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BY Dawn

Surviving the holidays: Dealing with relatives

Special needs families are far from typical. so why do we try to be that perfect “Norman Rockwell” family during holiday get-togethers? Tell yourself right now that you and your family are going to enjoy the holidays in your own way and at your own pace. Stop worrying about what others think and make the holidays meaningful for your child with special needs. Here are holiday issues that might come up and some creative ideas to make it work for your family.

Keep a level head
At family gatherings you may be with relatives who you see only once a year. Relatives who are not familiar with your child’s disability may make well meaning but misinformed comments. Some may make comments that appear insensitive and rude. Try not to let it ruin your day. Focus on your child and resist the urge to snap back. Turn the conversation into something positive. Prepare ahead of time by anticipating what certain relatives might say to you.

Deflect the comment
Relative – “When is Johnny going to eat something besides mashed potatoes?”

You – “You make them so tasty he can’t stop eating them. How do you make them so creamy?”

Empathize with the relative
Relative – “Your son didn’t even look at my present.”

You – “I know you feel disappointed but I know he’ll enjoy it at home tomorrow when things quiet down. I’ll let you know how he likes it.”

Focus on the positive
Relative – “When’s Johnny going to talk?”

You – “It’s hard because there’s so much going on but Johnny has really come a long way. He’s even reading now!”

Forced politeness
Relative – “Why can’t you make your kid sit still at the table? Everyone else is behaving.”

You – “On a regular day I might push the issue. But today is a special day and I want Mary to enjoy her time here.”

Help others interact with your child
You have been living with your child’s disability everyday but your relatives know little about your child and her special needs. Some may be unsure how to communicate with your child. Help them interact so they can see what a great kid she is.

Teach others about your child’s equipment
You – “Mary uses a communication device. I know she’d love to talk to you. Let me show you how it works.”

Encourage your relatives to ask your child about his special interests
You – “Johnny really loved our trip to Disney World. If you ask him, he’ll tell you all about it.”

Tell relatives how to phrase their comments to your child
You – “Mary has a hard time answering those kinds of questions. If you give her a choice or make it a yes or no question, she’ll be able to answer.”

Explain behaviors that might seem odd to others
You – “When Mary makes those sounds, she’s really excited but can’t put it into words.”

Create a cheat sheet for relatives on how to interact with your child
In many cases, family members would like to get to know your child but feel awkward talking about your child’s disability. A half page cheat sheet can help relatives feel more comfortable interacting with your child. Here are many disability awareness resources to help get you started.

Ask for accommodations
Just as you would ask for accommodations at a restaurant or public place, you are well within your rights to ask for accommodations at a relative’s home. Please be tactful when asking for these special considerations as your relative is also stressed from preparing for the holiday get together. Focus on your child rather than simply demanding that a family member make accommodations. A phone call several weeks in advance of the get together is appropriate. Here are some examples:

Physical limitations
You – “I feel bad when Johnny is left in the family room by himself and we all leave to eat in the dining room. I know it’s an imposition but could we have an extra table put in the family room closer to dinner time? You can put me in charge of that job. Then family members have a chance to spend some time with Johnny.”

You – “Mary has a hard time navigating in your home with her wheelchair. I know it’s an imposition but could you move your end table to another room for that day? This would give her the chance to move around better.

Sensory issues
You – “Johnny’s sensory issues are so bad that he really can feel sick from strong smells. I know it’s an imposition but could you put out unscented candles this time? Then he can enjoy himself at your home.”

You – “Mary gets overwhelmed by all the excitement during the opening of presents. Could she watch TV in your bedroom during that time? Then she can open her presents at home where it’s more quiet.”

Your own accommodations
Don’t forget about your own needs during the holidays. It is important to stay both physically and emotionally healthy for your child.

Sharing the responsibility
One parent should not have to handle all of the needs of your child with disabilities. In a two parent household, make arrangements ahead of time on what each of your job responsibilities are at the family event. Taking turns allows each of you to spend some quality time with your family.

Volatile family situations
A few families may experience a particular relative who is verbally abusive to a parent. This relative makes irrational and insensitive comments on your child rearing and may even blame you for the child’s disability. While some parents may have a thick skin, you should decide ahead of time if it is worth the stress on yourself and your child to attend this family function. It might be better to create your own dinner with friends who support your family. Find opportunities to visit with other relatives at a later date.

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Written on November 17, 2010 by:

Dawn Villarreal is President of One Place for Special Needs, a national disability resource that lets you find local and online resources, events and even other families in your neighborhood plus thousands of articles, visual supports, social stories and more.

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