Getting throgh the Holidays with Special Needs Children
Autism Miami, Special needs Miami. The Holidays can be a stressful time under the best of circumstances. When you have a special needs child, it can be even more so.
Bright lights, loud noises, unusual foods, and relatives who may be virtual strangers… sometimes the sights and sounds of the holidays are enough to make MY OWN head spin. So I can only imagine how the holiday hustle and bustle must feel to children who have special needs. It truly just seems like TOO MUCH. And let’s not forget; too many opinions on the way you may or should be raising your child!
Wonder how you’re going to make it through the meal without chewing someone out, or putting your foot in your mouth? Here are some ways to get through these gatherings without going stir-crazy.
With Family Members – Give family members a “heads up” by explaining things ahead of time. Discuss your child’s specific needs, and gently but firmly tell them what your plans are. Be sure to let them know that this will make the whole experience better for everyone. Ask for their support.
With their help and understanding, everything can go much more smoothly. Avoiding hurt feelings in a family is definitely worth this effort.
With Your Child – Explain things like what you will be doing, where, when, and how long you will be doing those things. Tell them whatever details they need to know to adjust to the idea. Giving them advanced warning can help them prepare mentally.
Let them know what you expect from them, how you want them to behave, and what the consequences will be if they don’t. Remind them of all of these things a few times before the day(s) of the festivities.
Remain Calm – Repeat it over and over in your head whenever you feel yourself losing your cool: I do not have to apologize for being a good parent to my child. We may struggle under the weight of “advice” or disapproval from family members, but our kids don’t care about that: They need what they need. You know best what your child needs, and providing it is your responsibility.
Since most children with special needs react badly to stress in their environment, particularly stressed-out parents, staying relaxed and low-key is one of the best things you can do to keep your child’s behavior in line. You can always throw a tantrum when you get home.
Don’t Overbook – Hold the festivities down to one event per holiday. Don’t hop from house to house, or plan a big outing the night before a family event.
Be Alert – Keep an eye out for trouble brewing, and take breaks when needed. Even if it’s just to have a quiet minute in a room away from the noise and decorations. This frequent contact can also help your child to feel more secure.
Bring A Care Package
Fill a backpack with things your child finds comforting or enjoys playing with – toy cars, a stuffed animal, a CD and CD player, or a few books. Having them available, even if he/she doesn’t actually play with them, may have a calming effect on your child.
If your child gets overstimulated, find a quiet corner or a back room and pull out the backpack. Who knows, maybe you even need a quiet moment that does not involve long conversations with unpleasant relatives!
Better to leave before things go bad than “tough it out” and end up regretting it!
Have an Escape Plan
A Home Other than Yours:
Arrange a time limit or a signal ahead of time and observe it – even if it means missing the pumpkin pie!
Everyone having a good time, and your child is coping better than expected? Go ahead and extend the deadline, but be ready to split at a moment’s notice.
If your holiday travels involve an stay overnight, get a hotel room. Your child (and you) will need someplace quiet and chaos-free to decompress after the day.
For Your Home:
Everybody gathering at your house for dinner? Then make your child’s room off-limits to everybody but him/her.
Encourage your child to use their room as a refuge when things get overwhelming.
What’s On The Menu?
Find out ahead of time!
Whether you are celebrating the holidays at home this year, or at a relative’s house, knowing what is on the menu beforehand can save you headaches at the meal table.
Always make sure that there is something your child will eat on the menu (even if you bring it yourself!).
The goal of the day isn’t about them cleaning their plate, trying out new foods, or making the cook happy. It’s about getting through the meal with a minimum of stress, for everyone attending. It’s about being grateful for what we have and giving thanks.
If your child wants to give thanks for pizza, so be it.
Other Survival Tips:
- Start planning for Christmas in July
Talking about the holidays for weeks or even months before they occur can REALLY make a difference for a child with special needs. This is a lesson that I’ve learned from the wonderful teachers and therapists at my son’s school. I was honestly a little confused when they started reading books about Halloween and playing with costumes in the middle of September. But lo and behold, my son was totally excited for trick-or-treating by the time Halloween came around, and that was definitely a first. Preparing kids with special needs for what to expect well in advance can really temper the anxiety that seems to wage war on our children — especially when the holiday festivities force us to deviate from their routines.
- Create a visual calendar with pictures representing special events and time off school. Special events may include visitors coming to the house, decorating for the holidays, traveling, and visiting family and friends. Anything that changes in the daily or weekly routine is helpful to incorporate into this calendar. Pictures can be found in Google images, Boardmaker, newspaper clippings, drawings or personal photographs. Be sure to cross off each day when it has passed.
- Create activity schedules for special events, especially things that include multiple outings and times of waiting (i.e. go to see Santa and then go to Aunt Sally’s house). Do this by writing a checklist or using pictures to represent the sequence of events (drawings, photos). Be sure to include a way to check off when the activity is completed. If possible, use a timer on a phone or watch for things that include waiting or a dedicated amount of time.
- Opening presents can be the most exciting part of the holidays, yet all of the excitement can be an assault on the sensory system for some individuals. Try to find some fun ways to bring structure to gift opening (i.e. take turns by pulling names out of Santa’s hat) and have a safe place in the room (i.e. a pillow fort or a tent) where the child can comfortably participate. Most importantly, be aware of signs of stress from your child and give them a choice to remove themselves to a less stimulating activity.
- Share information by creating an “About Me” worksheet with your child. Include things your child likes and dislikes (this is helpful for gift ideas), things that are funny, and even things that are upsetting. Send the completed sheets to relatives and friends who will be part of holiday celebrations. You and your child can also use the same sheets to learn about members of the family (include pictures) so your child can become familiarized with them before the visit.
- Structure down time with activities and events that are special needs-friendly. Many holiday preparation activities can easily become a structured learning opportunity such as baking cookies, wrapping presents, and decorating Christmas cards or envelopes.
- Lastly, get some support.
I know that the biggest anxiety over the holidays can sometimes come from having to deal with the reactions/advice/full-on rudeness of family and extended family who may not necessarily understand your child’s special needs. Try to explain your child’s needs to family and friends well in advance, if at all possible. Things seem to go more smoothly when everyone knows why you might be microwaving your child his typical dinner instead of passing him the yams or why your family may only be able to stay at a large gathering for an hour or so.
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