Special Needs

Managing Your Special Needs and Non-Religious Family at the Holidays

Ho ho ho…the holidays are here! There was a time when I dreaded the holidays. We are atheist/agnostic in a family that has many fundamentalist Christians in it. As if dodging those questions and comments for years wasn’t enough….my first son was born with special needs so we need extra accommodations each holiday season (that not all of my family understands).

But, believe it or not, I actually love the holiday season and look forward to it every year. Thought I’d share some tips and tricks that I’ve learned throughout the years, in case you are still struggling with your family at the holidays.

S: Sleep. I am militant about my kids’ bed times. To the point of being annoying at times, but I don’t care. I know what is best for them. Lack of sleep in kids and adults has been linked to everything from obesity and diabetes to stress, depression and heart problems. Sleep is not valued enough, well, it is in our house. But during this busy time, we have to make extra efforts to stay on our sleep schedules. And this is for kids and parents! When we go to a family outing, I almost always bring my kids’ PJs with us and change them into them right before we leave. Then all I have to do is carry to their beds, for minimal chance of interrupting.

W: Work. If you have work pending, don’t ignore it. Get tasks done so you can enjoy your holiday season or it will be weighing on you. And for your kids, keep their minds busy. Most of them are going to be off from school anywhere from a few days to a week or more; that’s a really long time with no academic stimulation. Talk to teachers and therapists now, about what are some small, simple things you can do at home and exercise their minds, while reinforcing what they are doing at school.

E: Eat. Eat, and eat healthy. Sure, indulge on the treats as appropriate. But when a machine doesn’t have good fuel, it doesn’t run well. Moderation is key. And some people, both kids and adults, have some food triggers that can either bring on headaches, intestinal discomfort or behavior problems. Make sure you know what everyone is eating. I bring a lunch box with food for my kids just about every place we go, just in case. (My son has feeding issues.) I don’t care who is insulted–if my son has to eat a PB&J at Thanksgiving dinner, so be it. It’s better than him going hungry because he can’t/won’t eat what is being served and then fills up on cookies.

E: Emotions. Let’s face it, around the holidays there are times when *I* am on sensory overload. Let them have plenty of down time to deal with emotions. This goes for your typical kids too. If you have a rigid-thinker, black & white “there is no Santa” child in your house, acknowledge that with your other kids. Let them be angry about it or experience whatever emotions they have. Let yourself mourn over the losses and frustrations you’re feeling. Hopefully if we’re all sleeping enough, eating healthy and getting some exercise, there will be fewer emotional triggers or meltdowns. But you know they can and do happen. “Predict & Prevent” right? Arrive at gatherings early (when fewer people are there) and leave early (before volume skyrockets). I have also made it clear to my family over the years that I have no intentions of discussing politics, religion or any other personal beliefs during holiday gatherings. And you probably have that one relative like I do…that one that tries to bait me by making snide comments. Ignore it. Be the bigger person.

P: Play. Play. Have fun. Exercise. Get moving. Walk the dog around the block. Do a few laps on a walking path at a local park. Find an area that is enjoyable to your child and get some outdoors activity and/or exercise. In addition to the W: Work item above, it will not only work their brains, but overall everyone will feel better. If your child has played video games for 10 hours every day for 10 days….how well is he going to readjust to school?

S: Say No. Don’t overextend yourself or your family. Learn to say no without guilt. A friend of mine once said to me: When you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else. You don’t have to do it all. We can’t do it all, and retain our sanity. I also say no when it comes to attending church services and any questions about our (non)religious choices. I have made it clear that it is disrespectful to expect otherwise of my kids. This was in particular, when relatives wanted to take my kids to church with the “well, what’s the harm?” There is harm if you are undermining my parenting and belief system. So just like I would not take your child to another church or try to talk them out of religion, mine do not go to church. When they are old enough to make these decisions, they may.

F: My family first. My first job as Mom is to protect and serve my own little ones. My kids’ job is to be a kid. You always hear people say “Christmas is for the children!” and then do the opposite–trying to parade them around in uncomfortable outfits, loaded up with sugar way past their bedtimes in unfamiliar settings. Then as was stated in the gaslighting post, then we try to convince the children that they are the ones in the wrong. My kids and their holiday memories come first. That doesn’t mean I let them eat like animals at the table and destroy homes, I don’t. They have manners. But they are allowed to be kids. But seeing that their health and emotional needs are met is my first priority.

If you set boundaries and expectations from the get-go, the holidays can be a very enjoyable time. Even if your family doesn’t see eye-to-eye on all the issues. Peace…and I hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

You can find more tips for navigating the holidays with a special needs family on my personal blog, A Day in our Shoes.

Lisa Lightner

Lisa Lightner lives in southeastern Pennsylvania with her husband, two boys and two dogs. When not screaming at her kids in public, she can be found on her special needs parenting blog, ADayInOurShoes.com where she offers advice, support and fun tips for special needs parents.

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