By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 52


If you have a neurodivergent child who tends to get overstimulated, overwhelmed and dysregulated around gift-giving time during the holidays, you’re not alone. Over the years I’ve found ways to manage dysregulation around gifts and the meltdowns that usually happen and this year, I’m putting it all together so I can have a more regulated holiday season.

I know, I know… 

Holidays aren’t just about the gifts. 

It’s about giving, and spending time with loved ones filled with warm and cozy memories.

But, in a household with a neurodivergent child, it’s hard to get many of those fond memories when there is so much buzz and excitement, and anticipation around the surprises and gifts that are coming. 

The holiday season can be really hard and stressful for many neurodivergent children, even if it’s full of excitement. 

If you’re looking for tips on managing the holiday season as a whole, including how to prepare them for holiday parties and dealing with unstructured time, pause this and go back to episode 14

Today I’m going to focus mostly on the dysregulation surrounding gifts. 

Why do gifts and presents trigger meltdowns?

Here’s why the concept of receiving and opening gifts can often be met with meltdowns and unexpected negative emotions.

First of all, there’s the surprise. Even when it’s expected like on birthdays or Christmas or Hanukkah, typically there’s this element of unpredictability and surprise with what’s underneath the wrapping.

Sometimes, it’s a surprise to receive a gift at all (hint- when Grandma gifts your child 6 gifts instead of 1 like we hoped).

Whether the act of receiving a gift was a surprise or the anticipation of opening the gift and not knowing what’s underneath is a surprise, we can all agree that receiving and opening gifts leaves us with a general feeling of surprise and excitement

So? What’s wrong with that? Well, there’s nothing actually “wrong” with excitement and feeling surprised. However, let’s break that down into the actual sensations that we notice.

When you feel excited or surprised, internal sensations you might notice are things like your heart beating fast, maybe some “buzzing” or tingling in your extremities, you might feel flushed and maybe have butterflies in your tummy.

When you notice those sensations, that’s your interoception system at work. The other thing to note about those sensations is they are also related to other emotions, like with worry, anxiety or fear.

Neurodivergent children commonly experience difficulty identifying, tolerating and processing those internal sensations. This means that those internal sensations linked to excitement and surprise may feel a lot like feelings of anxiety or fear, and their brain may respond in a way that’s protective.

Gift giving can come with a lot of meltdowns which can be hard for caregivers and parents to tolerate because we spent so much money on it. 

5 Things I would do differently: 

Now that we have an understanding of why gifts can trigger some big emotions in our neurodivergent kids, here’s how I plan to approach gifts this season.

1. Forget the wrapping paper!

You heard me. I don’t care what trendy 30 second wrapping hack you found on tik-tok, I will not be wrapping most of the gifts that we give my daughter this Christmas. I started doing this during her birthday last year and even though it was unintentional (hello last minute gifts I was too lazy to wrap), it ended up being so much smoother.

While she will have some gifts that will be wrapped already, we plan to just set out the gifts from Santa and mom/dad nicely under the tree with no wrapping paper.

This removes that build up and anticipation of aggressively unwrapping paper to see what’s underneath. Because even if it IS a toy or thing they wanted and expected, maybe they didn’t expect that box that they unwrapped to be that toy, and then they spiral.

2. Have new toys ready to go!

This is not just a neurodivergent parent tip, but great for parents all around. If you have a toy that requires batteries or assembly, make sure to have these toys ready to go!

This way toys are able to be played with immediately, aka one less meltdown about having to wait.

We can sit back and watch our children play and enjoy their new toys.

3. Open presents early!

Why not allow the magic to come a little earlier with a few gifts?

I don’t know about you, but we receive gifts in the mail or dropped off by friends and family all throughout the month of December. In the past, I’d put them under the tree until there’s this massive pile of gifts for her to open on December 24th (we are a Christmas eve opening family).

But again, it’s just too much excitement and overstimulation in one stretch of time. Now, I just let her open the gifts as we receive them.

Secondly, This allows kids to actually enjoy and play with each toy for longer than 10 seconds before looking for the next thing to tear open.  

Lastly, but probably most magical thing about giving your kids gift early: this is a gift to ourselves, the parents! It allows us to have more peace throughout the unstructured days, layered with endless snacks and “I’m bored” statements in between the begging for more screen time.

4. Remember your child’s triggers (and share them with the gifters)

Remind gift-givers of your child’s triggers or toys/things you think won’t go used or appreciated. 

Got a kid picky with clothing and sizing? Are they particular with brands of toys or certain characters that trigger meltdowns?

Tell Grandma, Aunts and Uncles to either steer clear of those kinds of toys, or at the very least- give a gift receipt if they don’t want their money to go to waste.

You can make suggestions for gift cards to clothing or toy stores, this way the child can pick out the item themselves and it will be something they love. I know some family members don’t like the idea of gift cards, but if you have a really picky child, a giftcard is the best way to ensure a gift that will be loved and actually used by your child.

5. Separate your childhood memories from the memories your family will make

If you are like me, I grew up loving Christmas and the holiday season and everything about it.

This time of year makes me feel nostalgic and excited.

When I get into the season, I get caught up in wanting to recreate those memories with my daughter.

I always have to remind myself: this child in front of me, is not my inner child. I can’t redo my childhood through her. She is a completely different person than I was as a child (despite the uncanny resemblance).

If you’re a neurotypical parent to a neurodivergnet child, I encourage you to pause and think about what the holidays means to you and your inner child and keep that separate from how you expect this holiday season to turn out. You can weave in your holiday traditions and hope to rekindle some of those memories, but try not to set yourself up for disappointment if your neurodivergent child doesn’t respond the way you had hoped.

Here’s to hoping you have a more regulated holiday season with some of these tips!

Need more tips? Check out my free guide to surviving the holidays with sensory processing disorder here

Breaking holiday traditions: What I’m doing differently with my neurodivergent child.
10:38:54 Okay, So this is going to be a short but suite very heavy on the tips. 10:38:59 Practical tips, practical solutions, things kind of episode. 10:39:05 And if you want more of a detailed episode where I talk about tips on managing the holiday season as a whole, like the unstructured time out of...

10:38:54 Okay, So this is going to be a short but suite very heavy on the tips. 10:38:59 Practical tips, practical solutions, things kind of episode. 10:39:05 And if you want more of a detailed episode where I talk about tips on managing the holiday season as a whole, like the unstructured time out of school, all of the holiday parties and the stress from that and how I 10:39:20 would accommodate a child with sensory processing disorder through that season of like holidayness. 10:39:28 Then head back to Episode 14, and and that episode also has a free list 10:39:58 All right, welcome back to the podcast today’s is a little bit short of a podcast but it is very heavy on just practical actionable tips. 10:40:09 This is more of an episode for me, as I list out things that I would do different from based off of mistakes that I made last holiday season. 10:40:20 If you want more tips on just how to think about the holiday season, and how to better support and accommodate your spd Child through the holiday season as a whole, how to prep for holiday parties, how to think about 10:40:31 unstructured time when your kid is out of school then head back to Episode 14, I’ll put a link of it in the show notes. 10:40:37 You can go to the ot butterfly, dot com, slash 14 check that out. 10:40:42 So this episode is all about things that i’m going to be doing differently for this holiday season. 10:40:49 Whether you are celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas, Quanza, any holiday season that you are going to partake in. 10:40:57 That involves gift giving. That is really where I learned a lot of my mistakes from last season and even birthdays. 10:41:05 So this is just a note for future self and anyone out there who’s listening. 10:41:09 Who needs these reminders. If you had a hard time with gifts there’s a reason. 10:41:16 Okay. First of all, gifts are meant to be a surprise. 10:41:23 There sometimes a surprise when you get them. Sometimes you expect them. 10:41:26 But the idea of unwrapping a gift and not knowing what’s underneath that comes with the whole element of surprise and excitement. 10:41:34 But again, considering we have neurod divergent children who may have interroception challenges meaning. 10:41:40 They have a hard time interpreting the sensations that they’re feeling inside their body, which are linked to emotions. 10:41:47 So excitement comes with butterflies in your stomach. 10:41:51 You. your your heart rate might be beating fast you might have like this buzzing sensation and your fingers just you’re so excited. 10:41:58 Those are all interception sensations and if you have a neurod divergent child who is either sensitive to those sensations, or they experience it more intensely, or they aren’t even aware of what those are But their bodies 10:42:10 just doing this extreme sensation inside of them. They might have a hard time with big feelings like excitement, and being surprised by a gift, so that element of gift giving or on the holidays can come with a lot of 10:42:25 meltdowns and behaviors which are so hard for us. 10:42:31 Parents and caregivers to witness and tolerate because we just spent all this money buying you xyz toy and you’re asking this or you’re complaining about that. 10:42:43 It’s really hard. So anyway, that’s my preface I’m gonna start the episode. 10:42:47 Now these are things that I would do different differently this year. 10:42:52 This holiday season around gifts. First and foremost, I started this around her birthday birthday. 10:43:00 This year. I did this. Actually I did not wrap a single gift for her birthday. 10:43:04 There were some gifts that came from loved ones family members that were wrapped, but the gifts that she woke up to on her birthday morning, and that she will on Christmas morning, whether it’s from santa or 10:43:15 from our from my husband, and I will not be wrapped. 10:43:19 And this is the extra layer they will have batteries included. 10:43:23 If it is a battery operated toy they will be assembled, if it’s a toy that requires assembly, I don’t care about the box, I don’t care about their wrapping it 10:43:31 is going to be unwrapped again to take away that element of surprise in anticipation, even if it is the toy that she wanted. 10:43:41 And she asked for if she unwrapped and she wasn’t, thinking it was going to be that toy Sometimes her reaction is just something that is not expected from anybody. 10:43:51 So it’s enough of an excitement to wake up on Christmas morning and run down and see the toys by the tree. 10:43:57 That’s why i’m doing this year especially for santa’s gifts. 10:44:02 And for the ones from my husband and I the ones that get sent from family members. 10:44:08 Here’s how i’m gonna approach that if you’re like my family. 10:44:11 We have a Filipino family. There are a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins, and gifts from all around that want to spoil your child. 10:44:19 That’s great. They come to us at different times in the season. 10:44:23 Sometimes they’ll like mail it to us like 2 weeks in advance. 10:44:25 Sometimes someone will drop it off and we’ll have we’ll kind of just start accumulating gifts at random times throughout the month of December. 10:44:32 I don’t wait until Christmas morning or Christmas eve for her to open them. 10:44:36 I let her open them. Maybe not right when we get them but like It’s a steady strain like maybe she’ll open a couple a few days before Christmas, and then, maybe one present like a few weeks before Christmas the reason why I do 10:44:50 this is for 2 reasons. One is for her again, because if she opened this all at once, I can guarantee a chance of a meltdown, just from the excitement and the sensory overload, and the overstimulation 10:45:04 so this helps manage that. So there’s less presence for her to open at one time. 10:45:10 And another thing for her is that so? She will be able to actually spend time with each toy and not forget that she had one. 10:45:17 I remember, as a kid opening like 20 presents on Christmas morning and months later forgot one of the toys that I had open and never touched, because there was just so many. 10:45:27 So it ends up being a waste of money for whoever bought it for you. 10:45:33 So those are the 2 reasons for her. the last reason is for me and my husband when they are out of school. 10:45:40 There’s only so much screen time you can have with your kid. 10:45:42 I have a kid who doesn’t love screen time in in excess, like she will watch, probably like if I let her watch Tv the whole day. 10:45:52 She would turn it off at some point and be like i’m bored. 10:45:55 Let me do something else. also you need to have different things throughout, like the 2 weeks we have like 3 weeks off of school, because we’re year on school. 10:46:04 So, having her have new toys to play with, and and explore and spend her time with, is a win for me, and gets me through one extra hour, or maybe maybe a few hours in a day, and closer to the next day of holiday 10:46:20 vacation. Another thing that i’m going to do is specific to loved ones and caregivers giving her gifts is, I am going to highly stress to them, for us clothing is a big issue even if I give you the 10:46:38 right size that she is and the things that she’s into I cannot guarantee that she’s going to like what you get her, and that she’s going to wear it and i’m not going to force her to wear 10:46:47 it just because you bought it for her, so buy it at your own risk. 10:46:52 I would rather you give us gift cards to old Navy or the clothing store that you were going to purchase the clothes from. 10:47:04 That will actually not save you money, because you would probably still give the money in a certain way. 10:47:07 But at least ensure that whatever money you contribute towards a gift will actually be used, because we are in this season. 10:47:14 Of clothes right now. even I can’t accurately predict what clothes she’s gonna like, unless she actually is physically there to try it on, and even then it’s a 50 over 50 chance especially shoes. 10:47:26 So note to make note of the things that you might know. 10:47:30 Your child might have a hard time with and advise the gift givers in your child’s life of those things.   10:50:09 And here’s my last reminder to future Laura, who needs to come back and listen to this episode right around mid-december and reminder to anyone else out there who has had some less than ideal holiday 10:50:25 experiences with your children in the past. my daughter’s Christmas and holidays are not going to look the same as mine was as a child, depending on who you are, and what background you have, and how you grew up you might have a 10:50:40 very fond, magical special memories around the holidays. 10:50:43 You might have some triggering, not so great memories of holidays growing up, whatever the case may be. 10:50:51 No, it’s not going to be the same for your child, no matter what. 10:50:54 So that might be good for you. It might not be what you want for me. 10:50:57 I grew up loving Christmas and loving the holiday season and everything about it. 10:51:03 And it’s still gets me very excited and feeling nostalgic. 10:51:09 When I see certain pictures of Christmas or here the music, and see the decorations on all of that, and it’s really hard not to tie those memories and experiences to my daughter, and and feel pressure to one recreate 10:51:22 it and then feel resentment when she doesn’t react the way that I did, because she’s a completely different child, and we’re in a completely different time. 10:51:31 In our in the world, and in our lives and she doesn’t have cousins like I had cousins. 10:51:36 There’s so many things that are different and if that means a lot to you. 10:51:40 You really need to sit with that and process that, and and go into the holiday season, not having all of those really grand expectations, or you are going to be let down. 10:51:50 Let your child have their own experience, make their own memories for your family, and use some of these tips to hopefully make it a little bit more tolerable and less stressful for all, because at the end of the day. 10:52:00 Yes, holidays. Seasons are a lot for the kids. 10:52:05 But if if if what we’re doing for the kids is making them more dysregulated, and then that comes back to us, and we like, are miserable, then that doesn’t help anybody either So remember that things that you offer your 10:52:17 child strategies, accommodations, things that you decide to do that work best for your family need to work for the whole family, including yourself. 10:52:26 You don’t need to keep sacrificing your happiness your rest, your relaxation. 10:52:33 For your child. It needs to work for the whole family 10:52:52 Now here’s one that I hope someone in my family is listening to this episode. 10:52:58 I’m not gonna be that out there and actually send her this episode or send them this episode. 10:53:05 But this is one where I i’m gonna be talking to family members, and reminding them of things that are important to me as a parent, and things that I don’t want my child to participate in or believe in. 10:53:21 Which is the notion of if you’re bad you’re not going to get any gifts or santa’s watching, and he’s not gonna give you things you know those fake calls to Santa when your child 10:53:30 is acting up. I used to do that when she was the baby when she was like one or 2, and I didn’t know any better. 10:53:39 I am still choosing to offer her the opportunity to believe in Santa, and we still talk about Santa. 10:53:46 That’s a choice that our family makes and it’s something that I don’t have a problem with. 10:53:52 I know some families have a the problem with talking about Santa and what that means. 10:53:55 That’s fine. But whatever it is I am making sure that family members around me don’t use santa against her, or just the idea that they’re gonna withhold gifts or give her a lump of coal if she doesn’t 10:54:07 do Xyz that is, not how I choose to parent that’s not how I choose to have my daughter understand behaviors and her regulation, and things that she’s able to do and not able to do so that’s a big 10:54:19 piece, and if you want more tips on the how to talk to your family members about your child’s neurodiversity, or setting the boundaries for them sending boundaries with your family, then head to the link in my show notes. 10:54:36 I have a link for a free download that starts the conversation with family members of what you’re gonna want to tell them 10:55:03 So if you want more help on how to start the conversation with family members or friends, where you’re gonna visit their house, or go to a holiday party with them, and you want to preemptively set a boundary about how they talk about things in front of your 10:55:18 child, i’m gonna link an instagram video where I highlight this, and like some quick, easy steps, and then you can even screenshot a template script that you could send in a text to someone or send 10:55:29 them an email or something, so that’s in the show notes definitely check that out 10:55:46 Alright. So that was it short and sweet episode, But a lot of really helpful tips, especially if you haven’t a narrow divergent kid stay regulated out there.




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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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