The presents are wrapped and the cookies are made, but parents of children who have disabilities and complex conditions still have one more item on their holiday checklist. Before the big celebration, it’s important to communicate with friends and family members to educate them about your child’s health challenges.
Preparation is the key to keeping the holidays happy. It’s important to speak with your child about expectations and to give them strategies to respond to what might be challenging questions. Below, you’ll find some practical tips to help keep things merry.
Consider sending a letter to family and friends to tell them specifically what they might expect when interacting with your child. For example, if your child is unable to make eye contact or give hugs, your note could state that your child appreciates being loved but cannot tolerate certain physical contact. You can also provide suggestions for ways friends and family can interact with your child—quiet play, reading or singing.
Help relatives understand how your child is similar to other children, rather than focusing on differences. It’s also important to redirect pity. People might think they are being compassionate when they express sorrow for you and your child. Assure these relatives that acceptance and friendship is what is valued—not pity.
Plan to have a space for your child to unwind and decompress. It could be helpful for your child to know that it’s OK to take some private time if the holiday hubbub becomes too overwhelming.
Consider providing a list of specific and appropriate gifts your child would enjoy.
Be proactive if you’re traveling to someone else’s home to celebrate. It’s wise to tell your hosts about dietary needs, the medical equipment you may bring, and to ask for a quiet place for you and your child. You might also want to ask about parking plans and discuss your family’s specific needs.
Explain to your child that people may say insensitive comments, but that most often, these are not meant to be hurtful. Remember you don’t need to overshare and give too many details about your child’s condition. Talk about what feels comfortable. Your distant cousin does not need to hear private information about your family.
Finally, take care of yourself, relax, and enjoy the holiday season!
Erin Tentis-Berglund, PhD, LP, is a psychologist at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare.