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Top tips to navigate Christmas

23 November 2023

Christmas can be challenging, whether you have children with disability or not. It’s tough to avoid the constant messages and images that show this time of year as being joyful and perfect. It’s important to remember that each family celebrates in their own unique way. And a bit of planning can make all the difference.

To help you navigate the festive season, here are a few ideas and tips:

1. Take care of you

Keep expectations reasonable. The day, the food, and the decorations won’t be perfect unless you have a fairy godmother! Keep things simple, so you’re not exhausted by the time Christmas arrives.

And don’t forget to take time for yourself. Your child will respond better to a parent who’s patient and calm rather than a frazzled one.

You also know what your child can cope with, so don’t commit to visiting lots of different households if that’s going to be exhausting. Arrange another special time, before or after Christmas, to spend quality time with people.

2. Arrange support

Have a coffee date with a close friend, or schedule a counsellor appointment not long after Christmas. The day may bring up some difficult feelings, especially if you’re with people you don’t usually see. It can be confronting seeing how much nieces and nephews have developed since you last saw them when your child is not developing typically.

Having someone to support you at family events is also helpful. Someone who’ll back you when you say what works best for your children. If your child has a special relationship with one or two relatives, ask them ahead of time if they could help you support your child on the day.

3. Gifts

Try not to be disappointed if your child isn’t excited about the gift you give them. Many children take a while to appreciate new things. It’s also a good idea not to use too much tape when you wrap gifts. If they’re easy for your child to unwrap, they won’t get frustrated. Try wrapping with fabric, use gift bags, or don’t wrap at all.

Too many gifts on Christmas Day can overwhelm your child. Consider giving some on Christmas Eve, or even one a day for a few days before and after Christmas.

Some children like presents but don’t like surprises.  There’s no rule that gifts must be a surprise. If your child likes to choose some presents, then that might be what works best.

4. Food

Pack some of your child’s regular food and drinks if you’re spending Christmas at another house. Not everyone is keen on all those special Christmas dishes. Sausages and chips may not be typical Christmas food, but you really want to avoid a stressed-out child with the ‘hangries’ if you can!

If you’re dining out over Christmas, check the menu online to make sure they serve something your child will eat.

5. Build in breaks

Bring your child’s favourite toys. They may want the security of their old favourites rather than engage with new toys. This includes devices and phones. You may want to explain to others that screen time can settle your child when everything is different on Christmas Day.  And don’t forget to pack chargers!

6. Sensory issues

Christmas can be extra noisy, so noise-cancelling headphones or being able to move away from noisy friends and family will help your child get through the day. Hopefully, there’s a safe place such as a fenced backyard, or spare room where they can take a sensory break.

7. Avoid overload

Christmas can be overwhelming and exhausting so try to keep things manageable by only expecting your child to participate for small amounts of time and let others know that you may leave early.

A few days before Christmas, you could pack a small bag of activities your child finds calming e.g., drawing or colouring materials or sensory toys. This bag could be part of a social story about what to do when Christmas day gets too much.

Bear in mind, that after Christmas, your child may need even more downtime than usual to destress.

8. Physical access

Your child in a wheelchair should be able to sit at the table like the rest of the family. Check that the host has set a place for them and that it’s easily accessed. If you’re going somewhere that you haven’t been before, think about steps and toilets before you arrive. A couple of steps can ruin the day if you have a heavy wheelchair, so think about renting or buying a portable ramp a few weeks before it’s needed.

9. Preparation

Talk to family and friends before the big day about what will make your child feel more relaxed, and remind them what behaviors they can expect from your child, who may not want to hug and kiss people they only see once a year.

If your child is newly diagnosed, Christmas Day isn’t ideal for giving detailed explanations to family or friends. Perhaps have a brief explanation in mind and remember to point out the many similarities they still have to their siblings and cousins.

Some children benefit from social stories.  Make one about what will happen on the day, especially if the day includes lots of changes to your child’s regular routines.

Speak to your child’s speech pathologist about Christmas vocabulary. Your nonverbal child may appreciate a page on their device or communication board that will allow them to talk about special Christmas things.

10. Santa photo

‘Sensitive Santa’ is now at most shopping centres and even some libraries where there are fewer crowds and smaller queues. Check our list or Google ‘Sensitive Santa’ to find your nearest. Maybe do a walk past the day before the photos so your child can see the set-up.

11. Book Support Workers

Many Support Workers take time off over Christmas and summer holidays. You need to book them well in advance. It’s worth budgeting for some extra support so your child’s needs are met and you can spend more time catching up with friends and family.

Hopefully, that’s given you some ideas to take the stress out of Christmas. Remember, it’s only one day. Be kind to yourself and adjust your expectations. Fingers crossed all the planning makes for a successful outcome. If not, you’ve learned a little about what works and what doesn’t work for your child, and…there’s always next year!

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