Holidays are a special time of year. Good food, family, and sometimes even presents, are what the holidays are all about. Driving around looking at the lights while listening to Christmas carols is a tradition for many families. If you celebrate Christmas, there is the added excitement of Santa, who will bring the toy a child is dreaming of if they make the “nice” list.
When you have a child or children with special needs, the holidays are hard. It’s hard for them, and it’s hard for you. Despite what you may hear, it’s OK to admit that the holidays are hard. All the things that make the holidays special can be very overwhelming to someone with special needs.
Many special needs kids get overstimulated. The lights that look beautiful to us, can be too bright. The Christmas carols are often loud and unfamiliar. Food that is made only, or primarily, once a year smells foreign, and strange. And the people, lots of people in an often small space are definitely overwhelming.
As if that weren’t enough, schedules are thrown out the window. Families often don’t even eat at the usual times. The are shiny and bright colored decorations that kids shouldn’t touch, and presents with bows and beautiful wrapping that aren’t supposed to be touched until permission is given, and the one that is the biggest and most exciting might belong to someone else. What might be exciting for some children brings about debilitating anxiety for special needs kids.
Kids with impulse control issues are corrected a lot. A LOT. They often have real question about whether or not they have been good enough to get the present they want. Hearing in a song that Santa is watching and judging you is so hard when you struggle so much to do the things you should.
Parenting special needs children around the holidays is no picnic either. An already busy time of year is even busier, because parents need to help their children navigate the minefield of sights, sounds, smells, etc to minimize the inevitable meltdowns. Meltdowns usually cannot be totally prevented, but every one that can be prevented or lessened is a win.
Shopping for presents is different too. Age suggestions on toy packages need to be ignored. This year my 19 year old asked for slime and play doh. And that’s what she will get. Even though it is not meant for her age.
If you go to someone else’s house for the holidays, instead of visiting with family, you need to follow your child around to make sure they don’t break anything, hurt other children, or grab and play with someone’s grandma’s Christmas village.
Food sensitivities, meltdowns, negotiations, and discipline are out in the open for everyone in the family to witness, judge, and probably talk about later. Some families are great and accepting and wonderful. And some are awful and judgmental, and even mean. Most families are somewhere in between.
Family gatherings can be so hard. And sad. Often there are kids way younger than your kid that can do so many things that your child can’t. If the kids have a cousin their same age, it is a stark reminder of where your kids “should” be and what they would be able to do without the special needs. You can fully love your niece or nephew, or whomever, while still being sad that your child isn’t there and may never be.
If you have special needs children, give yourself some grace. Know that you don’t have to do it all. Do the holiday things that bring your family or you the most joy, and drop the rest. Remember the story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Remember the Whos and don’t be a Grinch. You don’t need lights, carols, a tree, presents, or 12 different kinds of cookies to celebrate Christmas. You don’t need the trappings or icons of any holiday to celebrate it. If it causes too much stress for you or your kiddo, don’t do it. Celebrate the family, and religious meaning of your holiday rather than the commercial side.
If your kids eats chicken fingers or Cheerios for Christmas dinner, a Hannukah meal, Yule feast, Kwanzaa dinner, or whatever holiday gathering you celebrate, so be it. Maybe celebrate that they are sitting with everyone, or that they are in the room. Or house. Enjoy to the max the 2.2 seconds your loved one give you to eat.
If you have a special needs mom in your family, please either ask how you can help, or go about your business. You could even walk with the mom, who is following their child around attempting to prevent damage to people and property, and chat with her. She could probably desperately use adult conversation. If you want to be a superstar, do the other things, and put your hand on on that special needs mom’s shoulder, and tell her she is doing a great job. If you do, you’ll give her the best Holiday gift there is.