Last year, I talked to so many special needs parents who were experiencing frustrating, disappointing holiday seasons. I’m willing to bet that their children weren’t any happier.
So how can we avoid this?
Rethink your expectations.
Your holiday isn’t going to fit your mental ideals. Yes, you may dream of re-creating the Christmases of your childhood – or of creating the Christmas you wish you had as a child – but, especially if your child isn’t a typical child, that might not be very realistic. Create a holiday celebration for the child you DO have, not for the typical child you WISH you had.
Perhaps having wrapped presents under the tree in the days leading up to Christmas is your ideal, but you have a child with ADHD and major impulsiveness issues. If not “ruining the surprise” is important to you, keep those presents well hidden until the children are asleep on Christmas Eve.
Or perhaps your child with anxiety just really falls apart over the idea of having surprises. My youngest doesn’t prefer to be surprised by presents, especially when he knows far in advance that there will be gifts. For his birthday this last year, I just ended up telling him what some of his presents were – he was surprisingly fine with waiting to see them on his birthday, and knowing what was waiting for him helped him be excited instead of anxious.
How can you change your expectations, or what new traditions can you create, that truly help your special needs child enjoy him or herself?
Rethink Social and Family Obligations
Raise your hand if your special needs child LOVES holiday get-togethers and exhibits perfect behavior? Have your hand up? Skip this section. And yay. Truly.
For the rest of us, whose children get overstimulated, whose children hate crowds and noise, etc. – rethink those holiday obligations. All of them. The school party, the church service, the work parties, the friend gatherings, the family gatherings. How many do you really HAVE to go to? For family things can you consolidate or alternate? (We’ll go to the Smith family for Thanksgiving and the Jones family for Christmas, or We’ll go to the Big Family Thing this year, but next year we’re staying home.)
Or, how can you make those gatherings better? Can you limit the time you spend? Is it better for your child if you go somewhere, so you can leave as needed, or is it better for you to host so that your child can be in familiar surroundings?
And, of course, the perennial “my family knows my child is immune suppressed but showed up obviously sick anyway.” Don’t be afraid to leave. You aren’t obligated to stay at a gathering where the other attendants can’t respect your needs, assuming you’ve made them clear.
Get Family To Rethink Their Expectations
Yeah, this is tricky. Because many families prefer to pretend that they have only typical children in their family, and don’t want to acknowledge whatever difficulties your child or children may have. If you can get family on board, great. Explain your child’s difficulties (not their diagnosis, but their struggles) and how family can help. “Johnny really struggles with physical contact – you can really help with this by giving him space. He may not want to hug you, or sit next to you. It’s not personal, he just isn’t comfortable with touch.” “Rose gets overstimulated easily with all the lights, noise, and goings-on. We’re going to bring her headphones and she might need to take quiet breaks in another room – if you notice she’s stepped away, just let her have her space. She’ll rejoin us when she’s ready.”
Good communication in advance is usually helpful here.
What if Family Doesn’t Care?
But let’s say your family is like many, and they don’t care. (Or don’t seem to care.) The good news is, you don’t have to get your family on board to still take care of your child. Pack a bag of coping skills – physical and mental. Bring whatever helps your kid. Playdough. Weighted lap pad or blanket. Headphones. Electronic Device. Books. Toys. And when you notice your kid is ready for a break, or starting to lose it, just whisk him or her off to your pre-scouted quiet area for a little one on one time until he or she is ready to rejoin the group. No explanations necessary.
Your kid not going to eat what everyone else is eating? Bring food for them. Your kid not going to eat, period? Whatever. Don’t sweat it. (I have kids who just couldn’t eat when they were hyped up with excitement, quite apart from the tube feeder.)
You don’t need anyone else’s buy-in to take care of your kids.
“But!” you say. “BUT!! The mean looks, the rude comments!” Whose children are these? Not Aunt Susie’s. Yours. Mean looks, you can ignore. Rude comments, you can ignore or address. You’re going to have to play that one by ear. I don’t engage. I ignore, I purposefully misunderstand, I deflect with humor, I change the subject, or I leave the area. Experience has shown me that engaging isn’t worth the effort. But some people have great luck engaging in polite, educational conversation.
If you think your relative/relatives might actually be interested, chat away!
This can be tricky. Bear in mind that nobody HAS to buy you or your kid a present. Ever. In advance, if your child has particular needs, you can lay the groundwork for good gift ideas. “Hey, you might have noticed that Sam struggles with gross motor skills. I know you bought a bike for the other kids at this age, but Sam is still probably a few years away from being able to pedal successfully – he would, however, really have a lot of fun with .” One year, I just let family know that Teddy was developmentally still several years behind peers, and in particular with fine motor skills, so he wouldn’t be able to use things like puzzles that require fine motor skills, and if they had any questions about the appropriateness of a gift, just to ask and I’d be happy to help.
But what if your kids get gifts that just don’t work? They can’t eat much orally, and they were given candy. They can’t hold a pencil and they were given coloring books. In general, the only appropriate response to a gift is “thank you.” Even if, even if, even if. You may disagree, that’s fine. But in my opinion, being rude doesn’t solve anything. Say thank you and move on.
What if the gift giver asked for ideas and then got something else? Say thank you and move on.
What if the gift giver knows that the recipient literally cannot use whatever the gift is? This appears trickier than I think it really is. Think about the gift giver. Are they clueless, do they have difficulties themselves, or are they just mean? Clueless and difficulties can be forgiven – it really is the thought that counts, even with our special kids. Meanness – well, that’s really up to the individual to decide how to handle, and how you handle it will depend on your long term goals for that relationship.