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Special Occasions and Special Needs Kids

Here come the holidays. For many parents with special needs kids, here comes more stress. No matter how many times you have tried to explain the special needs of your special child, the extended family, especially those who only see you a few times a year, often just doesn’t get it. They mean well. They do love you. They want to include everyone who they think should be around the holiday table. They may even try to make adjustments to their idea of the perfect celebration. But people who haven’t been part of managing day to day are often taken aback by just what parents of kids with special needs take as a matter of course. Consequently, they often have unrealistic expectations for your child’s behavior and unreasonable ideas about what you can do about it.

If that weren’t enough, our kids aren’t even their usual unusual selves when thrown into an environment that is over-stimulating for them and stressful for their parents. Disruptions in routine and unfamiliar faces, sounds, food, you name it, can make them less than stellar guests. The stress of trying to keep everyone happy can make us irritable and on edge.

So why on earth do we put ourselves through it? It’s important to remember that there really are lots of good reasons: Because we do love these people. Because it’s a chance to visit with relatives we don’t often get to see. Because we have fond memories of holiday events from when we were kids and don’t want our kids to miss out. Because we want our relatives to know and accept and love our child. Because we want our children, all our children, to feel part of a larger support network called family. Right? Right.

But it’s still stressful. How can we keep ourselves sane and included and capture moments of joy at these family holiday events? The pros (and by this I mean the experienced parents of special kids) are almost unanimous in their advice: Plan. Plan. Plan.

Making a Plan

1. Plan to have help

If at all possible, don’t go it alone: If you do have a spouse or partner, plan together so you can operate as a team. If you don’t, enlist the relative who is the most supportive or recruit a friend who doesn’t have their own family plans to go along. You’ll have help and difficult family members are likely to be on better behavior when you have a clear ally. A partner can tag team with you when the going gets rough with your child and you need a few minutes break, can divert Auntie’s intrusive questions by engaging her in conversation, and can be that extra pair of hands helping out with the festivities when you are busy with your child.

2. Plan to capture at least one important moment

Identify what is bottom line the most important thing you want out of the day. Many special needs kids are on their best behavior for the first part of a visit. If there is someone you want to be sure to talk to, that’s the time to make sure it happens. If you absolutely have to have a piece of Grandma’s pumpkin pie, ask for a piece before dinner, give her that hug, and tell her how wonderful it is. If you have to leave suddenly, at least you will have had the one moment that means the most to you.

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3. Plan for unwelcome family dynamics

Unless this is your first time out, it is not new information who in the family will be critical, who will be inappropriate, and who will use the one time you see them a year to try to corner you into a painful conversation. Think about the likely scenarios and develop a few key lines to divert these probably well-meaning but unhelpful folks. Someone has advice? Tell them just how much you appreciate it but could they please email you so you can give it proper attention? Someone is critical? Let them know that you appreciate their concern and you will certainly think about what they’ve said. Someone chooses the middle of dinner to tell you that they have a friend of a friend who is in exactly the same situation and they’re handling it better? Suggest that they give you that person’s phone number and pass the potatoes, please. It is never helpful to debate, argue, or try to introduce new information when at a family event. Just find a way to acknowledge the offer and move on. You can decide later whether you want to answer the email, take the advice, or make the phone call.

4. Plan for your child’s inevitable melt-down

Any change in routine can drive special needs kids over the edge. No matter how well you plan or how hard you try, the day is going to be difficult at times. Talk with the host family ahead of time about whether there can be a room where you and your child can take a time out if you need to. Bring along whatever soothes your child (special toys, special blanket, CD) and simply excuse you both for a while. (Remember that partner? This is a time when you can tag-team so that each of you can get some dinner or so that one can withdraw while the other engages the group.) If the event is at your house, it’s a good idea to make your child’s room off-limits so at least that space can stay familiar and friendly for your child.

5. Plan the food

Special kids don’t care if the holiday meal is gourmet. Most of them get upset when the food is unfamiliar or when they are pressured to “try” something. Bypass the argument and the anxiety by bringing a couple of favorites and asking the other guests to please not make an issue of it. One of my kids only wanted puffed rice cereal when upset. Granted, “puffas puffas” aren’t a traditional Thanksgiving Day treat but having a bowl next to her plate meant she was happily occupied while the rest of us ate turkey.

6. Plan an escape

The best plans don’t always work. Sometimes a time-out to calm down is enough for a child (and us) to regroup. Sometimes it’s simply not. Like most of us, you’ve probably already made the mistake of trying to tough it out so I don’t need to tell you that it just isn’t worth it for anyone. Let the hosting family know ahead of time that you may have to opt out of dessert (or even dinner) but that it’s better to go before things reach crisis proportions. Ask for their support in diverting other people’s well-meaning “do you have to’s”. If you’re with a partner, one of you collects whatever stuff needs to be collected and the other deals with the child. Alone? Leave the stuff and just get out of there while everyone is still smiling. Tell everyone how much you have enjoyed seeing them and how much you appreciate their understanding and go. If you had to travel far to be part of the festivities, it’s trickier. If you can afford it, it’s a good idea to get a motel room so you have a place to retreat to. If that isn’t an option and you are staying with family, you can plan to go for a walk or a drive if that soothes your child or turn a time out into a more lengthy withdrawal.

Don’t apologize for yourself or your child.

Whatever happens, your child is probably doing the very best he or she can. So are you. There is no need to apologize for your child’s limited ability to manage the chaos of a big family get together. It comes with the territory of being who he or she is. Equally important, there is no need to apologize if you need to take time outs or keep the visit brief in order to keep your child stable and happy. The people who love us and our children the most will understand that that’s our first priority and will give us support. For that, we can indeed give thanks.

Special Occasions and Special Needs Kids

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Special Occasions and Special Needs Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.