How to Reduce Kids' Anxiety Around Family Gatherings

How to Reduce Kids' Anxiety Around Family Gatherings
Nikki Hurst

Thanksgiving and the holidays can be an exciting and memorable time of year, filled with family gatherings, delicious food, and fun family activities. However, the holidays can be stressful for many children (and even adults), with the changes in routine, social and communication expectations, and a more overstimulating environment at home. Here are some tips to help reduce anxiety during the holidays and to help family gatherings go smoothly:

Talk about Expectations

Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings can bring with them a lot of changes in routine and more demanding social expectations. This can be difficult for a child who struggles with change, has difficulty with communication, or isn’t comfortable with new people. Setting expectations ahead of time can let children know what to expect and help them feel more prepared.

To help set expectations, you can start with reading stories about thanksgiving or other holidays. Talk about the traditions during the holiday, and which ones you plan to do as a family. You can also use this time to talk about the meaning behind these traditions, or start conversations around kindness and gratitude.

A few days before a family gathering, it can be helpful to make a visual schedule of the events of the day and talk about them with your child. Let them know which events they need to participate in, and any events where they can excuse themselves. Talk about any changes to expect from their usual routine, and discuss how they are feeling about the event.

Sensory Strategies and Breaks

If your child is feeling anxious about a holiday celebration or gathering, or gets overwhelmed when around a lot of people, it can be helpful to have preferred strategies in place ahead of time. Let your child know that they can take a break whenever they need to, and practice how to ask for a break if needed. Sometimes a hand signal can be useful if the child doesn’t want to ask in front of others. Make sure there is a quiet room or space in the home they can go to recharge, and put any favorite toys or sensory items in the room for them. As an adult, feel free to use this strategy if you become overwhelmed as well! 

Set Boundaries

The holidays can bring a lot of new people into the home, or family members your child may not see very often. If your child prefers not to be hugged or touched, make sure to let visitors know ahead of time and establish a preferred greeting or way of saying goodbye. Let others know if your child may need to take breaks, or not sit for the entire dinner, so that there isn’t any unnecessary questioning. Talk about your child’s strengths and interests with them to create positive topics for conversations. If your child feels comfortable and would like to communicate their boundaries to others themselves, practice how to have these conversations. 

If your child has dietary preferences, communicate these to others if they are bringing or cooking the food. It’s also helpful to bring your child’s preferred food items with you so that they can choose to eat that if they prefer.

Practice Communication Skills

Family gatherings bring new demands for social interaction and conversations with others. If your child has difficulty with communication, but would like to be involved in conversation, it can be helpful to practice beforehand. Some things to practice include how to greet others and say goodbye, how to be a good listener, how to answer questions about yourself, or fun questions to ask others. 

Other types of communication that may be important to practice include how to politely turn down food, or to set a boundary with others such as letting them know they prefer not to be hugged, or that they would rather play by themselves for a while. Model phrases that could be helpful, and have your child practice saying them back to you. 

Turkey Breathing Activity

Turkey breathing is a fun thanksgiving activity to do together as a family, and to have as a tool that everyone can use to help manage holiday anxiety. 

To make the turkey:

Trace the outline of your hand on construction paper and use crayons or markers to turn the handprint into a turkey! Cut out the handprint turkey using scissors, then use it for a fun holiday breathing exercise. 

Breathing exercise:

Place one finger on the bottom left side of the turkey. Breathe in through your nose as you slowly trace up one of the fingers, then breathe out through your mouth as you trace down the other side. Repeat until you have completed 5 full breaths and moved your finger all the way around your turkey. 

Hopefully some of these tips will help make the holidays a bit less stressful, and help you and your child feel more confident and prepared.

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