Families with children who struggle face many of the same challenges that typical families face during the holidays (figuring out how to spend time with relatives, finding the right holiday gift, negotiating family gatherings, and so on), but for many CFK families, there are added demands that can make ordinary challenges exceptionally difficult. According to our families, some of the most difficult challenges are:
- Getting Holiday Tasks Done While Still Maintaining the Level of Care Needed by a Struggling Child (for example, getting Christmas shopping done with a child who needs 24/7 attention but who also cannot tolerate crowds)
- Meeting Family Expectations While Balancing a Child's Exceptional Needs (for example, declining an invitation for a family get-together because a child cannot tolerate some part of the event)
- Helping Family to Connect with a Struggling Child (for example, helping grandpa to find common ground with an autistic child who is only interested in Pokemon)
- Managing Holiday Stress (for example, taking time for yourself when your child needs help managing their own anxiety)
While many of our families know how to resolve these problems, many have trouble actually implementing the solutions because our culture reinforces self-reliance and putting family before ourselves. Others simply don't have time or energy to do more than simply survive the holidays.
According to CFK families, the things that make the biggest difference between surviving the holidays and enjoying them are:
- Allow Families to Say "No": Families who are allowed to feel comfortable declining invitations to events that their children cannot tolerate or leaving an event early experience less stress during the holiday season. By letting the family of a struggling child know that you understand they may not be able to come or stay for your holiday event, you offer them the grace of balancing their child's needs first.
- Choose Gifts Wisely: Everyone wants to give children a gift that they love, but for children who struggle, gift-giving may not be as straight-forward. Even though you may want to the gift to be a surprise, it makes sense to talk to the child's parents first and learn about his or her interests and needs. This gift giving-guide from She Knows offers some great tips.
- Make Struggling Children Welcome at the Table with Safe Favorites: Nothing makes a child feel more welcome than when someone special to him or her thinks ahead and has a favorite food or dinnertime activity ready. If you're hosting a child who struggles with food issues, ask parents ahead of time if there is a safe treat you can have ready for the child. If the child chooses not to accept, be gracious and don't force the issue.
- Offer Time or Help: Everyone is busy during the winter holidays, but the gift of time can go a long way for the family of a struggling child. Even the gift of 10 minutes (for example, letting a family go ahead of you in the grocery line) could mean the difference between a holiday shopping success and a meltdown. If you have time, consider offering to watch the children so the parents can do holiday shopping or help clean before a family dinner. For a family who needs help but doesn't know how to ask, these simple offers can make a huge difference.
- Practice Tolerance: Many families with children who struggle experience acts of intolerance (such as accusing looks/words during a public meltdown or people becoming offended because a struggling child has an inappropriate social interaction). By responding with tolerance or even offering assistance, you can help reduce stress on the family.
- Reach for a Connection: Families know that it is not always easy to make a connection with their struggling child, but when friends and relatives make the extra effort to connect, that effort can be more meaningful than any gift. If you're not sure how to connect with a struggling child, ask the family for special interests and favorite activities (for more ideas, try this free Podcast, which offers specific tips).