Surviving Homeschooling During the Holidays with Intense Kids

As the holiday season approaches, homeschooling families gear up for a time of joy and togetherness. However, for those with intense children, this festive period may come with a set of unique challenges. We have a variety of neurodiverse brains at my home, including two children with pretty intense behavioral needs. There are two resources that I have turned to often this year as one of my children seems to be struggling more than normal: Ross Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model (nice synopsis here), and Dr. Becky’s instagram encouragement. If your child has a specific disability, of course your first action item should be looking to experts in that field and parents of children similar to yours for ideas and strategies during the holiday season. For today, I’d like to point out some of the common lagging skills that might be at the root of misbehavior at home for intense children.

When we pause to consider the skills our children often utilize during the holiday season, it’s truly remarkable. Managing the festivities and all that they entail is a genuinely impressive feat. When things do go awry, viewing our children’s difficult reactions or attitudes as a result of a lack of skills rather than purposeful hijacking helps us perceive what seem like intrusions as opportunities.

What skills are necessary for our homeschooling students to survive the holidays?

Mental Flexibility

Have you ever thought of mental flexibility as a skill? It truly is. Most of us get better at it with age and practice. Fluctuating holiday plans can pose a hurdle for homeschoolers with limited ability to adapt to change. Holiday activities significantly disrupt your usual schedule which is particularly challenging for children accustomed to a routine. 

Some ideas to help your hard child with mental flexibility:

Create a visual daily schedule together, incorporating holiday activities. Plans might change day-to-day, but going over plans in the morning or the night before can relieve some of the stress. Visual cues reminding your children of what is coming up relieves pressure on working memory too.

Transitioning Skills

Does your child struggle with shifting from one mindset or task to another? Two of my children with very different special needs both struggle immensely with transitions. The holidays introduce new and novel experiences which means extra transitions.

Some ideas to help your intense child with transitioning skills through the holidays:

Recognize that meltdowns or power struggles occur during transitions so you won’t be caught off guard by intense reactions when your child is asked to shift gears.  Establish clear expectations before transitions and work together with your child to create personalized transition strategies. (Example: talking with your child beforehand about how difficult it will be to stop playing a video game, role-playing what to do when video game time is over, and then sitting with the child for the last few minutes of video game time, immersing yourself in their world before they are asked to leave it. It won’t fix things right away, so repeat several times.)

Being Able to Manage Overstimulation and Sensory Overload

Does your student become overwhelmed by parties, crowded stores, and amped up atmospheres at co-ops and church? Do the extra lights and extra decorations or Christmas music affect your child? Do the extra activities wear your child out?

Some ideas to help your difficult homeschooling student manage overstimulation and sensory overload:

Designate a sensory-friendly space for your child to retreat when needed. Equip them with tools like noise-canceling headphones for focused learning or for larger get-togethers. Consider scheduling quieter, calming homeschool activities to balance the sensory stimulation present during holiday celebrations.

Impulse Control Skills:

Resisting the impulse to overindulge in holiday treats can be difficult for parents too. Managing emotions in high-stimulus environments requires impulse control too.

Some Ideas to help your child with impulse control skills this time of year:

Role-play and remind child of rules to help impulse control some. Even better, make sure irresistible treats are out of eyesight whenever possible. Practice ways to regulate emotions ahead of time–having a plan will help when emotions get heated during (or after) social events.

Being Able to Manage Emotional Responses to Frustration

If your child is one who already struggles with having big enough reactions to frustration that she is not able to think rationally, she will likely struggle even more during the busy season. With all the unpredictability of changed schedules, craft-making, mom-and-dad stress, and extended family activities, there are more-than-usual opportunities for feeling frustrated. Dr. Segal calls not being able to think rationally when emotionally upset “flipping your lid.” He reminds us as parents that our children are not able to think rationally when their lids are flipped (and the same goes for mom!). 

Some ideas to help you help your intense child manage emotional reactions to frustration:

Do not engage your child when he or she is too upset to think rationally. Take time to help them manage their frustration by using empathy, or use other co-regulation techniques to calm down before addressing the issue causing the frustration.

Social Skills

Social skills include being able to accurately interpret social cues or pick up on social nuances. Perhaps your student has anxiety entering groups, connecting with people, or lacks other basic social skills in your usual situations. These skills are often challenged even more when Aunt Becky asks pointed questions or you attend endless end-of-the-year parties with friends.

Some ideas to work with your struggling child on social skills over the holidays:

Collaborate with your child on setting social expectations for homeschool holiday gatherings. Role-play scenarios, reinforcing positive interactions with others. When we decided to stop forcing our son with FASD to sit with extended family during holiday visits but rather retreat to his room as desired, holidays became so much easier. He often would come down to get a plate of food and then go back to his room to eat alone. Of course, in a perfect world, we wanted our son to hang out with and enjoy family. But peace for parents and peace for the child are important, too. Which expectations are most important to you, and which can you let go of?

Special Note: Addressing Holiday Trauma in a Homeschool Setting

Homeschooling offers a unique opportunity to create a safe space for children with a history of trauma. During the holidays, be attuned to potential triggers and provide additional support. Particularly with adopted or foster children, it’s smart to remember that the holidays can bring with them a sense of sadness and loss. Being aware of your child’s complicated emotions, and knowing that these complicated emotions often add to behavioral struggles, can help you reinforce your homeschool as a secure haven. Although you cannot fix everything, acknowledging and validating your child’s emotions will help.

In conclusion, navigating the holiday season with intense kids requires a proactive approach centered around identifying and cultivating essential skills. Drawing from the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model and insights from sources like Dr. Becky, addressing lagging skills such as mental flexibility, transitioning, sensory management, impulse control, emotional regulation, and social skills is key.

Practical strategies like visual schedules, clear expectations, and sensory-friendly spaces empower parents to handle holiday challenges effectively. Recognizing the potential impact of trauma during the season reminds us to be patient.

Understanding and addressing these skills empower parents to not only survive but thrive during the holidays with their intense kids. Through intentional planning and empathy, a positive and connected homeschooling experience can be cultivated, embracing the joy of the season while effectively managing its challenges.