Holidays, Handled! Helping Your Neurodiverse Child Cope

Is your child easily overstimulated, shy, or explosive? Here's how to help.

Posted Nov 25, 2019

People call the holidays stressful, but they have no idea! Lynn takes a deep breath, like she’s gearing herself up for something major. For everyone else, it’s just Thanksgiving Dinner, but I have to deal with Alex getting all hyperactive and overstimulated – in someone else’s house, and I have to keep apologizing when he hurts his cousins or breaks something. The worst is when I hear comments from my great aunt about how “Well brought-up children never behave this way.” Of course, when I try to leave him home, I hear that there is just no such thing as skipping a family holiday dinner, and that I should be firmer with him. Oh, and I have to hear my cousin (with her angelic little girls) go on and on about food additives and organic diets until I’m ready to scream.

Danielle agrees. Taking Maya to a holiday party means tantrums for the entire week before, incessant tugging at my leg during the party. She acts like she’s surgically attached to me. She won’t talk to the adults at all, won’t play with her cousins. It’s true she doesn’t see them often, but they’re her age! Then I hear all this advice about how I “coddle” her and how shyness is made, not born. By the time dinner is over, I’m ready for a meltdown.

The fact is neurodiverse children – whatever their neurodiversity – have a hard time with the kind of forced socialization that the holiday season brings. In previous installments, we’ve talked about the T.A.R.G.E.T system. Let’s use it to analyze the challenges holiday get-togethers provide and figure out some solutions.


Alex has ADHD. The “T” of the TARGET system stands for Theory. What do we know about ADHD and what do we know about Alex? He needs movement, has poor impulse control, and has an explosive reaction to frustration. Holiday travel plus parties is going to be a challenge for him. His need for movement might be thwarted, the demand for impulse control will be high, and being out of his comfort zone is likely to be frustrating. His neurology is uniquely designed to present a holiday challenge.

Maya has social anxiety. Theory tells us she is likely to anticipate the discomfort of a stressor way in advance, will come up with a coping tool, and then stick to it. For Maya, sticking to her mother like glue and not talking to anyone she doesn’t know well is the one technique she has for handling the discomfort of enforced socialization. (Click here and here to learn more.)  

Analyze Antecedents:

The “A” of TARGET stands for Analyze Antecedents. For both children, the antecedents to the problem behaviors are clear – being out of their comfort zone while also being on public display.  (Want to learn how to Analyze Antecedents? Click here.)

Rewards and Reinforcers:

The “R” of TARGET stands for Rewards and Reinforcers. For Alex, over-stimulation at a holiday party is rewarding because it can provide relief. If he’s running around wildly, his need for movement is being satisfied. Explosive reactions generally serve as an escape valve, when all the pressures get to be too much. (To learn about rewards and reinforcers, click here.)

For Maya, sticking close to Mom is rewarding because it makes her feel safe. She has one coping tool to deal with all the social pressure of being asked to socialize with cousins her own age – she sticks to what’s comfortable and holds on with a death grip!

What do we do about it? That’s where the G.E.T. strategies come in. G.E.T. stands for “Goal Directed Behavior, Educate for Effectiveness, and Train it In.”

Goal-Directed Behavior:

Sit down with your neurodiverse child and talk about shared goals for the holiday season. Make sure to set clear, measurable goals with operational definitions. Goals like “have a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner” are too vague and not measurable. Goals like “Sitting at the table till Mommy gives me the signal to go play, and then going to play in the playroom” are concrete and measurable. (To read more about Goal-Directed Behavior, click here.)

Educate For Effectiveness:

Explain to the neurodiverse child what challenges the holiday is likely to pose, due to his unique neurology. I like to tell neurodiverse children that their challenge, or their diagnosis, is a roadmap towards their superpower (Read more about superpowers here.) I like to explain that challenges are what train us to use our superpowers productively.

Tanawat Pontchour/Dreamstime
Use a hand tally counter to help keep track of behavior modification plans on the holidays.
Source: Tanawat Pontchour/Dreamstime

I recommend setting up a behavior modification plan for goals like this, with a small reward that the

child can get either immediately or within a few days. I use a tally counter (See image.)  Each time the neurodiverse child uses the tool we give him; he can get a click. A certain number of clicks equals a prize.

Alex, remember that you have a race-car brain and body that moves very fast and gets very excited about things, right? Sometimes, that gets you into trouble at Aunt Suzy’s house because you have a hard time sitting at the table, and you get frustrated when you can’t play with something exciting, right? But that’s because you have a superpower. Let’s train it to sit for a little while – 10 minutes – and then you can get up and go play in the playroom. I will click the clicker every time I see you do that. Also, when you are getting frustrated with the little kids, and you come tell me about the problem, I will give you five clicks! We are training your superpower so that you will still get excited about things, but you will also have self-control.

Train It In:

Rehearsal before the challenge is key to helping a neurodiverse child overcome it. We must practice it, either via discussion, or via role play, until the child knows exactly what is expected of them.

Maya, we’ve been working on Mr. Worry and how he tells you not to talk to new people. For this party, let’s set the goal of bravely answering three questions from grownups, and I will give you a click. Let’s practice. Let’s imagine what questions you are going to be asked, and let’s practice. Can you think of the types of questions people usually ask?

The TARGET System can help us understand what about a holiday party is likely to be challenging for any type of neurodiverse child and can help us formulate a plan for how to handle it. In the next installment, we’re going to cover some specific plans that parents have found helpful.

© Robyn Koslowitz, 2019


Pryor, Karen. Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training. New York: Bantam Books, 1999. Print.