Christmas for many brings joy, excitement, celebration, and the spirit of love and giving. Many parents spend hours shopping for the perfect gift, placing Christmas decor strategically around the home, and then of course who could forget the holiday baking and activities through the entire month of December.
Parents have a high-level of stress that come with the holidays, especially with social media highlighting other families’ blissful cheer with pictures of everything jolly. From cookies with Santa, professional photos with real-life reindeer, to making sure the elf not only moved around the house but did the most epic display of staged humor that brings their children joy. Like most, I compare my efforts and family traditions to those of others to see how I measure up to the happiness that others display. This blog article was written in efforts to give all parents the most important tools to get through the holiday season, but most importantly it highlights those raising children with with disabilities. Parents need to be reminded that perfection is defined by the person who is measuring.
Christmas can be such an over stimulating experience, which increases anxiety for those with disabilities. From the lights, to the fast-paced schedules, planned visits with Santa, waiting in lines, and the anxious behaviors as they wait for Santa all wrapped together is a disaster waiting to happen. Parents spend sleepless nights comfortering, offering certainty, all while chugging coffee to get through the holidays. As a sibling, former teacher, a caretaker, and now a director for services for those with disabilities there is one thing I can confirm to be a fact. The month of December for those with disabilities have an increase in sleepless nights, behaviors, and anxiety.
With that being said, I have come up with the top 5 tools to get any parent through the holiday season, but especially for those parents raising a child with disabilities.
Tool #1: Don’t stress over your Christmas being exactly right, make it right for your family and do not compare. If your child senses your anxious behavior and uptight demeanor, its likely to increase their anxiety behaviors as well. A change in you is an unexpected change that may be hard for your child to adjust too. Provide them with the certainty and comfort by being consistent with your moods and demeanor. Stay calm! You got this! No judgement if wine helps you to calm and stay the course!
Tool #2: Keep to routine, because it matters the most this time of year. Plan ahead! Make a visual calendar to prepare your child for everything, and it will provide them time to process. Make sure you or your child are marking off the days as they occur. This will allow them to visually see activities they have finished and those coming up. Some parents believe their child might have more anxiety because they become overwhelmed of the activities listed, or they tend to see a future activity and want to skip ahead and can’t process the wait. Parents have even shared their child doesn’t seem to struggle and doesn’t need a visual calendar. However, the parents are on constant edge trying to reassure them through the anticipation. Rest assure you know your child best, but understand the anxiety resides in them and a visual calendar along with a visual first/then , or to-do lists are the perfect tools to ease anxiety. If you know the anxiety is going to be there, go ahead and give them a tool to use to reassure them of the plans. December is the busiest time of year, and it is important they are prepared and have time to process.
Tool #3: Create a social story designed around your families’ traditions and expectations. Throughout the story reassure them that everything will be okay. Your social story should use first-person language, and write it using your child’s language. The story line should meet them where they are at, and be centered around their interests. For example, if they love the Grinch make the social story have the Grinch and your child as the main characters. While also mentioning in the story that the Grinch will be proud of them if they go to bed and wait for Santa. The best way to learning more about social stories is searching anything Carol Gray, who is the creator of the strategy. Here is the link you can go directly to to access her page: https://carolgraysocialstories.com/. When you can use actual pictures your child will connect with. This will increase their engagement and ability to generalize the skills being asked of them to perform. For example use real pictures of your Christmas tree in the house, a previous picture of them with Santa, a picture of them opening gifts, etc. Within your social story make sure to include what they can do when they are feeling anxious. Remind them it’s okay, and where can they go and what should they do. Social Stories are always a strategy that remains in my toolbox for almost any situation that causes anxiety, unexpected events, and unfamiliarity to the routine. Carol Gray has a great checklist where she outlines the details to include in a social story to make them effective.
Tool #4: Bedtime routines are a MUST to prepare for Santa’s arrival. This could be the hardest part, and most stressful. Weeks leading up make sure to establish the perfect routine. A great strategy would be to incorporate your social story as a nightly bedtime routine, leading up to the event. Of course when necessary, I am a fan of Melatonin when it is appropriate to support falling asleep. My kids take it, and most definitely will take it on Christmas Eve. It’s okay if this isn’t part of your go-to, but I know it has been successful for many. Another great thing to incorporate into your bedtime routine is soothing sensory activities leading up to bed. Some examples would be a light massage, dim lights through house, light soft music, or a warm bath. Try to eliminate stimulating activities at least one hour before bed, such as electronics.
Tool #5: Honor the other siblings! Make a special memory for the other siblings that get scheduled into the festivities. Make it a family tradition to have a special moment that is designed, because Santa understands how supportive they are with each other. I suggest this because Christmas time for the siblings can be impacted, and as much effort goes into making sure their sibling with a disability has the best Christmas, make sure to do that for them as well. Just because you expect them to adapt, adjust, and go with the flow, doesn’t mean it isn’t hard for them. I was the other sibling. I sometimes was the sibling that was given the duty to sleep with my brother to keep us in the room, so Santa would come. I remember my heart beating out of my chest with anticipation of how my brother would react the morning of Christmas. Sometimes that meant that Santa came at midnight, and we went along with it. The most successful strategy my parents figured out was driving 2 cars to my grandparents house. My dad would stay back for a short period of time and put out all the presents, so when we returned from my grandparents around 8pm, Santa had came! This eliminated the stress of doing bedtime in time for Santa to come. Sometimes, I was the sibling that had to be patient and understanding of anything my parents had to adjust or accommodate to support my brother. We might had to leave early from family gatherings, waiting in long lines for Santa wasn’t always an option, or adjusting the pace of opening gifts so my brother wouldn’t get upset. I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world, but I always knew my parents would find a balance between the both of us. Some parents have asked how to support their other children, and this is my insight. Make it a simple, but special Christmas moment designed specially for them. It could be as simple as cookies with Mom and Dad before Santa comes with a special gift just for being amazing siblings. Just make it meaningful for them, and show them you recognize their understanding and patience especially around this time of year.
In conclusion, as I just offered you the five best tools to add to your toolbox, I do want to offer one last piece of advice: breathe and embrace. The spirit of Christmas isn’t about the perfect gifts being unwrapped on Christmas Day morning in matching pajamas. It’s about the love, faith, and blessings this day offers to each of us. It might be hard for parents raising those with disabilities, to capture these moments due to their own anxiety and anticipation of making everything perfect for all their children. However, breathe and don’t add any extra pressure to yourself and celebrate each day of just getting through. See the blessing of strength provided to you and your family, and embrace each moment. Take pride in the fact that you have designed a Christmas that works for your family, and it doesn’t need to look like everyone else’s Christmas. Believe in faith, believe in yourself, and believe in the spirit of Christmas. Even when it might look different for your family.