Tips for Triggers that Cause Anxiety and Meltdowns in Kids
By Janis D. Gioia, MAEd
Anxious children need extra comfort at the holidays.
Things that are merry and bright are often scary and frightening to kids with autism, anxiety, sensory processing disorders or other mental health challenges.
Despite your best planning, you might find yourself at the mall with one child who can’t wait to see Santa and another whose initial excitement has faded; the crowd and noise have him on the verge of a total meltdown.
Can you calm your anxious child right now, in the line that weaves around Santa’s Winter Wonderland?
Maybe…if you catch your child’s anxiety before it gets out of control.
First: Make sure your child is:
Not overheated. Malls at the holidays are hot and crowded. While gentle heat calms, being overly warm causes anxiety. Taking off coats and hats might help.
Not hungry. Hunger makes anyone irritable. Low blood sugar can cause anxiety, sweating and shaking. Good snacks to keep on hand include healthy fats and lean protein. Try: soy or nut butters on crackers, cheese sticks with a small piece of fruit.
Hydrated. Being dehydrated leads to a variety of symptoms, including anxiety. Drinking water, especially an electrolyte water, refreshes and calms a child.
Then: Try items in your portable comfort kit.
Yes, you will need to have packed one and brought it with you. Not always easy to remember in the midst of the holiday frenzy.
Consider keeping a comfort kit in your car or on a hook to grab on your way out the door.
Your portable comfort kit should include items that have proven to calm your child in the past.
Comfort Kit Ideas:
Small aromatherapy products
Noise cancelling headphones
Mint or peppermint gum (try Bach Rescue Chewing Gum)
Favorite stuffed animal
If you are able to calm your child and continue your Santa visit or day at the mall, great.
But if not you can always try again another day at a better time.
Leaving without seeing Santa or finishing a planned fun activity will be hard on your other children. Be sensitive to their needs and disappointments, and offer an alternative activity or a rain-check as soon as possible.
It’s difficult to manage the needs of your child with special needs and your typically developing children.
Here are some other things that may cause your child some stress over the holidays, and some possible solutions:
Trigger: Changes in routines.
Most children with anxiety, autism or sensory processing disorders need routines to help them make sense of the world and to keep their anxiety levels in check.
The holidays bring multiple changes in routine.
Children with anxiety find unstructured time at holiday breaks to be stressful, and then there are the additional “BIG” plans that involve different routines, people, sights, smells and sounds.
If you aren’t already using a visual schedule/calendar, this would be a good time to start.
Write or place stickers or pictures on important days for your child.
For most children with anxiety and autism spectrum disorders, the best surprise is no surprise.
Talk about upcoming holiday events, but in a low-key manner.
Your child already feels the nervous energy humming in the air. Explain things softly and calmly and give your child opportunities to ask questions or voice concerns.
Then listen and respond.
Let your child know what to expect, and consider writing a social story or two to help them prepare in advance.
Sample social story script for Christmas Eve night:
On Christmas Eve our family is very busy. Everyone will feel excitement as we wait for Santa Claus. I will get dressed in my special holiday clothes. The fabrics might feel a little different than my regular clothes, but if they bother me, I can always change.
We will go to church where there will be Christmas music and candle lighting. It might get dark until all the candles are lit. Even if I don’t like the flickering lights, I know it will be over soon. After church we will go to Grandma and Grandpa’s for dinner.
My cousins will be there. It might be loud and everyone will be very excited. I will stay calm by taking breaks when I need to and holding my worry stone in my pocket. Mom or dad will help me if I feel overwhelmed. I can eat food grandma has made or my own special food that mom packed for me.
When I get home it will be time for bed, even though I might still feel excited from a busy night. I know that my night routine will help me relax and fall asleep. I can use relaxation breathing, my weighted blanket and my sound soother to help me relax. I can relax and enjoy the holiday.
Read the social story to your child many times to help them visualize the holiday event being something they can enjoy and feel relaxed and peaceful attending.
Trigger: Family gatherings with unfamiliar faces.
Make a photo album or small poster of family members your child hasn’t seen in a while. Talk about each person with your child so they seem more familiar.
For example, “This is your Aunt Sophie who you haven’t seen in a few years. Aunt Sophie has a little dog named Jackson who does funny tricks.”
Remember: Your child’s needs come first. Sometimes it’s better to get to an event early, before the excitement is at full swing, and leave early too. Before your child gets overwhelmed and has a meltdown.
If possible, have one parent take the anxious child home if your other children are still enjoying the event. Enlist in the aid of family members or friends who might be willing to bring your other children home. S
Remember: Sometimes it does take a village. To meet everyone’s needs you might need assistance.
Trigger: Family day at the movies.
First, decide if your child can handle a movie theater with the booming sound, huge screen, and smells of buttery popcorn and cheesy nachos.
Then, if the movie is a go, try to pick a less crowded showing.
Consider packing noise cancelling headphones, calming snacks and your portable comfort kit.
(A social story to prepare is always a good idea.)
Trigger: Too noisy at the mall, tree lighting ceremony, or holiday pageant.
Noise cancelling headphones, and having an exist plan if you child needs to leave.
Consider how many activities you need to do and how many invitations you need to accept.
Coloring by the fire while sipping hot chocolate is a perfectly acceptable alternative to activity overload. 🙂
Trigger: Different smells. From Uncle Bob’s strong cologne to Aunt Donna’s Crawfish Casserole.
Try applying a bit of your child’s favorite flavored lip balm under their nose. It won’t mask the smell completely, but it will help.
The holidays are a blessed and beautiful time of year. With a little advance planning you can help your anxious child participate in holiday activities while feeling comfort and joy.
For additional ideas read 5 Ways to Help an Anxious Child Feel Comfort and Joy this Holiday Season.
Have a tip for a holiday trigger?
We’d love to read it in the comments below.
Wishing you a season of comfort, peace and joy,
These are great ideas to help stop holiday anxiety in kids with autism and anxiety. Sometimes it’s hard to manage the needs of your child with with autism and your other children. I like how your articles focus on all children. I also love the peaceful images in your blog post. I look forward to every new article you write.
Thank you so much. It’s definitely a challenge to meet the needs of all children. I’m glad you like the articles and the peaceful images. Thank you for the kind words and thanks for reading.
Thanks for this great article with tons of great tips. I love the idea of having a Comfort Kit ready to go at all times! The social story you included is so helpful. Quite frankly, a lot of these tips are great for neurotypical kids, too. The holidays can be overwhelming!
I appreciate the kind words. Most tips are perfect for typically developing kids. Comfort kits really do work well to help children calm themselves when they are at home, or away.
I came over from blog tyrant and thought I’d say hi. This article reminds me of the years I spent with my autistic daughter. She’s almost 19 now and we are navigating the next steps for adulthood. She’s still at school and the triggers are always the unexpected change. I try to remind her that life is full of surprises and although we are sensitive to the triggers and try to avoid them, we know that its impossible to avoid them all. So we’ve been able to talk her through some of it. We still experience tears. Its hard.
She has social anxiety but tonight she got on stage and did her lines from a play and I remembered that despite the negative outlook of most, our kids do rise to the occasion. Resilience is key but there is balance.
Thanks for sharing these tips. I hope they help others who are struggling.
Thank you so much for stopping by. And congratulations on your daughter’s performance in the play tonight! What a happy and proud moment for both of you!
I’m so glad you liked the article about How to Help Anxious Children with the Holidays. It is impossible to avoid all triggers or avoid every circumstance that can cause on anxiety or a meltdown.
Merry Christmas, Jan
I went to the farmers market once with my son. We ended up leaving because he couldn’t handle the peppers and other strong veggie smells. He doesn’t have autism but does have a sensory disorder. I didn’t know that he actually had a problem with smells!
Oddly enough, I’ve noticed lately that if there is a strong smell in our house, it will wake me up from a dead sleep. My husband burned popcorn the other night and I had gone to bed and it woke me right up! I consider myself a highly sensitive person and these things listed are things I struggled with growing up.
You and your son are not alone in having trouble with smells. I do too, and hear from many readers who tell me the same thing. I was on a flight once at the lady behind me must have used three gallons of perfume. It was a miserable flight for me. You might find some tips on helping your son in my article “How an Occupational Therapist Can Help Your Anxious Child.” One tip is to apply a favorite scented lip balm under your child’s nose…a smell he already likes…to help minimize the smells he doesn’t like. Hope that helps. 🙂 Jan
Thanks for all the great tips. My autistic and deaf daughter isn’t particularly sensitive to smells, but I love the lip balm idea.
One of her stressor is large crowds. When she was young, she would spin around until she vommited. We learned to recognize her early signs of stress and immediately took her to the nearest bathroom. Bathrooms are usually familiar places with low sensory input. We would wait until she calmed down, then give her the choice of returning to the event or leaving. (If we expected a dirty bathroom, we sat in the car a while and gave her the same choice.) She is now 31 and has learned how to calm herself and to make many her own decisions, from seeking a quiet chapel when overstimulated to asking to attend the NH State Fair for the junk food!
I am so glad you enjoyed some of the tips for helping children be calm during the holidays. Many readers have found the lip balm idea helpful. In fact, I used it myself the other day when a cleaning chemical smell in our home was bothering me. What a nice relief. It sounds like you have done a wonderful job of not only helping your daughter when she is overstimulated, but also teaching her how to do this for herself, now that she is an adult. Thank you so much for visiting Comforting Anxious children and Happy Holidays to you and your family.