How to Head Off Behavior Problems at Formal Events
Anticipating triggers will help kids have a great time
Lexi Walters Wright
Formal events can be tricky for all children to successfully maneuver. Holiday events, weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations and other gatherings can be especially stressful for kids with psychiatric, learning and attention issues. By anticipating what might cause behavior problems at formal events, you can make it easier for your child to attend and have a great time.
Behavior Trigger #1: Restrictive Clothing. For kids who are extra-sensitive to clothing textures—or those who are simply miserable wearing things like collars, button-down shirts and pants with elastic waists—dressy attire can be irritating to the point of causing a meltdown.
What to Do: Err on the side of making your child comfortable, not picture-perfect. Let him wear comfortable layers, and give him permission to remove them after a certain time. For instance, maybe he wears the suit jacket for family photos only. If this bothers relatives, you can assure them that everyone is having a better time because of his more relaxed look.
Behavior Trigger #2: Too Much Sitting Quietly. Ceremonies can feel impossibly long when you’re expected to be silent and still!
What to Do: Find out how long the service might be. You might consider having your child skip an 80-minute mass and instead attend the reception. If you do want him to attend, consider the following tips, first.
- Prepare him for the amount of sitting he’ll have to do.
- If reading is a problem, tell him he doesn’t have to follow along with passages.
- Consider bringing small toys he can play with quietly.
- Sit near an exit so he can make a quiet departure if he truly needs a break.
Behavior Trigger #3: All That Contact. Hugs, handshakes, pats on the back, dancing closely to one another—formal events are rife with personal contact. If touching is problematic for your child, he may feel like recoiling at every turn.
What to Do: Role-play interactions with family and friends before the event so he knows how greetings might look and feel. If your child really can’t handle casual touches, encourage him to smile, wave and make and maintain eye contact during hellos and conversations.
Behavior Trigger #4: Unclear Rituals. Kids may feel anxious and become boisterous if they’re just told to quietly go along with what’s happening (for example, standing and sitting during a church or synagogue service) without understanding the sequence of events.
What to Do: Days before the event, talk to your child about what he’ll experience: the location, timeframe, who’ll be there, what will be expected of him and how the event will unfold. The morning of—even during the drive over—run through it again. During breaks (after the ceremony and before the reception, for example), remind your child what comes next.
Behavior Trigger #5: Overstimulation! A noisy room full of dancing people and flashing lights can be way too much for kids who are sensitive to sights and sounds.
What to Do: Establish a quiet place where your child can retreat to read, color or do another solo activity if he needs some peace. That might be a neighboring room in the same building, your hotel room upstairs, or even the car. Also, be reasonable about how long to stay at an event. For instance, leaving early and missing the toasts may be better than staying and having your child be miserable or embarrass himself.
Behavior Trigger #6: Making Smalltalk. It can be daunting for kids to engage in dinner conversation with the people sitting at their assigned table. Depending on your child, he may clam up—or nervously monopolize the conversations.
What to Do: In the days leading up to the event, reinforce conversation basics and practice conversation starters. Encourage your child to practice with you, siblings and friends. If you’re not sitting next to your child at dinner, remind him he can find you if he’s feeling overwhelmed by the conversations.
Behavior Trigger #7: Unfamiliar Foods. Meals are a major part of most formal events. For kids with picky palates, sensory issues or allergies, unfamiliar food can be cause for distress.
What to Do: Pack and bring what you know your child can eat. Encourage him to try what looks interesting, but don’t force the issue. Someone else’s big day isn’t the ideal time to insist your child try something new.
This excellent list of ways to prevent behavior problems at formal events was first published on Understood.org.