Looking Ahead to the Holidays: 4 Things to Keep in Mind
Last year around this time, I clearly remember several parents sharing a common sentiment that went something like this: One silver lining of COVID is that we don’t have to feel the pressure to go to any large family gatherings over the holidays.
It wasn’t that these parents didn’t love their family or value time with them. What they were reflecting on (and breathing a sigh of relief about) was that they did not have to manage the stress that typically accompanies supporting a child with neurobehavioral differences through a succession of family events, often spread across several months.
And you know what?
I can definitely relate.
We recently gathered with extended family in Arizona for the first time in a long time (the delay caused by COVID). While there was a great deal of fun with cousins — swimming (in winter!) in the Arizona sunshine and other moments that will make great memories — my daughter, who is 12 years old and has FASD (a serious neurobehavioral condition), needed accommodations and support each step of the way. Everything from managing busy gatherings with the potential for sensory overload to sleeping in an unfamiliar hotel room to struggling through basic conversations with unfamiliar relatives was challenging due to her significant differences. All of it required intense support from me or my husband.
Even while surrounded by a family who is 100% on-board with a brain-based approach, and wonderfully inclusive of our daughter, there was a consistent level of exhaustion that I know many of you will understand. This trip to Arizona, although not an official holiday, mirrored the challenges parents share with me every year around this time as we approach the more intense holiday season.
Excitement, change, anticipation, loads of people — frequently it’s simply too much for our kids.
If you are looking ahead to the holidays, feeling a rising sense of panic and maybe even dread as you reflect on what it’s been like for you, your child and family in the past, I wanted to provide you with four suggestions on how parents in these situations can proactively plan to alleviate at least some of the stress, chaos and disruptions that have happened in the past.
Clearly Communicate with Family Ahead of Time
Your needs, and your child’s needs, matter a great deal. Clearly articulating for family ahead of time what you (and your child) will or will not participate in, or how you will participate in family gatherings and traditions, can free you of expectations that are not in line with how your child is wired. If your child could participate in every single exciting holiday event, they would. They simply can’t because of their differences, and although I know there is a sadness that comes with this realization, there can also be immense relief when we own it, articulate it, and free ourselves of the burden to participate in what we know, based on repeated history, will not end well.
Setting aside some time to think about how your family can support you in having your child participate to the fullest extent possible, and then articulating this clearly to family members, also provides them with an opportunity to be inclusive and to assist in providing accommodations your child needs. We may assume these accommodations are obvious and do not need to be stated so overtly to family members. I’d encourage you to state the obvious anyway.
You Know Your Family. Trust Your Gut.
While I always believe every person should be provided the opportunity to shift their lens from a behavioral one to a brain-first one, I have also come to realize that some people simply cannot make the shift, or cannot make it quickly enough. You know your family well, and while I’d encourage you to have the conversation about your needs ahead of time (as I suggested earlier) to offer them the opportunity to be flexible and to accommodate your child, you also likely have a sense of where this may come to fruition and where it definitely won’t. I understand — intimately — the sadness and sense of rejection that comes with that realization. And also, it’s important for us to be clear on this for ourselves, so we can plan accordingly.
I can guarantee that the disappointment that comes with declining an invitation to a gathering that you know is not a good fit for your child is less stress-inducing than trying to help your dysregulated child at this same gathering, struggling with intensifying behavioral symptoms, all while simultaneously feeling judged and misunderstood by the family and friends that are present.
If Things Go South, Don’t Match the Energy.
Let's imagine you’ve talked with your extended family. You’ve established clear, healthy boundaries on what you will and won’t be participating in this year, due to the desire to accommodate your child. You’ve asked for the needed accommodations, and family has responded with kind and generous flexibility and action to put those accommodations in place.
You get to the gathering and everything is going well, but a few hours in, as you observe your child (because you know you need to continue to check-in with them to see how they are doing, and whether exhaustion or dysregulation is setting in), you see they are beginning to struggle:
They’re no longer able to be flexible and share with their cousins.
They are no longer able to follow the rules in the game.
They cannot sit still at the dinner table.
They want dessert before the main meal, and it does not help them to know they will get dessert, it just comes later.
This is the time when you work to stay grounded and to center yourself, so that you are not causing increased dysregulation. You then gently transition to a strong redirect or the exit plan you had intentionally planned ahead of time, with this exact scenario in mind. Your extended family and/or friends are already aware that you may have to make an early departure, and they support you in leaving as uneventfully as possible.
Likewise, if another adult attempts to exert control over your child who is beginning to spiral into challenging behavioral symptoms, with the goal of making them “behave,” the same advice applies. You should not attempt to match this dysregulated adult’s energy, either. Remain grounded and centered, and then gently transition to your exit plan. You can always circle back with that adult at a later date to share with them what you’d prefer they do differently next time. Engaging in a debate or corrective conversation while also trying to transition your child will only add to the stress of the departure.
Give Yourself Permission to Not Participate.
Following last year's holiday season, when COVID was still at its height and many family gatherings were taken off the calendar, parent after parent told me it was one of the best holidays they’d had in a long time. There was, for instance, no pressure to wait for the grandparents to arrive on Christmas morning to open presents. Instead, when a child with neurobehavioral differences became overwhelmed by the suspense and anticipation, parents simply decided it was the right time to begin that particular holiday activity. They were able to prioritize the rhythms of their child, rather than the expectations of the wider family.
There were many stories like this — relief from not participating in activities or traditions that in the past had always felt like an absolute requirement. Again, I recognize the grief and loss that may accompany a decision to decline participating in certain holiday festivities, but I also want to encourage you to give yourself full permission to not participate, when that is truly what is best for you, your child and your family.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.