May I tell you a secret? For many special needs families, the hustle and bustle of “the most wonderful time of the year” is not so wonderful. From Halloween through Valentine’s Day, and the time change, other holidays, and family events in between, these families face challenges others don’t realize exist. While other children enjoy throwing snowballs, some sensory kids all apart if cold, wet snow touches their skin. Huge families enjoy gathering and playing games, exchanging gifts, and eating a feast. Children with crowd anxiety become sick with dread over facing such an outing. Friends wonder why a family declines an invitation to a New Year’s Eve party, not understanding that the child with autism needs a break from too many events. Some children with severe medical issues wear out quickly and cannot handle too many extra activities. See what I mean? I could expand the explanation even more, but I won’t.
I have another secret. Many of those families screw up. I speak from experience. I have made my share of holiday messes. Consider this list a cautionary tale of things to avoid over the next four months. How do parents of children with special needs ruin the holidays?
- They have wrong expectations. Have you ever been in a situation where your daughter falls apart and later you realize you were asking too much? Your daughter simply wasn’t able to handle it. You didn’t have realistic expectations. During this holiday season, I recommend you keep asking yourself, “Can my child really deal with this today?” It could change even hour by hour, minute by minute. When you have realistic expectations or lower your expectations during a stressful time, it helps both you and your child. Your stress level goes down because you understand it’s just not the right time, so you’re not pushing to make it happen.
- They don’t trust their gut. You know those times when your gut says, “I don’t think this is a good idea…” and then you forge ahead anyway. Despite the fact your child is afraid of heights or tired or hungry or hates crowds or…you get the idea. Remember to trust your gut.
- They neglect to overpack. That may sound silly, but being without an allergy-friendly snack when you got stuck in holiday traffic and your son is HANGRY! well, it’s just not pretty. Pack extra clothes, extra calming items, favorite little toys or games, extra medicine, anything that can help your child succeed should you end up being out longer than anticipated.
- They forget to leave “white space”. Think of empty space on your calendar as mental health space. This applies to both you and your child. More than likely your child needs time to recuperate after a busy family gathering. You will, too. You were busy watching out for her, making sure she had what she needed. You were on high alert. Leaving blank space lets you both reset and better handle the busy holiday season. For example, it may not be the greatest idea to expect your child to go Black Friday shopping the day after Thanksgiving.
- They push too far. One of our jobs as special needs parents is to get our child out of his comfort zone. If we didn’t, they may never grow. However, we also need to be careful how we do that, particularly during a time of the year that already adds extra stress on their systems. When your child is overwhelmed and going inside himself, that is not the time to push. That is the time to leave or accommodate with a calming space.
- They leave out others. Sometimes we’re so focused on solving problems and helping our child have a good holiday season on his terms we special needs parents exclude others. Maybe we don’t explain our child’s preferences (Make sure you read all the way down to find your FREE printable to help with this!). Perhaps we don’t take the time to educate family so they understand our child’s challenges. Whether it’s due to fatigue, being in hypervigilance mode, or just plain laziness, we could probably all improve in this area.
- They beat themselves up. Ah, guilt. The ever-present nagging voice inside a special needs parent’s head. “We should have left sooner. I should have stuck up for him more. Maybe if I had picked a different time for the party…” You can do this all day, and many of us do. As much as you’d like to be the perfect superhero, you’re not. Even the best of us are going to make wrong calculations. Give yourself the Christmas gift of less self-criticism this year.
Autism mom Annie Eskeldson takes readers on a tour of the holiday season through the eyes of autism and sensory challenges. If you’re looking for a picture book to help others understand some of the things your child faces, I recommend her book Ashi’s Birthday and Other Dreaded Days. (affiliate link)
Would you like a way to help others understand your child this holiday season, to reduce overwhelm and increase positive interactions? I’ve created a freebie to do just that. Many times our friends and family want to spend time with our child at holiday gatherings, but they don’t understand how and they don’t understand the extra pressure the holiday activities put on your child. Use this free fill-in-the-blank “About Me” type page. Fill it out and hand it to others so they can have fun with your child! It will be a win-win-win. I made three styles–two with picture backgrounds and one without for those who like to reduce printing cost. I’ve had many people tell me they love it. What are you waiting for? Just complete the form below and tell me where to send your freebie!
What do you think? Is there another way parents of children with special needs ruin the holidays? Tell me in the comments!