Top 10 Ways to Keep Kids Regulated and Engaged During the Holidays

17 Dec

Top 10 Ways to Keep Kids Regulated and Engaged During the HolidaysWhether or not you have a child with special needs during the holidays, everyone in the house—adults and teens included—can get ramped up and a little “off” during the lack of routine, irregular eating and sleeping patterns, and increased social interactions of the holidays.

As facilitator of a FOCUS Group for Special Needs Parents at my church, I brought in a 20-year public school occupational therapist within our congregation to do a parent workshop on “De-Stressing the Holidays.” With Linda’s permission, I share some helpful tips for all families at a particularly stressful-yet-fun time of year. Perhaps there are some last-minute stocking stuffer ideas you can find here as well.

10. Social Stories (to help with emotions, disappointments, fear, anxiety, etc.)

The holidays often come to us as a mixed bag of expectations and emotions. Children are excited, perhaps nervous about a family get-together, have pent-up energy and frustrations, and have trouble staying regulated among the extra sugar intake, late nights, and unpredictable schedule. “Social stories” can have pictures and words; they walk through holiday-time scenarios so kids know what to expect and that feelings can be unpredictable and very normal. Here is a great web site I found for social stories on everything from anticipating blood draws to the dentist.

9. Calendaring

Children need a sense of what to expect when the normal routine is disrupted by holiday events and time off school. A simple printed-out calendar with pictures or words (depending on the child’s developmental age) can be a great way to take away the “What are we doing today?” question that visits us twenty times a day and give kids a sense of knowledge and control; they could even express “wants” on it (like “see a movie” or “play a game”). They feel a part of the family calendar when they can see it.

8. Zones of Regulation

This term is often used with children with regular emotional and behavioral dysregulation, but it’s honestly a great tool for all parents when children feel a little “wonky” during a change-up of schedule. When emotions or behaviors ramp up, providing children zones of regulation to explain how you see them approaching a bit “over the top” or “needing to calm down” can be the terms they use to understand their own build-up of anxiety, worry, fear, anger, etc.

7. Heavy Work: Helping Cabin Fever

“Heavy work” is often recommended for sensory integration, increasing attending/focus, and regulating behaviors and emotions. The low-temperature wintry days that keep us more inside greatly reduce the heavy work a child’s body needs and often seeks while outside. Some ideas for kids who require more of this are vacuuming, carrying laundry, shoveling snow, and even swinging on the swing set. Other ideas can be found here.

6. Exercise and Relaxation 

For three seasons of the New England year, children can be outside playing baseball, soccer, football, etc. Many other activities like karate and dance go year-round inside. Either way, there can be a great lack of activity in the winter months. Several resources for a spectrum of ages can be found here:

5. Fidgets

Fidgets, common tools for AD(H)D children and/or those who struggle with sensory integration, are so helpful for everyone. They can be something as simple as Wikki Stix or a medicine ball. They can be fuzzy-topped pencils, a squishy ball, balloons filled with sand, putty, or weighted tactile beanbags. Bring them along to that long Christmas Eve service they need to sit through at Aunt Sally’s church, that big family reunion meal at New Year’s at the Olive Garden, or that unexpected trip to the pediatrician. Chewing gum is also a great calmer and helps with focus.

4. Busy Bag

While we’re talking about fidgets, a busy bag is a great idea, as long as it’s used as the go-to “bag of tools” at restaurants, the doctor’s office, during important phone calls, etc. If it’s brought out all the time, it loses its appeal. Some ideas to include in a busy bag are: Hi-Q (yes, from the 1970s, but you can find smaller versions of this at dollar stores), other travel games, Wikki Stix, mini cars, tops, fuzzy notebooks, suction animals  touch-and-feel book, dots & boxes and other writing games, dry erase crayons, magnetic books, felt flannel books, stress ball, twist scent erasers, mini magna doodles, fuzzy-top writing tools, container with slit at top to put buttons in (fine motor work), crayons in zip wallet, foam puzzles, etc.

3. Good Sleep

It’s unfair to expect children to behave when we’ve kept them up till midnight at an event and they wake early the next morning. Make sure behavioral expectations meet reality in terms of what can be expected of a child under 12 going on 7 hours of sleep. Some days may need naps or earlier bedtimes.

2. Healthy Eats

In-between the candy canes and irregular meal patterns, make sure there are some regular mealtimes, protein, and fruits and veggies. Regular healthy snack items have to compete with that chocolate snowman from the stocking. Even if the holidays are a time for grazing, have some carrots/celery with dip, grapes or clementines, and cheese and crackers out on the table. Younger children need help to ration out the sugar and not binge on the Christmas cookies.

1. Downtime

Be sure to build in downtime among the frenzy of holiday parties, church activities, and last-minute to-do lists and shopping. Kids need time to unwind and decompress before going to the next event. Emotional and behavioral regulation requires breaks from too much stimulation and “busy.”

May your homes be peaceful, balanced in rest and activity, and joyful in the celebration of the Christ child come to earth to bear the sins of the world.

Blessings from my home to yours!


*This blog has been shared at any link highlighted here: Mom 2 Mom Monday Link-Up, Make a Difference Mondays, Pick Your Pin Tuesday, Women With Intention Wednesdays, Grace & Truth, A Little R & R, RaRa Link-Up, Me, Coffee & Jesus, Dance With Jesus, Blessing Counters, Breakthru Link-Up, Sunday Thoughts Link-Up, Saturday Soiree, Tell His Story, Find Stability, So Much at Home, Faith-Filled Fridays, Reflect His Love and Glory Link-Up, Bonbon & Coffee Linkup, and Christian Mommy Blogger.

More of my personal story of uncovering my child’s special needs can be found in Not Just on Sundays: Seeking God’s Purpose in Each New Day (includes Book Club Discussion Questions).


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6 responses to “Top 10 Ways to Keep Kids Regulated and Engaged During the Holidays


    December 19, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    Nicely done Bonnie–Love it!! Hope all is well with you and yours. David prayed Sun service for you and family after your Dad died. Is your Mom doing ok?? Merry Christmas—God’s great blessings to you and yours. Love Alma

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      December 22, 2015 at 3:04 pm

      Thanks, Alma….such a nice thing to hear! Will send you a private message.


  2. Sharon

    December 21, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    You know, I know that list was for kids, but I’m thinking I myself could benefit from your suggestions – especially #2, #3, #4, and #6. Because what really sabotages me during the holidays is: too much activity, not eating right, not getting enough sleep, and definitely neglecting exercise and relaxation!!

    May we all learn to slow down and focus on what’s truly important – and there is nothing more important than The Gift of Jesus, our Savior.

    Wishing you and yours a very Merry CHRISTmas, and GOD BLESS!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      December 22, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      Thanks, Sharon…so true! We can all benefit! Hope you have a wonderful Christmas! Love seeing you pop on here!



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