Avoiding Holiday Havoc: Healthy solutions to avoid meltdowns and keep the holidays happy

The holidays are a wonderful time for being together with family and celebrating. 

But there are also new holiday traditions that can cause children to have behavioral and emotional reactions. Holiday treats and decorations can cause biochemical overload and physiological reactions like hyperactivity, anger, aggression, crying spells, and anxiety. And the things we enjoy as adults, such as: music, lights, and new smells can be overwhelming for a child with sensory sensitivities. 

Fortunately understanding them ahead of time can help you plan and adjust as necessary.

Holiday Stressors That Can Cause Meltdowns

The following are some of the things that can cause real reactions in kids:

  • Christmas trees
  • Wreaths and pine branches
  • Potpourri
  • Scented candles
  • Perfume
  • Lights
  • Music
  • Strong smelling food
  • Food and food additives

Christmas trees and Wreaths Can Cause Severe Symptoms 

Before you run out and buy a fresh, new Christmas tree or holiday wreath, you’ll want to read about my client’s Christmas tree experience.

Her son 10 year old son with autism severely regressed during the holidays. After the holidays we had an appointment where I learned about his regression and asked if they had a Christmas tree. Turns out they did and it was the cause of his misery.

Here’s her description:

“During the Holidays our son regressed severely.  He became anxious, aggressive, and self-abusive. He cried and had tantrums regularly throughout the day. He couldn’t sleep anymore and was up for hours at a time, night after night. He was hand-flapping like crazy.  We have a swing in the house for him and he now wanted to swing all day long, constantly, and do nothing else. He lost eye contact and he stopped responding to his name.”

 And it’s no doubt that the Christmas tree was the culprit, because once it was removed the improvements were dramatic.

“The decorations came off and the tree was put out that same night.  I didn’t tell anyone at home about our discussion. I wanted to see if they would comment on my son’s behavior after the tree was gone.   The next day, he was much calmer. He seemed to have “exhaled.” Within 48 hours, our son was completely back to normal. His improvement was blatantly obvious. And, everyone commented on it.”

Pine trees and phenols

Christmas trees are varieties of pine trees. The aromatic oils that give pine trees their great smell were the cause of his behavior, mood, and sleeping issues.

These strong smelling oils are phenols.  Phenolic compounds come in many forms including artificial petroleum-based food additives, and salicylates found in plants and foods like strawberries and spices, as well as pine trees.

When phenols are not able to be broken-down and detoxified (by a process called sulfation, which is low in many children with autism and ADHD), they can cause many symptoms including irritability, red cheeks and ears, hyperactivity, aggression toward self and others, “stimming,” sleeping challenges and many more.

If you know your child is sensitive to salicylates or other phenols (see my salicylate article), you’ll likely want to avoid a traditional Christmas tree.  If you are unsure about their sensitivity to salicylates: you might ask yourself if your child is often hyper, irritable, or has red cheeks, and other common salicylate symptoms, or whether they crave salicylate-rich foods such as berries, grapes, apples, and ketchup.  If so, explore salicylates further.

In fact, since so many children with autism and ADHD react to salicylates (in my nutrition practice I find an overwhelming majority react negatively), I’d suggest a cautious approach to holiday decorating for all families of a child with autism or ADHD. Simply avoid the pine Christmas tree. I’ll share some ideas below.

Scents: Potpourri, Scented candles, perfume

Most scented items for the holidays are made with synthetic fragrance. Not only do these fragrances contain toxins like phthalates, parabens, and styrene, but they also contain phenolic compounds (like the pine tree mentioned above). 

So these scented items can cause headaches, nausea, and behavioral reactions in children and guests. 

  • Potpourri
  • Scented candles
  • Stick/reed diffusers
  • Air fresheners
  • Perfume and cologne
  • Fabric softener
  • Scented Hand soap

Sadly, there is nothing “fresh” about air fresheners. And while those scented candles and diffusers seem lovely, they also contain these chemicals. Our body needs to detoxify them, and when we can’t do so sufficiently they cause physical and behavioral reactions. 

This year skip the scented products. 

Even essential oils, which I love, can cause reactions because of the phenols I’ve described above. Some of the essential oils with the highest sources of phenols include:

  • Balsam fir oil
  • Clove oil
  • Cinnamon oil
  • Citrus oil
  • Eucalyptus oil 
  • Lavender oil
  • Oregano oil
  • Pennyroyal oil
  • Peppermint oil
  • Sweet birch oil
  • Tea tree oil
  • Thyme oil
  • Wintergreen oil

Essential oils are certainly better than artificial fragrances. But be sure to use them sparingly and avoid the highest phenolic ones if you suspect a phenol issue.

Lights, music, and smells

Many children with neurodevelopmental delays, have sensory sensitivity. This means they are more likely to react to the holiday lights, blinking lights, strobing lights, music playing in the background, and new smells like food and others mentioned above. 

Not only are their physiological reactions that can happen, they can also create overwhelm. Sensory input, even when pleasant, are stressors to our nervous system. 

Try keeping sensory stimulation to a minimum.  

Food and food additives

Gluten, Dairy and Food Allergens

Gluten, dairy, soy, and other allergens such as corn and eggs can cause behavioral and emotional reactions including anxiety, hyperactivity, irritability, and add to sensory overload.

There are many ways gluten and dairy can cause these reactions. If you are eating these foods and your body is creating opiates, opiates themselves can cause mood changes. Additionally, opiates peak and drop, these “withdrawals” from these opiate-compounds can cause irritability and aggression. Also, these foods can cause inflammation and pain causing physical and emotional symptoms. 

A gluten-free and casein-free (dairy-free) diet is often a great place to start with dietary changes, as there are so many ways these foods can negatively affect children. 

If your child is on a special diet, the holidays are an important time to STICK WITH IT! Infractions are not worth it. 

It’s easy to make gluten-free stuffing and gravy.

Artificial Food Dyes and Salicylates

I have mentioned phenols in the form of fragrances, but phenols are also in the form of foods and food additives. 

In my one-on-one nutrition practice, I’ve found that phenols are (by far) the greatest instigators of aggressive behavior, as well as other emotional and behavioral symptoms like hyperactivity and those I mentioned above with Christmas trees.

Artificial additives like artificial colors and flavors are phenols, and are compounds that can trigger irritability, sleeping problems, ADHD, hyperactivity and aggression.  

In addition to “artificial phenols” there are “natural phenols” in the form called salicylates.  Salicylates have a phenolic structure, or aromatic chemical ring, that occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices, and other plant foods.  These foods are rich in wonderful nutrients, but if your body has trouble “detoxifying” the salicylates, they can be a big problem for a child causing significant symptoms.

Salicylates are high in foods, such as: apples, oranges, berries, almonds, honey, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mint, and other common holiday spices. 

Avoid anything artificial like Santa lollipops and candy with red and/or green dye, as well as peppermints with mint and artificial colors and titanium dioxide (white coloring). Stick with natural flavored and colored candy and treats. 

Amines and Glutamates

Amines are a different natural food compound, similar to salicylates, that is processed by the same detoxification pathway, and therefore, often create similar reactions. People with salicylate sensitivity are more likely to have amine or glutamate intolerance.  Amines and glutamates are found in fermented foods including sauerkraut, salami, smoked meats and fish, bacon, and broths. Amines are high in broths, turkey skin, and pan drippings, which means amines will be high in your holiday gravy and stuffing.  

Glutamate, also comes in the additive-form of MSG (monosodium glutamate) found in store bought broths and bouillon so be careful to read labels. 

Holiday Solutions

  • Non-pine decorations
  • Non-living fake Christmas tree
  • Wreath made of dried hydrangea flowers or other materials
  • Unscented candles
  • Wrapped gifts
  • Ornaments
  • Stockings
  • Dropped and dried tree branches
  • Noise cancelling headphones
  • Non-strobing/blinking lights
  • Essential oils (maybe)
  • Healthy food


Just because you avoid a fresh pine tree, does not mean you need to miss out on any holiday cheer or decorations.  Browse Pinterest or your search engine for “Christmas tree alternatives” and you will find many wonderful ideas. Using dropped and dried tree branches for decorations can work because they won’t be heavily scented. And can be from something other than pine. 

An artificial Christmas tree can be a good alternative. And be good for the environment too, as it can be used year after year.

Try a wreath made of dried hydrangea flowers or other materials. However, be careful and avoid dried herbs and plants with a strong smell – they are also very high in phenols.  

There are also many other ways to make your home festive for the holidays too: candles (unscented) or lights, wrapped gifts, ornaments, or stockings.

Here are some of my favorite Pinterest ideas: 

Sensory Support

Consider over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones for your child. They are a great way to block out extra sounds.

Natural scents such as essential oils might be an option depending on the child, however, avoid the high phenol ones. Also, simmering some pear juice along with some orange slices can add a nice natural and not overwhelming fragrance to your home. 

Have a special room that is low in sensory stimulation that your child can retreat to as a safe haven. We all get overwhelmed sometimes. You might even find you enjoy a short break too.

Healthy Food

We all want to celebrate during the holidays and this includes some treats. However, it’s not worth eating junk food with artificial colors or flavors, or even gluten or dairy. 

The good news is, you can eat healthy AND have treats. Simply choose healthy treats.

You can make gluten-free stuffing and gravy as I mentioned above, as well as pumpkin pie without dairy or gluten. And you can also make treats like Chocolate Bark that are delicious, festive, and free of artificial ingredients. And you can buy candy canes and chocolate santas free of artificial flavors and dye. 

I wish you all the best for the holiday season. And I hope these ideas help.

If you have anything you love doing or eating for the holidays, please share in the comment section below. 

Hi, I’m Julie Matthews, a Certified Nutrition Consultant, Author, and Published Researcher. I teach parents and practitioners that children with autism, ADHD, and related disorders can improve and heal, and that there’s hope for their children. Then I educate and empower them to make strategic dietary changes that positively affect children’s health, which in turn helps their learning and behavior. With 18 years of experience and my unique range of knowledge, from nutrition research and clinical experience to cooking in the kitchen for my own family, I’ve created a much-needed community for parents and practitioners looking to help children with autism live happy, healthy lives. Join us.

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One response to “Avoiding Holiday Havoc: Healthy solutions to avoid meltdowns and keep the holidays happy”

  1. Laura Hopper says:

    Thank you, Julie! In our family’s experience, your writing is spot on. I even realized a few years ago that our real tree was making me sick every year, too. Last year was my first healthy December in years, and my kids had better behavior too. They are sensitive to phenols, so it definitely makes sense. You don’t realize how much the smell permeates the air until you no longer use them. Thank you for getting the word out to parents in need. Families need to know that what you speak of here is very real and can change one’s day to day experiences tremendously.