Thursday, November 22, 2012

No More Harried Holidays

I wrote a version of this 2009 for a parenting magazine. My kids were still quite impacted by their autism at the time and I was still in overwhelm mode. Fast forward to today and I am so happy to report that my kids are really doing well. However, I find the stress of the holiday craziness creeping up on me already. Sigh. Old habits die hard. Re-reading this article this morning, I realized that much of what I discussed in 2009 applies to families with young children - ones with and without special needs. Prioritizing what is important to a family's holiday celebration applies to families of all ages. I hope I remember to find joy this season and not focus on what really doesn't matter. I call it the Holiday Sprint – the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The night before Thanksgiving, I used to take a deep breath to mentally prepare myself for the craziness that was sure to come. A couple years ago on New Year’s Day, I resolved to never, ever feel that way again. (edit: HA!) For a parent of children with special needs, these high-stress holidays can often point out to you, in very explicit ways, that your child is different or not progressing like other children their age. It is a poignant reminder that your child is not like the rest, is different, and may always be that way. Ugh. As a good parent, you are obviously doing all you can to assist your children in their developmental progression, but how quickly or typically they progress really isn’t in your control. How you think, react and respond to these stressful situations is completely within your control and that is what you need to focus upon. Prioritize -- By now, I suppose you have realized that you cannot do it all when you have a special needs child. Let me rephrase that… you can do it all, you just cannot do it all at the same time without going crazy. The holidays are no different. You are pulled in a million directions and if you do it all, your friends and extended family may be happy, but, are you? If you want less gut-wrenching stress, I’d suggest choosing your immediate family’s happiness. Schedule your family and friend celebrations in a way that works for you. It is called a Holiday Season for a reason. Spread out the celebrations and say no to those that aren’t going to be relaxing and enjoyable for you and your children. “It's easy to say "keep it simple" but putting that into practice is very hard. For me, it means learning to say “no” to otherwise wonderful things, like parties, that are challenging for my child. It means putting my child's need for routine and consistency ahead of my own fear of disappointing others or being judged or criticized by others,” said Kristine whose son is on the autism spectrum. Sit down with your immediate family and figure out what is really important to you and your family about the holidays. Do it now before all the craziness starts in a couple days.The answers might surprise you. I guarantee that being miserable is not on that list. Practice this technique throughout the year by not over-scheduling yourself, your family, or even your fun events. A birthday party after a morning of speech therapy and tutoring followed by raking the leaves and dinner out with friends can make for very cranky children and irritable adults. Get prepared early – While you may get some really good deals on gifts with last minute shopping, it is bound to raise your blood pressure and make the holidays more stressful than necessary. Our family’s least stressful holiday season ever was when I was 100% done with my Christmas gifts by December 1st. If that doesn’t work for you, choose what you are giving to each recipient by December 1st. Come up with two substitute gifts in case the one you want isn’t available. I use this advance preparation technique for other gift giving situations too. Whenever there is a toy sale, I stock up on a bunch of birthday gifts for parties for the next couple months. My “birthday gift stash” eliminates the running around an hour before the birthday party begins and greatly reduces stress levels. Another area to focus on early preparation is your child. Realize that holidays are a major disruption in their routine and come up with a game plan to prepare your child. “Social Stories are an excellent way to enable your special needs child to anticipate what will be happening over the holiday season” stated Patti, a speech therapist who works with a variety of children with disabilities. You and your child can practice this technique by using Social Stories to prepare for birthday parties and other social events throughout the year. Let go of that vision of a “perfect” holiday (whatever that means anyway) -- Many of these celebrations can be very over-stimulating for your special needs child. Music, bright, twinkling lights, lots of loud (hopefully happy) voices, uncomfortable clothes, different foods paired with an expectation to behave can be tough for a kid who has social difficulties and sensory issues. Perhaps some accommodations can be made to make your child more at ease in that situation: if your child eats only tuna fish sandwiches, let him eat that in lieu of a more formal meal; let your child wear comfortable clothing versus more dressed up attire. I wouldn’t change everything however. Family traditions are important and should be respected. Choose your battles and look back at your priorities for guidance. I’d just like to remind you that by expecting your child to “go with the flow” (at least a bit) you are making your child a member of your family vs the focus of your family. Some extended families and friends are not willing to make any accommodations to include your special needs child (or any children for that matter!). Remember, you do not have to attend all family and friends functions. If it is still in your list of priorities to attend that function, then do it. Just control how much time you spend there and try to ensure you leave while it still on a good note. “We do not stay at my mother’s home for dinner during our extended family celebration of Hanukkah,” a mom in Westport, CT sighs. “She just doesn’t get why her four year old grandson with Downs Syndrome cannot sit still at the dinner table with the other ten grandchildren at 8 PM. We are the first to arrive and the first to leave before dinner is even served. I’d like to stay and have dinner with my siblings, but I’d rather leave when everyone is happy.” You can practice this technique by always leaving on a happy note when at a party or another important celebration -- even if that means you leave very early. Try to make some accommodations for your child to make them more at ease. Think about what traditions are important to you and how you could make your child a part of those traditions. “Take the time to enjoy your family,” Patti wisely said, “it may not be the holiday that you had pictured or planned, but find the joy in your children and being together.” That is what the holidays, and life, are really about anyway. Image via my collection of Anne Taintor cocktail napkins.

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