When you consider the holiday season, what words come to mind? Perhaps you might think of “family”, “faith”, or even “travel.” Maybe the symbols of your celebrations might arise: menorahs, candles, Christmas trees, and Kwanzaa crops.

Or maybe you’ll think of “endings”. After all, the winter holidays mark the end of a calendar year, the waning of warmth and daylight hours.   That said, the holidays can be a time of new beginnings and new learning, too … especially when it comes to emotional self-management.

What is emotional regulation, and why is it important? As we wrote in our blog post, How to equip your child with emotional regulation skills:

“Emotional regulation is the ability to manage one’s own feelings. It indicates self-control and self-command, and it’s a vital component of personal growth.”

With that in mind, let’s look at a few of the valuable lessons that the holidays have to teach us about autism and emotional regulation.

The holidays teach us that it’s essential to practice self-management skills before diving into stressful situations.

Yes, the holiday season is a time of joy and celebration, but it’s also a time of extra activities, extra stress, and extra time with family members.

Let’s tell it like it is: Spending tons of time with family can be tough. Though we love our parents and siblings and spouses and children, they can also push our buttons like no one else.

As such, you’ll want to set aside a little time each day to review these key skills with your child. Consider them your self-management toolkit:

  • Identifying your own emotional state; Expressing your emotions in a healthy manner (check out our free sample FirstPath Autism video, Labeling and Identifying Emotions, to see what this process looks like in action)
  • Deep breathing and slowing your pulse to calm the physical body (and perhaps including a short yoga and meditation practice in the morning to set the tone for the day)
  • Choosing a self-care strategy that works for you (this may include time alone, exercise, or calming pressure)
  • Using adaptive equipment to calm the body or mitigate sensory overload (perhaps using noise-canceling headphones, earplugs, eyeglasses, and so forth)

The holidays teach us that emotional regulation skills are like muscles: they strengthen with use, but they have their limits as well.

Picture this: You and your family are approaching your holiday destination at the end of a long day of air travel. Your child did a great job staying calm on the plane, but he’s become increasingly agitated in the last hour in the rental car.

He’s been asking you the same questions repeatedly, and showing other telltale signs of stress and strain. As you approach your relative’s house, a choice arises: Will you find a quiet place to pull over and practice some calming techniques with your child, or will you keep driving?

There’s no one right answer, and it’s impossible to predict all the possible outcomes of every choice you make. But when such situations arise, consider carving out extra time to support your child’s emotional self-management.

For example, if you chose to pull the car over and do breathing exercises and some emotional processing, you might have given your child the space he needed to have a relatively calm rest of the evening.

You might even head off managing a meltdown later on … and then again, you might not. Either way, it’s wise to build in pauses, periods of deliberate rest in the midst of high-pressure times.

Most of all, be kind to yourself and your child when one (or both!) of you hit rough patches during family visits. Know that it’s tough for many people to be true to themselves around their family.

As author and blogger Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery writes:

“When it comes to authenticity: Family is not the starting place; family is the FINAL FRONTIER. Practicing authenticity with family is like practicing cat grooming in a lion’s den. If you’d like to practice being real and vulnerable and YOURSELF – don’t start with your family, start with your mailman.”

The holidays teach us that learning emotional self-management skills is an ongoing process. 

As a parent and a responsible adult, you probably already have a black belt in emotional regulation. Yet even so, you probably still feel your emotions getting out of control during high-pressure times. You’re only human, after all.

Those trying times are actually helpful in that they remind you of what it’s like to struggle with emotional self-management. They give you empathy for your child, who is not as far along in the development process as you are!

Such instances also give you the opportunity to remember how you gained such strong skills in the first place: through many years of practice.

So, when you’re feeling frustrated with your child’s outbursts, remember that the best thing you can do is provide him or her with structured opportunities to learn emotional regulation skills.  

A consistent ABA therapy program is a fantastic way to facilitate this lifelong emotional learning. ABA is one of the few evidence-based, proven treatments for autism, and it’s recommended by the US Surgeon General, as well as myriad autism research foundations and advocacy groups.

As we wrote in our blog post Emotional regulation skills your child needs for holiday parties:

“ABA exercises … empower individuals with autism to engage with the concept of emotion on multiple levels. [For example], the picture cards engage visual memory, the verbalizations encourage expression, and the physical practice of assuming different expressions helps to concretize the concept.”

If you cannot travel to an ABA provider in your town or city, know that you can always access FirstPath’s full library of ABA video lessons.