In theory, the holidays are a time to relax and celebrate.
In reality, the holidays can be a busy time of planning, budgeting and managing complicated family dynamics — factor in the unique challenges that come with being the parent of a special needs child and you might have a recipe for even more seasonal stress.
I’ve been there and this doesn’t need to happen. A little prep work ahead of time with your special needs child can help reduce frustration, tantrums and emotional overdrive, as well as manage expectations of well-meaning family members.
From jingle bells to sugar cookies, the holidays are a time of different sounds, smells and social norms.
This can be a foreign experience, even perceived as a painful, for some children. You know your child best – and may be able to troubleshoot particular holiday traditions that may create discomfort.
A first step to consider is modeling and expanding their language. This will increase their ability to communicate as well as their understanding of what’s happening. One technique to consider is developing a picture book of holiday-related objects and traditions. Model the language associated with the pictures: “Tree.” “Lights.” “The tree has lights.” “Candles.” “Menorah.” “Candles are in the Menorah.”
With this book technique, you might also begin to engage your child on how he or she will become a part of the picture and prepare for unfamiliar visitors. You might also consider framing the stories from the perspective of your child – how he or she might feel, see or think about an experience.
When we get together with family, there is sometimes a new family member or friend. Perhaps, we haven’t seen them in a while so they have grown up or have physical changes, such as a beard, longer or shorter hair, now wears make-up or perfume.
We can try to show pictures of the family member ahead of time and name/use language to prepare the child. Possibly, one or two could visit ahead of time to build up familiarity. Have the pictures available to name and match with the person. “Look there is cousin, Michael. Let’s say hello.”
If possible, when attending an event, you may want to connect with your family member or friend who is hosting ahead of time and ask them to help your child by having one person answer the door and giving the child the opportunity to individually greet his or her attendees. Sometimes, people clustering at the door can be overwhelming.
Noise levels can also serve as a trigger. When calling ahead, try to see if you can pre-plan a space at the venue your child may go, if he or she, needs to step away from the festivities. Facilitating quiet time may be helpful, so you may consider bringing games or other toys.
Another way to prepare your child for long dinners and unique holiday treats is to have them experience these new foods ahead of time. Try putting new food on your child’s plate next to their preferred/desired food. Use the highly preferred food to reinforce tolerance of new food. Do only one new food at a time.
These are a few useful techniques that have helped my family thrive during the holidays and focus on what matters most – being together and enjoying every moment!