How to lighten the overload for holiday-challenged families.
Published: November 27, 2019
By: Rachael Moshman
We’ve entered the season of Merry and Bright. People ringing bells in front of the grocery store, carolers bursting into song, bright lights, smells of cookies, and festive sweaters are part of daily life.
But the most joyful time of the year can be more like a nightmare for many children with special needs and their parents. Here are a few of the challenges:
It’s too much. Seasonal festivities can be overstimulating and overwhelming. My daughter deals with anxiety and sensory issues. Just a trip to the grocery store is a lot for her to handle during the holidays. There are heavier crowds, louder music, strong smells of pine and cinnamon and well-meaning strangers offering holiday greetings. Parties, playdates and family gatherings offer even more stimulation.
It highlights differences. Seeing other families enjoy the season so seemingly easily can add a bit of sadness to the holidays. Parents of children with special needs don’t know what life is like without needing to plan out everything they need to bring to make the day comfortable for their child and without having multiple backup plans for challenges that may arise. We often feel judged by friends and family who don’t understand the situation, which can make the holidays feel lonely.
It’s just more to do. Decorating, buying gifts, baking cookies, going to parties, wrapping, etc., are fun for lots of people, but often parents of children with special needs already have overflowing plates. Adding just one more task might just make all those juggled plates crash — or at least that’s what it feels like.
So how can you help these families?
Parents of children with special needs shared some thoughts:
- “The loud, fun, awesome party is overwhelming. We love you, we like to leave while the party is still fun. This means going home to quiet before our daughter starts to meltdown. Please don’t try to talk us into staying or feel like you did something wrong. We’re glad you invited us.”
- “Just because it isn’t a toy that’s age-appropriate to physical age doesn’t mean it’s not age-appropriate to mental and emotional age.”
- “We can’t eat all your Christmas goodies. Don’t take offense, but the sugar stuff and other food allergies make eating many treats a no.”
- “It’s really hard for us to go to parties or other people’s houses. We want to see you. Offer to come to us instead.”
- “It’s really hard for my child to open wrapping paper because of limb differences. They appreciate your gift, and gift bags make it much easier for them to experience without frustration.”
- “Gifts can be overwhelming. Experiences for the family are great, such as gift certificates to go bowling or to the zoo.”
- “My child isn’t a behavior problem. Please don’t judge my parenting because my kid is tired and overwhelmed.”
- “I love it when people offer to take my other children to do the big, fun holiday activities like festivals and parades that are just too challenging for their sibling.”
- “Listen to the mom. If she tells you something, believe her. If she says no to bringing her child to a party or event, trust her. Don’t badger. It may be that for her child that fun event would be a nightmare. Don’t take a ‘no’ as a rejection.”
- “Please just leave my child alone until he feels comfortable to come out of his shell. Calling, teasing, picking up, hugging, bribing with food, and calling him a brat does not help and actually makes it very difficult for his parents and siblings who have to deal with the fallout.”
- “There’s a lot of grief around the holidays. Be sensitive to everyone — adult and child. You don’t know everything anyone is going through.”
- “Always ask the parent before giving a child food or drink. You don’t know their allergies or limitations.”
We still want to be invited. We want to spend the holidays with the people we care about. It’s just not always possible in the way others expect. Ask what would make it easier and be flexible and understanding. And if all else fails, one mom said, “Please just bring me wine. And pie.” Or in my case, coffee and cookies.