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.