Holiday Survival Tips for Kids From “Hard Places”

Today’s post was co-written with my friend, Carrie Blaske, for the Refresh support group at Overlake Christian Church and the Refresh Conference Facebook page. I think you’ll like it too. Please share!

Just like the mortgage or a utility bill, the holidays show up each year, right on schedule.

Holidays are great fun, but they add additional challenges for our kids from “hard places.” With a little reflection on past successes and complete disasters, we can plan ahead and give our kids a better chance of creating new memories of happy holidays.

christmas ornaments


Time sequencing is hard for our kids; rather than build excitement, it often creates anxiety. It’s common for them to repeat questions over and over in the hope of gaining understanding or control over what is coming next.  This need to understand often produces behaviors that seem defiant, manipulative and ungrateful.  

We can support our kids by creating visual cues, opportunities for verbal processing, and tactile movement.

Visual Cues

Visual cues answer the question of “how many more days,” for us. A child can look at the cue many times during the day or week, plus these cues are fun.

  1. Paper Chain: numbered links with names and dates of outings, special events and visits
  2. Calendar with big boxes to cross off as each day passes
  3. Candy countdown to Christmas hanging to visually see how many days are left

Verbal Processing

Play “What we Like and What is Hard”

Divide a sheet of paper in half down the middle. On the left side, work with your child to draw, “what I like,” about Christmas morning, and on the right, “what is hard,” about Christmas morning. LISTEN and don’t take offense. Come back to the list on another day to troubleshoot with your child how to prepare for those hard things and find positive ways to prepare.

[For example, Lisa’s daughter, Kalkidan, was very worried about the length of time it would take to open stockings before breakfast, so we served snacks, including a large bag of pepperoni sticks, which made for a very happy girl who patiently managed the wait until breakfast.]

Tactile Processing

Role Play

Children learn best in low-stress situations and familiar surroundings. We also know that new brain pathways can be formed with repetition and exposure to new responses in familiar or new situations. This is good news! Our kids’ brains (and ours), can be rewired in positive ways.

Role play is a great way for the brain to learn new ways of responding in a non-threatening way. Kids also love being silly, so this activity is a win all the way around.

Example 1 : Play the Wrong Way/Right Way Game

“Hey kids, let’s practice our best RUDE response to Grandma when you open her gift!” (Give everyone a high-five for their response.) “Now, let’s practice our best RESPECTFUL response to Grandma when you open her gift.” (Give high-fives and talk about how great they are with respect and how happy Grandma will feel when she sees them open her gift.)

On Christmas day when you’re walking into Grandma’s house, give a small wink and whisper, “I’m excited to see you give that great respectful response to Grandma you practiced at home.”

You can practice all kinds of responses: fun, rude, unkind, mean. The key is to always end with the response you want in order to grow new brain pathways.

This is also good practice for trying new foods at parties; we want to avoid our child yelling out, “What is this gross stuff? It makes me want to puke!”  If that happens, roll with it and remember, humor goes a long way in moments like this. You might say, “Wow, you have some really strong feelings about that, let’s talk about it in the kitchen.” 

Example 2: Practice Unwrapping Gifts

If the Rude/Respectful role play isn’t your style, here is another role play option.

“Wrap” a couple of things in kitchen towels and let your child practice unwrapping.  Then have your children sit in a circle, each with a “gift” in front of them.  Let them unwrap the gifts one at a time, taking a moment to admire each person’s gift.  You can make this very silly and have fun.

Example 3: Rehearse saying “thank you”

Give your child an item and have her practice saying two nice things.  One can be “thank you” and the other should be something about the gift. Explain that you understand that she may not love the gift, and it’s okay to think it in her mind, but it’s not okay to say it that very moment, when her sister who lovingly picked it out is sitting next to her. You will be happy to talk about it later.

Rehearsing can be combined with practicing opening gifts, but it can also be done throughout the day.  When you make her a snack, she can say, “Thank you.  I like apples cut in slices.”  Be sure to let her give you things too – especially silly things that require creativity for a thankful response, “Why thank you, I just love this empty yogurt container. It will look beautiful on my dresser”  Kids love it when we’re dramatic and silly.

Activities and Outings

Each family is unique in the number of activities they enjoy, but an overall rule of thumb for our kids from “hard places,” is less is better.

Think carefully about your children as you plan. Set boundaries before the holiday season on the number of outings and activities you choose in order to safely create memories and reduce the possible resentment that easily creeps in when our expectations aren’t met.

Consider choosing:

  1. Only your favorite outings
  2. Less stimulating outings – a tree farm, but not the annual craft fair with 300 people
  3. Shorter times spent at family gatherings and friends’ homes
  4. Inviting family and friends to your home where your children are in their familiar environment
  5. Some activities done with part of the family while the rest of the family does another. For example: Dad and some kids go to the school Christmas concert, while mom and other kids stay home to bake cookies and watch Elf.

Holidays are a wonderful time to create memories and we want to do our best to make those memories sweet. With a little preparation, reasonable expectations, and a whole lot of grace for our kids and ourselves, we can do it. When all else fails, take a nap, eat a snack, and start over.

What changes have you made in your holidays to help your kids from “hard places” have success?



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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Ginger
    December 14, 2016

    What a well-written and practical article. Thank you so much for pulling it back out. It has given me new ideas to try!

    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 14, 2016

      I’m so glad you like it, Ginger! Please share it with friends.

  2. Lori
    December 14, 2016

    With kids who have anxiety challenges, I’ve even gone so far as to let them pick out or show them a gift before wrapping it up. This seems to alleviate the anxiety about “What am I going to get?” and “Will it be something I like?”. It kind of dampens the joy of surprising my kiddos, but I think the trade-off is worth it. I can much more easily change my expectations than my child can.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 15, 2016

      I have done the same, Lori. One of my daughters honestly cannot stand surprises. She would rather pick out her gifts and no them – there is no joy in the not knowing. I’ve learned that my joy of giving a surprise is not worth her misery of having a surprise. I can let go of that.

      1. Cathy
        December 19, 2018

        I give some gifts as surprises but started a “gift of choice” tradition maybe 4 years ago that really helped my younger deal with the not-knowing — so now every year they pick out something and the rule is they can’t have it until Christmas morning, but they know what it is and that it’s something they like. It seems to work!

  3. Lynn Owens
    December 18, 2016

    Lisa, great article. After 9 years adopted, my 19 year old son told me today that this is the first time he has looked forward to a Christmas.

    My wife and I were just ruminating about past Christmas disasters. Your tips are great! I’m going to link back to your blog from our new video series for adoptive and foster parents. Thanks for the work of writing this!

    Maybe we will run into each other at refresh this year.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 18, 2016

      Thanks so much, Lynn. Holidays are such a mixed blessing for our kids – and for us. Thanks for linking to my blog, I appreciate it! I won’t be at Refresh this year because I’ll be speaking at Created for Care that weekend, but I’ll be back the following year. This is the first year I’ve missed Refresh. Carrie Blaske wrote this article with me and she’ll be there!

  4. Amy
    December 19, 2018

    I love these ideas. I just came to the realization this year that every December is hard for us and the best way to manage it is to know it’s coming and to change what is considered traditional. My son has a lot of anxiety and I offered him this year to open his gifts from us, his parents, throughout the month because he will have many on Christmas. The anticipation of all of it on One day is very hard for him. So this has been a great way to lead up to Christmas and to ease some of the anxiety. I remember doing this when he was 2 and 3 and it seemed to help. It’s now going to be our every year tradition.


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