If you have a challenging youth, the holidays can be especially stressful. When things are out of routine and unpredictable, a child can be more difficult to deal with. Routine, predictability, repetition, simplicity and empathy are key for challenging kids who may struggle with executive functioning skills, processing and communication. Try to keep in mind challenging youth are doing the best they can with the skills they have. Usually, a kid’s behavior reflects skills they lack and that they may need extra prompting and coaching.

Tips to Help Keep Turkey Day Running Smoothly:

  1. Before a trip or big event, ask your youth how they’re feeling about it? Ask if they feel comfortable and know what to expect. Assure them that you will help explain what will be happening and what to expect.
  2. Keep your child fed, especially with protein snacks; hunger is a huge trigger.
  3. Make sure they’re getting enough sleep/rest; fatigue is another huge trigger.
  4. Make a schedule for the week that they can see with activities and times. Routine and predictability are your friend; if you can set expectations frequently, before events, etc., it will go a long way in thwarting problems. Your youth may act out more when they don’t know what’s going to happen…the more you can communicate what to expect, the better (sequence of events, length of time, manners, etc.).
  5. Create a plan with them if they’re feeling overwhelmed or need a break. Praise your child if they successfully use the plan.
  6. Just because you’ve said something once, don’t assume your youth will apply it to other situations. They may not have the skills to generalize. This can be a big “aha” for parents. For example, just because you tell everyone to wash their hands before one meal, doesn’t mean they’ll understand or remember to do it before every meal. This goes with everything and can be exhausting at first to keep repeating yourself but well worth it. Your youth may need repetition, repetition and more repetition to be successful.
  7. Less is more when communicating with challenging kids. They often get overwhelmed easily and can only process so much information at a time. This is especially true when they are upset…so think short, easy to understand phrases and small pieces of information.
  8. Use as much empathy as possible. My hunch is that your youth is not understood and their way of learning or processing is different than most kids. Using phrases like, “It seems like… (problem, i.e., you have difficulty staying at the table when we go out to eat), what’s up?” Let them talk; ask for more information. This might also give them the opportunity to create a solution with you.
  9. If you think your child may not understand social cues, gently give direct feedback in the moment. So, in other words, don’t wait until later. Take your youth aside immediately and let them know what they did that’s outside of social norms…UNLESS they’re upset and emotional, then WAIT.
  10. Try not to label the youth as “bad” or compare them to other kids. If they truly don’t understand or get something, it’s not their fault. Use empathy to help understand what they struggle with.

BONUS TIP: Try to remain calm and take care of yourself when stress flares. Take a time out, count to 20, make a joke – anything to distract, calm down or lighten the mood. You can only take things one moment at a time.