What should I do with my Kids over the Holidays?

This is the time of year that parents often begin to wind down their work, ramp up the shopping, and make plans for the fall and winter holidays.  It can be an exciting time, but it can also cause feelings of anxiety for the family without proper preparation and deliberate planning.  As professionals, here are some recommendations that we make to families as they prepare for the Holiday Season. 

1.  Know that you will probably not avoid the waiting and crowding, plan accordingly.

Have plenty of engaging activities available to your child during long drives in the car, airplane flights, and shopping trips.  A stack of favorite books, stuffed animals, pretend characters from favorite movies, building blocks, a portable DVD player with a variety of preferred movies, an MP3 or CD player with favorite songs, drawing/art materials, and interactive videogames are good activities for kids, when you cannot give them your undivided attention.  Sing-a-long CDs, favorite books, guessing games, building blocks, drawing/art materials, and pretend play with toy characters are good activities when more interaction is possible.

Anticipate that your kids might not want to engage in one activity for the entire time.  For example, a 5-year-old child might not want to read books for an entire 10-hour drive.  It would be a good idea to also have music, games, movies, and toys with you.  It is usually easier to keep all of these activities in a single, large bag, than it is to carry them separately.

2.  Make a detailed, written plan on a calendar or write out the family holiday schedule on piece of paper and post it for everyone to see.

For each activity, be specific about what you are doing, when and where you are doing it, who will be participating, and how long it will take.  You should also write a “prep list” next to each scheduled event, so that you remember to bring everything that you might need.  Even “free time” should be noted as such on the schedule, with beginning and ending times.  Be sure to plan activities for the entire break and not just the days of celebration.

3.  Prepare, prepare, prepare, using words, pictures, real objects, and gestures.

Give your kids plenty of advance preparation for each event by talking about what activities they should expect, showing them pictures (online images work well) or real objects as examples, and giving them a countdown to the time that you will leave.  For example, if you are taking your kids to a grocery store to shop, you would want to tell them what you will be buying, how long it will take, and maybe even show them pictures of that store online.  You would also count down your departure, from 5 minutes to 1 minute, saying each minute out loud (“5 minutes, 4 minutes, 3 minutes…”).  When the last minute is up, you might say, “Ok, time to put on our shoes and jackets to go shopping!”, show them the picture of the grocery store again, and get in the car. 

If a person whom the child does not see on a regular basis will be accompanying you on your trip, you may want to show the child a picture of the person and a give a description, along with a reminder of what the person’s role will be during the trip.  For example, “Remember, your Uncle Philip will be coming with us to Ralph’s.  This is what he looks like (show picture).  He will be helping us buy and carry groceries.”

4.  Use reinforcers to evoke the desired behavior.

Offer your child a special reinforcer or reward for engaging in specific, desired behaviors.  For example, before leaving, you might say, “If you can read your books, help Mommy, and keep your hands inside the cart, you may have a box of raisins on the car ride home.”  Of course, you must then deliver on your promise or withhold the treat, depending on the child’s behavior, while giving them the reasons why they did or did not earn the reinforcer.  If the behavior displayed were undesirable, you would tell them that they did not earn the “treat” this time, but they may try again next time. 

Remember that children will repeat whatever behavior earned them the reinforcer.  So, if you reward screaming and grabbing, the child will repeat those behaviors the next time and expect to receive a treat.  Also, make sure to pick a reinforcer that the child really wants and can rarely access.  It should be something that can be immediately delivered after the desired behavior is displayed and that does not cause other complications in your schedule.  For example, a special toy or edible treat in the car might work well, whereas a trip to a theme park requires a lot of planning and occurs too far into the future to be effective. 

Also, avoid giving “group” consequences to your kids.  Give or withhold reinforcers based upon each child’s individual behavior.  Otherwise, you might end up reinforcing or extinguishing the wrong behaviors.  You could also cause unnecessary tension between siblings if they feel that they must control the behavior of others in order to earn a reinforcer.

5.  Keep daily chore routines and household rules in place during the break.

It can be difficult for children to resume a full schedule in January if they have been given no responsibilities for two weeks.  Although children are not attending school and may not have homework, finding basic, daily chores to put on the calendar/schedule will help to keep them active.  Age-appropriate tasks such as, making the bed, cleaning the bedroom/bathroom, taking out the trash, watering plants, and/or helping with the dishes after meals, are all productive jobs.  Even if children do not already perform these tasks, they can begin doing so over the break.  Vacations are great times to teach new skills.

Of course, kids should earn small reinforcers (or rewards) after they complete these tasks.  The reinforcers could be a special edible treat, a preferred activity, or even just permission to move on to the rest of the day’s routine.

If social rules are relaxed too much over the holidays, it can cause children to feel anxious and push your boundaries.  You should keep these rules in place.  For example, if you have a rule against telling others to “Shut up!” during the school year, that rule should be enforced during the holiday break.  You may need to impose consequences, such as the loss of a privilege, to remind children to engage in respectful behavior.

6.  Look for specific activities online, in the newspaper, in magazines, and seek out other resources.  Then, plan them out as described above.

Here is a short list of activity examples:


Autism Society and AMC Theatres show Sensory Friendly Films:

Pretend City Children’s Museum:

The Zimmer Children’s Museum:

Thanksgiving potluck dinner in Riverside hosted by The Autism Society of the Inland Empire:

In-home activities:

Bake or buy plain cookies and decorate them with colored frosting.

Decorate your home for the holidays as a family.  Even small jobs like retrieving ornaments or taping decorations up on the wall are important for small children.

Ask your children to create artwork that will be put up for visiting friends and relatives to see.  Markers, colored construction paper, glitter, glue, string, and beads are great materials to have around for these types of projects.  Displaying children’s artwork gives adults a chance to praise their accomplishments and helps children feel included in the festivities.

Ask your children to come up with a new holiday tradition or meal that the whole family will follow.  This activity could include an interactive family discussion about each person’s ideas and how to incorporate them into the new tradition.

Travel activities:

Sing along to CDs or MP3 recordings of holiday music.

Read a long story from a book that can be carried and continued when it is time to sit or wait.

Use portable and mess-free art supplies: pads of blank paper, coloring books, washable markers, colored pencils, art apps on tablet devices, etc.

Allow your child to bring toy characters that they may use to engage in pretend play during the trip.

Listen to MP3 or CD players with headphones and favorite music. 

Watch favorite movies on a portable DVD player.

Play handheld video games or use a tablet device (be sure to download plenty of apps in advance, so that there are a variety of choices even when you do not have access to the internet).  Make sure you tell them at the beginning of the trip that the video games will be put away once you arrive at your destination and remind them again when you are a few minutes away from the end of the journey.


The Holiday Season can be stressful, but with a little bit of effort and some solid planning, it can be a time to grow together as a family.  If you feel that you do not have time for planning now, keep in mind that advance preparation can help to decrease the amount of time you will spend breaking up arguments between siblings or dealing with crying tantrums later.  Once you have a basic plan, go over that plan with the children and adults in your family to make sure they understand what they can expect and what will be expected of them.  Also, let them know that the schedule and rules are being put in place to help everyone enjoy the festivities and enjoy each other’s company!

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