The holiday season can be one of the most difficult times of the year for special needs families. Travel, different routines, extended family and your child with special 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 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.
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.
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.
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!