This season brings a mixture of family joy and stress for everyone. But when you have a child with special needs, especially behavioral difficulties, the holidays can quickly become overwhelming for even the most capable parent. In my 12 years as a counselor at the Overlake Specialty School in Bellevue, I have seen that hardship during the holidays is all too common.
Communicating the reality of parenting a child with special needs takes time and patience — two things that are often in short supply during the holiday season. Large family gatherings are often planned without consideration for a child’s emotional or behavioral issues. These gatherings can disrupt daily patterns; can involve a lot of socializing, loud conversations and divided attentions; and are generally overwhelming — even for adults.
Behaviorally challenged children often find the holiday season anxiety provoking and might choose to avoid or disrupt gatherings in socially inappropriate ways. When such problems occur, extended family can be quick to offer advice, make snap judgments or step in to help in ways that are less than helpful. Extended family may mean well, but they might not be familiar with how you parent a child with autism, anxiety, depression or oppositional behaviors. And with everything else going on, it is unlikely that a parent will have time to explain.
Here are seven tips on how to plan ahead and communicate with your family and your child during the holidays:
1. When visiting another home, ask your extended family member to make a room available as a low-stimulation room to which your child can retreat when things are difficult.
2. Let your child know what to expect from the gathering, and discuss with them alternatives and skills they might need when they are overwhelmed or do not want to participate.
3. Bring a backpack for your child with activities or relaxation tools. If possible, have your child practice using those tools beforehand.
4. Give yourself plenty of extra time for traveling, and explain to your extended family that you don’t know exactly what time you will arrive.
5. Let your extended family know how you will deal with difficulties. Of course, it is not realistic that all extended family members will be skilled when supporting a struggle with your child, but communication can reduce the potential that a child will split the adults and get everyone arguing. Let extended family know that you understand they might not do things the way you do, but that you are trying to follow the advice of professionals and could use their support in doing so.
6. If family members want to share their concerns, ask them to write them down, so you can really take your time and go over their concerns later, not today.
7. And most important for you as a parent, practice your own adult relaxation skills before and during events, so that you avoid falling into power struggles or unhealthy conversations.
For all those who are not the parents of a child with difficulties but will be sharing your holiday with one, please remember to ask about their needs in advance, and then prepare to be flexible. Happy Holidays!
Christopher Hibbeln received his degree from the University of Washington and has worked as a licensed mental health counselor, specializing in children with severe behavioral difficulties, since 2005. He is currently a counselor at Overlake Specialty School. OSS is a year-round therapeutic school designed to serve students in special education who are significantly impacted by social, emotional and behavioral difficulties. OSS utilizes a highly trained staff and a high staff-to-student ratio to provide a therapeutic environment in which students develop and practice academic, social and behavioral skills. OSS, located in Bellevue, is part of the services offered by Overlake Hospital Medical Center.