel to parties, concerts, and family gatherings, but I am smart about it.  That’s really the key, isn’t it? When you find yourself traveling to the various holiday outings, save your sanity and play it smart.

As special needs parents, what does it look like to be smart during the holidays?

Plan Ahead for the Unforeseen

The Long Holiday Car Ride

During the holidays and on vacations, we actually pay our children to behave.  Yes, we pay them, and I am not going to apologize for being a bad parent either.  I am not a bad parent; I am a smart parent.  After years of dealing with misbehavior and meltdowns, I finally looked at holiday travel through the eyes of my children.  There is no way any of us would go on a long business trip with an annoying boss unless we were getting a paycheck out of it, right?  So why would we expect our children to happily go along to Great Aunt Hilda’s house for Christmas without being compensated somehow?

Before any long car ride, we grab some roles of quarters and we begin handing them out as we see good behavior.  If you have a smaller child that will be happy with a smaller reward, you can always use nickles, dimes or pennies as well.  Our children have homemade coin collectors they use to keep their earnings safe.

It is amazing how well this works, and you may be surprised by the things your child will be willing to do for you, including kissing Aunt Hilda, in order to add a quarter to their collection.  Since the gesture is small, it won’t draw lots of attention, and since the rewards are small, they can be more frequent without breaking the bank.  This works really well for Thanksgiving day, knowing that Black Friday will be coming soon.  The best part is that I find myself much less stressed and more able to enjoy the day.

The Holiday Meal

Maybe you will be eating at a new venue this year, and your child has feeding challenges or food allergies.  Don’t be afraid to call ahead and ask questions.  This way the venue can be more prepared in the event that adjustments need to be made, or you can be prepared to make arrangements for bringing your own food if necessary.

Most restaurants these days will do their best at accommodating what they can, and it is a lot easier for a host to ensure they have things your child can eat if they know ahead of time.  I have been known to bring pizza to a Thanksgiving potluck, knowing that was the only thing my child was going to eat that day.  I made sure to explain this to the host ahead of time, so they would not be surprised by my non-traditional offering.  What I found was that it was not just my child who appreciated having the pizza as an option over cranberry sauce and stuffing.

Don’t be afraid to have conversations about your child’s needs ahead of time.  Most hosts want to make their gathering enjoyable for everyone.  Giving them a heads up helps take the stress out of their holiday planning too!

Know Your Audience

If you know that wearing that itchy Christmas sweater will trigger your child’s sensory issues, don’t make her wear it, even if Grandma Jane would love nothing more than to see her in it.  Allowing your child to spend the day in comfortable clothes that may not be pretty or festive won’t ruin the day.  The sweater could go on for a few pictures, and then come off for the remainder of the day.

If your child will only eat certain foods, make sure these foods are available during the holiday meal too.  The holidays are not the time to get your child to try new foods.  The holidays are for fun and making memories.  If your child is hungry, they will be less able to handle the other possible stresses of the day, like kisses from Great Aunt Hilda.

It is perfectly okay to relax your parenting during the holidays.  If we go into the holidays expecting some level of regression in our child’s behavioral progress, it will be so much easier to keep our cool.  The holidays have a tendency to put a wrench in our normal routines.  For kiddos with special needs, this adds a level of stress to their world that can become very difficult to overcome.  If we relax just a bit, and give them a tiny bit of grace, they will be much more able to navigate the changes to their day.

Give Everyone a Break

Plan ahead for breaks.  If you have a long drive to your holiday event, don’t drive straight through the night hoping your child will sleep all the way. You will be tired, and no matter how well your child sleeps in the car, it will not be good sleep, so they will be tired too.  Tired does not make for calm parents and well behaved children.

Instead, take a look at your travel route to see if there are fun stops that can be incorporated to the travel itinerary.  Maybe there is a cool wayside with a pretty view, or possibly there is a unique toy store where the kids can spend some of their earnings.  At any rate, short breaks during long travel will help everyone to keep their cool.

Once you arrive to your intended destination, make sure to give your child breaks during the festivities as well.  Even a goody and present filled day can be overwhelming to a child with sensory issues.  Plan for time to sneak away to a quieter area or room with a book or some small toys.  Make sure to use this time with your child.  Children may have a difficult time regulating themselves without the help of mom or dad.  By staying with them, you can help engage your child in a calming activity that will help to reorganize them before heading back out to the sensory filled holiday activities.

Have an Escape Plan

Even the best laid plans don’t always work, so be prepared with an escape plan in the event that things are not going well.  When seating yourself for a holiday meal, make sure to sit at a place that will allow you to easily leave the table in the event your child is having difficulties.  Instead of staying on your grandma’s pullout, consider renting a hotel room so you have a quite place to go in the event your family needs down time.

Arm your child with an appropriate escape word, phrase or gesture that can be used discretely when they are becoming overwhelmed.  This will give your child a sense of security knowing that they can alert you in the event they are becoming overly stressed.

Make a plan for where you will go or what you will do to help calm your child as well.  Maybe they need a few minutes in a quite space with their favorite calming object, but it is very possible that they may need to leave the venue completely.  Being prepared for the possibility of leaving early will help make this transition go more smoothly. Make sure to include your host or any other important person at the gathering in your plan as well.  This may save hurt feelings in the event that you do need to leave the event early.



The holidays are a time of family, food and fun.  They can also be a time of stress and meltdowns if we let them.  Being smart about the holidays can ensure that your family will create the happy memories you want.  With a little bit of planning and a lot of being flexible, the holidays can be enjoyable and fun.  What works for your family, we would love to hear from you!

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