Holiday (aka Traumaversaries) Trauma Tips
Adapted from http://www.abilitypath.org/tools-resources/links--resources/abilitypath_holidaysurvivalguideforparentswithspecialneeds_2010.pdf
“Around here we usually hold our breath in October and don’t exhale until January,” says Barbara Streett, a parent of one special needs child, 10, and two neurotypical kids, 7 and 5, respectively. “If it’s not one thing at this time of year, it’s most definitely another.”
The challenges associated with holidays like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s can be overwhelming for a family with special needs, but with preparation and awareness of the individual family member’s needs it can be done!
A few minor tweaks to holiday rituals can go a long way.
- Instead of big family gatherings with lots of expectations, try downsizing!
- Instead of big family gatherings, try spacing out visits with one or two relatives at a time. Have some quiet activities for the child in case they become overwhelmed.
- Try to stick closely to your child’s usual schedule - regular nap time, bedtime and meal times are important!
- If you are visiting, try sending family members a letter beforehand with some suggestions about how to make the child feel most comfortable (See appendix for sample letter.)
- Set up a safe place in the house for your child to go if he or she just wants to be alone. Stock this place with a few soft toys, a quiet activity or two and some books, maybe an MP3 player filled with soothing music.
- Take electronic gadgets AND the chargers. There are inexpensive converters that can be plugged into your car allowing you to charge items that normally plug into the wall or even USB.
- A personal DVD player or laptop stocked with movies and/or games.
- Pack a personal back pack for child with new dollar store items, include a few favorite toys, pencils, snacks etc.
- A bag with new or rarely used items – like travel games and snacks, that can be introduced at various intervals throughout the trip.
- Small heavy blanket, for sensory kids.
- Travel pillow and soft toy/lovey.
- Ask flight attendants and hotel about accommodation’s available to make your trip a family success.
- Plan for frequent stops to move around (look for places with playgrounds). Think about traveling at night, but if you travel during the day, try to stick as closely as possible to routines – especially mealtimes and bedtime.
- Visual pencil box for travel and helping child understand sequence of events. These are simple pictures, stored in a pencil box, with Velcro dots on each picture. The box has 3-4 Velcro dots (the soft side of the Velcro) on the outside. Pictures are placed on the box so the child understands the order of activities. For example: a suitcase (to show packing), a car, food (to show will eat lunch), then a picture of the destination (ex. Grandma’s).
Remember, every child is different, and there is no flow chart for how this works. The overarching goal: Be flexible, and remember that no tradition is more important than the comfort and happiness of your kids.
Holidays are supposed to be special times for the whole family. Most of us grow up expecting them to be memorable and fun. When we have children, we experience these dreams and expectations even more acutely. It’s perfectly natural, then, to experience an emotional roller coaster when presented with the challenge of navigating holidays with a child with special needs. One key to managing this inevitably frustrating situation is learning to let go. Set realistic expectations and be flexible.
“You have to be willing to modify certain traditions, or forget them all together,” says Barbara Streett, parent of a child with autism. “What you want or envision may not be the best thing for your child, so you have to change your plan accordingly.”
- • Holidays are about the kids, but a successful holiday doesn’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell painting to make the kids happy.
- • Remind yourself that it’s OK to let go of certain traditions that just won’t work… for now.
- • Allow yourself to be frustrated and anxious; there’s no shame in that. When you feel frustrations welling up, take a step back and focus on what you’re doing.
- • Frequently remind your child know there is nothing they can do to lose Christmas. This is frequently such a source of anxiety for children that they sabotage it rather than take that chance. In the long run this “naughty” behavior will usually stop as the anxiety decreases.
- • Remember what your child’s “currency” is and use that to interact with him or her.
- • Streett is careful to add that especially at holiday time, the definition of a family meal should also be flexible. “If your child doesn’t want to eat with everybody else, that needs to be OK; if the child needs to take a break, let him go,” she says. “The sooner you stop fighting the fact that these kinds of traditions must be set in stone, the more enjoyable the holiday will be.”
- • If your child tends to destroy gifts (very common when they don’t feel they deserve gifts or for now aren’t able to accept what they mean). Try inexpensive gifts from the dollar store. The bigger the better.
At our house (2 siblings adopted as teens from foster care and 2 neurotypical biochildren), we realized our children were overwhelmed by the holidays so we started simplifying things with some new traditions:
Jesus’ Birthday party – To alleviate some of the building of stress and anxiety of waiting for Christmas and change the focus from the gifts, we celebrate Jesus’ birth on Christmas Eve with a birthday cake and Jesus gifts, which are similar to New Year’s Eve resolutions (everyone writes on a piece of paper what they are going to give Jesus this year, usually something we think he would want us to do – like spend more time with the family or give more time to those less fortunate. Each person can choose to read theirs aloud and then we put the paper on the tree. Then we read last year’s gifts and see how we did. Afterward we all eat birthday cake (helps my antsy ones sit through this, knowing there's cake when it's done!).
Christmas Eve presents - Before bed we open our Christmas Eve gift - usually a pair of PJs, and a book or stuffed toy – depending on the child’s age. This helps the younger children wait (and makes sure everyone looks nice for pictures in the morning!
Three Gifts - A few years ago we decided to start only giving 3 gifts to the kids on Christmas morning. (It was good enough for Jesus!). It has helped me out in many ways (the kids are not quite as fond of it). Usually at least two of the three gifts that the children get are “themed” gifts. So it’s more than one item in the package. The cost of the gift seems to be largely unimportant – the most envied (meltdown inducing) gift was a box of highlights that one daughter got and the other (RAD) daughter didn’t.
• Taken some of the focus off of gifts and put it back on the “reason for the season.”
• Reduced some of the pressure to get the exact same number and equivalent gifts for each of my 4 children (I remember my sisters and I counting gifts on Christmas Eve – cost wasn’t as important).
• Decreased the clutter. My adopted children can’t handle too much stuff in their rooms or lives.
• Reduced the cost! Christmas is expensive enough with 4 kids.
• Made shopping easier. It’s HARD to find presents for teenage boys (assuming that like us you do not want to buy expensive electronic stuff he’s only going to break or lose anyway and/or can’t handle).
• Less wrapping!
• Less time sitting watching everyone open presents (better for my kids with ADHD).
Top Toys for children with special needs: http://www.abilitypath.org/tools-resources/links--resources/abilitypath_holidaysurvivalguideforparentswithspecialneeds_2010.pdf
Modelmekids.com - Model Me Kids® videos demonstrate social skills by modeling peer behavior at school, on a playdate, at a birthday party, on the playground, at a library, at the dentist, restaurant, and more. Designed as a teaching tool for children, adolescents, and teenagers with Autism, Asperger Syndrome, and developmental delays, the videos are used by teachers, parents, and therapists. Real children model each skill.
Sample Holiday Visit Letter – Adapted from http://www.abilitypath.org article –
Holiday Survival Guide for Parents with Special Needs
Dear Family and Friends:
We look forward to seeing everyone for the holidays. I can’t wait to see everyone and celebrate
together. Before we gather this year, I would like to share with you about ______________ and let you know how you can support him and our family.
My son is loving, kind, and very affectionate. He loves to talk about his siblings, ______________
and ______________, and camping. He likes to play Candyland, Legos, and with his iPod.
He also has (attachment disorder/ autism/ sensory integration disorder...).
Holidays are a time of year that ______________ looks forward to. However, the extended
family and friends, decorations, and festive noises that the holiday brings can be frightening
and/or overwhelming for him. They also cause him anxiety because there are so many new things
happening that are different from his routine. He is hypervigilant about new situations, and it reminds him of traumatic things from his past. Please understand that this is not about his feelings about you or me.
______________ may need a quiet place to retreat to take in everything presented to him in this new and different environment. Please have a quiet room available for ______________ so that he can have time to himself to process everything. This room should be off limits to everyone but ______________ and me (mom). ______________ is used to routine and all these changes can cause anxiety. Once ______________ can regroup, he may be OK to return. However, if something changes, we may need to leave suddenly. Also, although we love being with family, we will need to leave at __pm to allow ____________ to stick as closely to his normal bedtime routine as possible. Please support us in this. It is very necessary to his well being.
______________ or I may appear bossy and controlling. This is to help him cope. ___________ needs structure, and often things have to be done in a way he is familiar with or else he may get stressed and frustrated. This does not mean you have to change the way you are doing things--just please be patient with ______________, and look to me (mom) to redirect this behavior.
People with (attachment disorder/trauma/ autism/ sensory integration disorder...) often have certain behaviors to help themselves feel more comfortable and safe. ______________ is not trying to be disruptive or deﬁant; he is doing this to regulate himself in his surroundings. Please be respectful of these behaviors and look to me (mom) on how to handle this.
_____________ often needs to get up and walk around (maybe even go to his quiet room) to regulate himself. I ask that you not give this a lot of attention and continue eating and conversing.
Please do not be critical of mine or my husband’s parenting skills. Remember that ____________ needs to be watched more closely than most children are his age. Like all parents, we do our best but are not perfect. Holidays are ﬁlled with new sights, sounds, and smells packed into a busy and often frantic household with a big tree plopped down in the middle of it. It is very hard work to incorporate (attachment disorder/trauma/ autism/ sensory integration disorder...) into this. I said it was hard – but it can be done. We have been doing this for ____ years, and although it is not perfect, it works for us.
We are excited to share this holiday experience with you and look forward to seeing you,