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Holiday Stress-Reduction Tips for Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum

Moms and dads of a youngster with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) know all too well that the challenges are daunting and often isolating as their child can have tantrums, meltdowns and intense needs. But they also know that their child is a vital, loving part of their lives. Once they get a diagnosis, parents have to be a case manager, an education specialist, an advocate – and they have to figure out the medical system. The level of stress is exhausting. Now, throw two weeks of holiday tension into the equation, and the stress can be just plain terrifying. As one parent stated, “You get that feeling like, 'I just want to die.' It's hard. There's anger and a lot of emotions you go through.”

Christmas-related stress-management is crucial to enjoying the season, without being over-burdened with daily stresses. Even parents with children on the autism spectrum can have a smooth holiday experience.

Reduce your stress level with the following stress-relief tips to keep you even-keeled and jolly throughout the holiday season:

1. Stress is often related to worrying about the future or fretting about the past. Find peace and joy in this holiday season by focusing on the present moment. Be here now! Enjoy the laughter, the happy conversation, the fun, the music, and the moments of love and friendship.

2. During the Christmas break, there may be pressures pulling you in all directions off your center. Make clear decisions about how you want to spend your time and resources. Consider what is most important to you. A little advance planning can help identify areas where you could cut back.

3. Eat a hearty, healthy snack before going to parties. With healthy snacks ahead of time, all you’ll be faced with when you arrive at the party is temptation – not hunger AND temptation! When you arrive, enjoy other pleasures (e.g., good company, beautiful decorations, happy kids jumping around, etc.).

4. To stay sane, delegate Christmas tasks to family members and friends. For example, it’s good that you ordered the fruitcake, but let someone else pick it up. Have your husband select the Christmas cards this year while you read a good book. Anybody can run to the post office – you don’t have to do it all yourself. Delegate first, and then follow-up for some peace-of-mind.

5. During the holiday season, it’s easy to get wrapped up in busy schedules and endless “to-do” lists, and then lose sight of what Christmas is all about. Take some time to evaluate what is really important to you and your family (e.g., carrying on certain traditions, simply spending time together, etc.). Focus on the things that really matter, and fight the urge to go above and beyond that level.

6. Buy a wall calendar when you make your budget and start listing the activities that you want to experience during Christmas (e.g., plays, church services, family meals, traditional gatherings - along with who is to attend, etc.). Post it on the refrigerator and make a rule: “It has to be on the calendar to happen.” In this way, everyone in the family can see what is planned and when it’s planned to happen, and won’t want to go on a Christmas Light Tour (for example) when they know they have to be at Aunt Suzie’s house for dinner!

7. Don’t plot and plan-out every hour of Christmas. Factor in some “down time” for the sake of your sanity. Remember to do it for the over-achievers in your family, too. During the hustle and bustle of Christmas, we all need to be saved from ourselves!

8. Double-booking multiple activities on the same day can result in frustrated AS and HFA children and lost opportunities – not to mention the occasional screaming match.

9. During Christmas break, eating and going to sleep at roughly the same time each day is good for AS and HFA kids. They feel more secure when their days follow a predictable order. It improves their moods, and helps to create a peaceful household.

10. Offset Christmas chaos by involving your kids in Christmas planning. Having a say in the planning can help your “special needs” children feel more in control during busy times. 

11. Ship gifts to your loved ones far in advance of Christmas unless you like waiting in lines at the post office, which is an unwanted hassle for everyone!

12. Throughout the holidays, it’s easy to eat way too much rich, fatty foods – and watch out how the wine flows when family and good friends come together. The best thing to do about the unavoidable overindulgence is to exercise regularly. A good cardio workout will do wonders for the toxins and extra calories from the Christmas experience.

13. Accomplishing the perfect Christmas can be a tough job. Get creative to minimize the workload (e.g., save time and money by encouraging your guests to bring a dish to your Christmas feast; make gift-giving easier and more fun with a white elephant; explore your catering options, etc.). There are many ways to keep the spirit of Christmas without over-extending yourself.

14. Consider having a family meeting to discuss what is available to spend on gifts, travel, etc., and make sure all family members are on the same page. This will avoid a lot of moaning and complaining later because someone’s expectations were dashed.

15. Wrap everything as soon as it’s purchased, then tuck it away until the tree is up and decorated.

16. It’s unreasonable to expect you to not partake of the deliciousness of Christmas dinner. But by implementing portion control, you’ll be in better shape in January than those who “pigged out” – and you’ll feel better about yourself, too.

17. Plan your shopping and avoid doing anything impulsively. Last-minute gifts can bust your budget and your sanity!

18. Learn to say "No" (the world won’t come to an end if you do).

19. Overspending for Christmas gifts not only stresses you out while you're doing it, but continues into the future when the credit card and bank statements arrive in January. Do not throw cash at merchants in an attempt to buy happiness! Budget-management is always a factor in stress-reduction.

20. Practice mindful eating. Mindful eating not only brings back pleasure, it brings back control. Because you are aware of every bite, and celebrating each one, you are more aware of how much you are consuming, and when to stop. You will feel good about stopping because you are satisfied – emotionally and physically.

21. Prioritize your "to do" list. Some things (e.g., buying gifts for your kids) will certainly be at the top the list. But items closer to the bottom of the list (e.g., shopping for holiday tablecloths) can simply wait until the after-Christmas sales. Get to the bottom of the list if you have time. If not, don’t worry about it. Your sanity and serenity are more important than new tablecloths.

22. Family tensions can escalate during Christmas, especially if you are living in close quarters for several days (and perhaps drinking too much). To help keep your temper in control at parties, sip your alcoholic drinks, don’t chug. After one glass of alcohol, try drinking glasses of sparkling water with lemon or lime. Also, drinking less alcohol means you’re less likely to overindulge in holiday junk food.

23. While we all want Christmas to run smoothly, occasionally there may be a few bumps in the road (e.g., cancelled flights, stores that have run out of inventory, the pecan pie burns in the oven, etc.). In these difficult moments, it’s easy to take out your stress on someone else. This is where it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together. Approaching Christmas with a sense of compassion can change everything.

24. Take frequent breaks from the holiday activities (e.g., go for a walk, watch a seasonal flick, meditate, do some yoga, order takeout instead of cooking, etc.). Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s pleasurable and anxiety-free.

25. Other stress-reducers for parents include the following:
  • Finding a music therapist isn't the only way music can help as a stress-reducer. Creating playlists for various moods (e.g., a cathartic mix for when you want to process feelings, an upbeat mix for when you need more energy, etc.) can help you to relieve stress enjoyably and conveniently.
  • Enjoying a good game with a group of friends, or playing something relaxing online can take your mind off of your stressors, and can lead to a more relaxed state. 
  • Consuming caffeine too late in the day can affect sleep quality, which impacts stress levels. 
  • Breathing exercises provide convenient and simple stress relief in that they can be used anytime, anywhere, and they work quickly.
  • Aromatherapy has proven benefits for stress-reduction. It also helps you to become energized, more relaxed, and more present in the moment.
  • Developing time-management skills can allow you to minimize the stressors that you experience, and better manage the ones you can't avoid. When you are able to complete most of the items on your "to do" list without the stress of rushing or forgetting, your whole life feels easier.
  • Journaling can be used in several different ways, all of which can relieve stress. Because journaling is proven by research to bring several health benefits in addition to stress relief, this stress-reduction technique is highly recommended.
  • Practicing guided imagery is a fun and simple way to take a break from stress, clarify what you want, and build optimism. It's a relatively quick pathway to mental peace.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that allows you to relax all of the muscles in your body, group by group. Beginning sessions take several minutes, and allow you to feel physically and emotionally relaxed when done. 
  • While biofeedback requires some special equipment, this stress relief strategy can allow you to become more aware of - and consciously alter - the physiological changes that come with stress. By using your mind to relax your body, you can ease your mind to a greater degree as well, creating a positive feedback loop.
  • The physical act of laughing releases tension and brings positive physiological changes. Finding ways to work more laughter into your day can be an effective route to stress-reduction.
  • Sitting with a glass of green tea and planning for the day ahead, or reflecting on the day behind, can provide you with a nice break and a taste of peace. 
  • Sex can be a fantastic stress-reducer, because it incorporates several other stress relief ingredients (e.g., breathing, touch, social connection, etc.), and brings a rush of endorphins and other beneficial chemicals with orgasm. 
  • Self-hypnosis provides a simple and relaxing route to changing habits, relaxing your body, and altering your thought patterns.

How can you enjoy Christmas while at the same time keeping your AS or HFA child calm and behaving appropriately? Here are some important tips:
  1. AS and HFA kids are often immature. Never tell them to act their age. They have no concept of age-related behavior.
  2. Be sure your child knows what is expected of her during family get-togethers. Use simple language that she can understand.
  3. Encourage your child to enjoy herself and have fun during the holiday season. If this means she retreat to a quiet area where she can be alone, let her be. This is her way of coping and of enjoying the Christmas break. 
  4. Never pressure an AS and HFA child to play with other kids.
  5. Try to keep meals as quiet as possible. Do not allow toys at the table. Instead, ask each child to talk about his or her favorite toy. 
  6. Have a quiet breakfast on Christmas morning.
  7. Keep any physical changes to your home to the minimum. By all means decorate, put up cards and a tree, but just don't make a really big change to the environment. 
  8. Don’t put out any presents until the day they are to be opened, because your AS or HFA child will have a hard time keeping her hands off and may became anxious and potentially defiant.
  9. Your AS or HFA child will need to be given permission to leave the festivities, and you can rehearse this together with some simple role-play ahead of time. This is really important because it gives your child an exit strategy and allows her to get through the celebrations without going into meltdown. 
  10. Keep noise minimal. Do not play music for extended periods of time, or it will become nothing but noise to the AS and HFA child.
  11. Learn to identify your child’s stress-triggers, and avoid them when possible. 
  12. Keep visitors minimal. Family members and friends should keep visits short, and they should visit at separate times. Be sure everyone knows when they are expected, and how long they are expected to stay. 
  13. Allow only one person to open presents at a time. This will alleviate the crinkle of wrapping paper and nose from the excited voices of siblings.
  14. Teach your child stress-reducing techniques (e.g., deep breathing, counting to ten, etc.). Many AS and HFA kids find a stress-ball beneficial. 
  15. Limit choices to keep your child from being overwhelmed.
  16. Prepare your child for any changes by calmly telling her the day before what will be happening. Visual supports always work well, so use photos or simple pictures to explain what will be happening. 
  17. Reduce the time “talking” about the holiday season. Remember your AS or HFA child can’t easily control her emotions. To talk constantly about the event will simply lead to stress and anxiety. Also, it’s wise to enlist the help of others in your home and keep any conversations to a minimum when your AS or HFA child is within ear-shot. 
  18. Sing or whisper words to your child in order to get his attention and to help him stay focused.
  19. Try to incorporate some flexibility into your child’s routine. This allows her to realize and accept that things do change.
  20. Use social stories to prepare your AS or HFA youngster for the holiday experience.
  21. Warn your child well in advance of any changes to be made in the home environment (e.g., moving furniture, putting up a Christmas tree, etc.).

Following the simple tips above should lead to a much more positive Christmas experience for everyone, and will provide your AS or HFA child with the love, support, and confidence to participate fully in this special time of year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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