Navigating The Holidays When Your Child Is Struggling

The holiday season can be one of the most difficult times of the year for families of children with differences. Travel, different routines, extended family and your child with unique needs are not always a good mix. This is our story.

Another mom asked me last week if I have any memories of tough times with my children during the holidays.

I almost spit out my coffee. Do I have any memories of difficult holidays? It is hard for me to imagine my life without them.

The very public meltdown on the plane.

The man in the airport telling my ten year old son, and subsequently me, off.

The smashed glass aquarium, a gift that just didn’t work the way he thought it would.

The glances back and forth, complete with eye rolls from family observers.

The meltdown in the car, in the bathroom, at the dinner table.

Me, crying in my family member’s garage, just to get away from the constant criticism of my parenting.

My boys crying.

Me crying, this time, right out in the open, not hiding away in the garage.

Yes, I have some memories. 

The Holidays, Extended Family And Your Child With Special Needs

When I really think about it, it makes sense. Out of routine children (who incidentally really, really need routine) and usually well meaning extended family members who really don’t have an understanding of my boys’ special needs, with a little bit of too much sugar and some travel thrown in?

Of course we’ve had our share of disasters.

The Holidays, Extended Family And Your Child With Special Needs

As Thanksgiving approaches, I have been thinking a lot about what we have learned and how we have changed when it comes to the holidays. While we still have our fair share of stress, as my boys have gotten older, they have matured and I have learned how to better handle the what felt like the constant judgement of the holidays.

The Holidays, Extended Family And Your Child With Special Needs

Here is what I hope may also help you, as you navigate the holidays and extended family.

Fair or Not, Don’t Expect Understanding

It is really, really unfair to have to weather the comments and the looks when you are doing everything you can to help your family keep it together (much less actually enjoy the holiday). It’s unfair. It’s also reality for many of us.

The truth is, most of our families are not intentionally inflicting pain (and if yours is, that is abusive and awful – I’m sorry and hope you can find a way to NOT spend the holidays with them). No one really knows what this is like.

Even our spouses can sometimes question our children’s needs. Of course extended family, not familiar with our day to day, can’t relate.

What has helped me most is to not expect their understanding. It’s to not take it personally when the off-hand comment comes about my child needing to calm down, or the concern is expressed that I am making it worse by giving him ice cream instead of dinner.

I have learned to take a deep breath and say something along the lines of, “We are just doing the best we can and are a bit out of routine,” and then change the subject.

Lower Your Expectations Of Everyone, Especially Your Children

This is not the time to expect your child who avoids shoes to suddenly wear stiff dress shoes to the Christmas Eve service. If he won’t wear them in normal circumstances, the holidays are not the time to try to introduce anything extra or new.

I would say the same is true for us and our spouses as well. Grace, and lots of it, makes for a much more enjoyable holiday. Give large doses of it to your loved ones and especially to yourself!

Less is More

One of the things that changed the most, when I lowered my expectations, were the holiday traditions I expected my children to be a part of.

We don’t go to the outdoor caroling event and tree lighting. My children usually know their presents ahead of time (to help eliminate the rigid thinking and pressure that can come with surprises). We minimally decorate. My children are allowed to leave extended family gatherings whenever they feel overwhelmed to retreat to a quiet room with an iPad (Even in the middle of dinner, even in the middle of opening presents).

We do less and expect less. We enjoy so much more. 

Error On The Side Of Your Child’s Needs

When it gets really tough, I want you to know that it is always OK to error on the side of your child’s needs. Please, accept this as your permission slip to do whatever you need to do for your family. Your child will learn, over time, that they can relax. You will not have to act as an advocate every single second of the family dinner. Time and choosing to honor your child for who they are and what they can handle are what have made the greatest difference in my family’s ability to simply enjoy the holidays.

The Holidays, Extended Family And Your Child With Special Needs

I do have a ton of memories. I’ve shared the bad with you, but please know, looking back, there are just as many good.

My son singing karaoke with my sister for the first time.

All of the cousins playing together in the snow.

The four of us, laughing in the airport at how many people said they wanted a service dog like my son’s to make it through their travel day.

Prayers of gratitude.

Our holidays reflect our whole life together – the good and the bad, the messy and the beautiful, the sadness and the joy.

I can’t wait to see what this year has in store.

Wishing you and yours a very happy holiday season!


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  1. Karen Beaty says:

    I could have written this. We have 5 special needs boys with Autism and other disabilities. Holidays are sooo hard. Grandparents live up the street – want the ‘big meal’ at their house – but we just can’t even pull that off!

    Thanks for sharing this!

    1. It is always so comforting to know that I am not the only one!
      Wishing you and yours a relaxed, enjoyable holiday – whatever that looks like for you.

  2. Such a beautiful post, Shawna. Thank you for your wise words. Wishing you the happiest of holidays this year!

    1. Chrissy! I hope you guys have a wonderful holiday. 🙂

  3. I needed to hear this today, Shawna. I’ve avoided my in-laws for over a year and now they’re coming to stay for 2 days. That means 2 days of anxiety and explaining and mediating and can-i-keep-it-together. Thanks for the reminder that it’s ok to let my kids be who they are. If I accept them and am comfortable with all the work-arounds we do throughout the year, there’s no reason to expect more from them (or us) during the holidays.

    1. I’m so glad. Thank you!

  4. Ginger Derr says:

    Thank you for this. The judgment is SO HARD. especially from family. I love what you said about not expecting understanding. That is something I will work on this weekend as we travel to be with family.

    1. It’s so good to know we are not alone in all of this!
      Thanks so much, Ginger!

  5. I LOVE your blog! This piece on holidays literally made my lifetime. We just had an INTENSE holiday with a very judgemental family member. Sparks flew everywhere because she watches my child like a hawk for a “teachable moment”(read parenting shame/humiliate my child as publicly as possible.) I felt SO alone, and stupid, and horrible, like something was wrong with me, my parenting, and watching someone come unglued about a child eating ONE food more than another on Thanksgiving.
    I have tried explaining, but to no avail. I am so very thankful to read your post about holidays, and see some of the very things I am trying to implement working for some families. Next year, we will be low key, and let other family members celebrate what works for them. We are a blended family, which is stressful on a good day, and this blog is a GODSEND! Thank you, thank you Shawna, for reminding me that we are a work in progress. Thank you for your tips, and experiences. And thank you, also, to all the other parents who share their stories too! You are so very much appreciated, you have NO IDEA!!!!

    1. Wow! Your comment just made my entire holiday. Thank you so much!

  6. I love your blog having 2 boys with special needs on our first year of homeschooling I’m glad to have found you! We made Christmas as simple as possible we split families up and see only one house hold at a time and Christmas Day was last year us in our family pjs all day with party food for dinner all just around the boys and what their needs and enjoyment x

    1. I love this so much! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

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