For military families, due to deployment (or being stationed stateside hundreds or thousands of miles from extended family and lifelong friends), navigating the event-filled season may bring challenges. Still, the inevitable struggle of bringing together extended family and connection to life for our military-connected kids can be attained through emotional resiliency and inspired action.
When the going gets tough, success can be gained throughout the year through creative and flexible mindsets that many military families possess. It might mean celebrating Thanksgiving a bit early – or late – to accommodate military leave. Or maybe “face-timing” in matching PJs at Christmas Eve with cousins and grandparents. Engaging with our children during this exhilarating time of year inspires lasting memories for everyone, no matter that the activities and surroundings may be a little different than what we have enjoyed in the past. Customizing positive moments and encouraging optimism leading up to seasonal gatherings can help provide families with that glittering holiday finale.
Opportunities to share special times with family and friends in our life can sometimes cause a bit of whirlwind for kids and adults. The hustle and bustle of the holidays can play havoc with family, work and school-time routines. Dazzling lights can overstimulate visual senses. Holiday music or increased laughter and voices raised in celebration can overwhelm the auditory pathways for some people with special needs. Seasonal smells from fragrant Christmas trees or mouthwatering treats simmering on the stove may trigger anything from allergies to appetites. Crowds at the mall and special events, family and school parties, or unfamiliar visitors, can heighten anxiety or stir up a mild meltdown in plenty of folks. The high-energy season can also intensify panic and sensory overload, when one or more children in the family have an executive function disorder such as autism or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, sensory processing or learning disorder, or physical or behavioral challenges. Fortunately, we often know our children’s triggers and how best to adapt to their needs. Through a proactive and flexible mindset, we can still achieve a merry and bright holiday season!
- Communicate: Talk early and talk often with your spouse about one another’s expectations and vision for the holiday season. Dig deep. Discuss what is important to each of you, what you feel you can keep or need to discontinue, and consider modifying or creating new family traditions. Fuel meaningful conversations through an open mind and heart, rather than an approach spiced with judgement or negativity. Open yourselves up to adjusting expectations during the holidays. Discuss and plan exit strategies for those moments that may arise. Embark upon difficult conversations, such as the very real fact that you may need to decline some invitations that have the potential to cause too great a disruption to your child. Discuss plans with extended family or friends to pave the way toward smooth experiences that include your child. Engage in a manner that children and adults feel heard and acknowledged. Sidestep miscommunication traps:
Speak to be understood. Remember that communication is a two-way street; therefore, it’s okay to check in to see if you are being understood, or ask questions if you are unclear about something.
Ensure understanding. Clarify where your thinking is coming from, or the meaning of your intent. Often, the perception of shared knowledge is not as apparent as we believe.
Relate direct messages. Avoid the subtle conversational conveyances of sarcasm, vagueness, or overly-emotional expression.
- Plan: Hope for the best and plan for other possibilities. You know your child better than anyone. The daily structures used successfully at home and within the community are just as viable and beneficial during the holiday season. Adapting supports and preparing proactively for rocky moments are key factors to increase success during this busy seasonal. Parental flexibility, however, will be an important commodity as plans may still go awry. A range of ideas to ignite choices and opportunities include:
Consider reviewing your child’s IEP accommodations and modifications as a springboard for added ideas. Oftentimes, the accommodations set forth in the IEP can be readily adapted for home and community life. If noise cancelling headphones are something that your child uses at loud school assemblies or in the noisy cafeteria, this tool will be useful for crowded shopping malls or noisy celebrations.
Practicing cool down protocols at home through breathing, or stop and think strategies, before venturing out into the maze of holiday fun. All will go a long way toward reducing conflict with a relative, friend or even a stranger.
Role-playing a scenario is an excellent strategy in supporting your child.
Social narratives customized to support changes in routine, and responses to unfamiliar events or people, can be read together and even shared in preparation with family.
Visual schedules adapted to support activities or transitions are familiar and welcoming.
Cool-down activities that appeal to your child, or calming spaces, can be planned for and woven into an occasion.
Packing a preferred child-size meal and some favored snacks may go a long way in support of a calmer dinner. Your hosting family will appreciate knowing ahead that you plan to bring some of your child’s familiar eats, in case of challenges with sensory aspects of food texture or food allergies.
Modifications to greetings can be practiced and arranged ahead of time. For instance, perhaps a high-five, gentle elbow bump or a smile paired with a nod to unfamiliar relatives, or Santa Claus, may serve to regulate and calm the senses. It is okay to join the Santa picture with your child or even guide him or her to stand next to Santa and wave, rather than have your child sit on his lap and experience a meltdown. Better yet, if a real-time Santa visit is just too overwhelming at the moment, how about a virtual visit?
Preserve your family’s collaborative vision. Consider crafting a vision poster in support of your shared holiday journey.
- Be Present: This time of year, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the trimmings and accoutrements of the season. When life gets busier, it is essential that we take extra care of ourselves. Feeling calmer and more focused equips us to positively engage in our family’s care. In turn, this empowers us to nourish our souls and bring care and joy to others. Connecting to self-care and enjoying the holiday season can be accomplished through mindfully approaching the realities in life.
Stay organized. Make a list and check it twice. Choosing a different color ink or pencil for holiday events when updating calendars provides a visual reminder of what is out of the ordinary and also lets us know at a glance if we are starting to get too jam-packed with holiday events.
Keep a routine. Fold in special activities to your child’s visual schedule in the manner that they are accustomed to. If your child uses pictures to support understanding or anxiety, gather some meaningful clip art or photos. If you or your child checks off each item on the calendar with a crayon or a sticker, keep the routine going. Once the holiday whirlwind winds down, kids with planning or social issues, routines and rules may take twice the time to reconnect. Including some everyday playtime moments are recommended until the seasonal activities come to a close.
Decrease the stress. Your child will pick up on your stress levels. By being vigilant about our mental and physical limits, we can lessen stress. Eat and drink healthfully. Get plenty of exercise and fresh air. Take a walk after lunch. Dance, sing, create. Share some kids’ yoga stories and activities with your child. Read some beloved seasonal books together. Be flexible. Let go of expectations. Folding in the expectations of others in relation to what holiday time should look, smell, taste and feel like creates extra burden in an already full life.
Practice gratitude. Studies show that creating positive change through the mindset of gratitude has the potential to lower blood pressure, decrease depression and boost energy. Try keeping a gratitude journal or regularly sharing your gratitude with family and friends.
Start a new family tradition. Talk about the traditions that you or your spouse enjoyed growing up. Consider blending or modifying those into something that meets your child’s needs. A launchpad of ideas include:
If you loved family baking days when you were growing up, but your child is not quite ready for a full-blown baking session, try modifying the process. Include pre-made cookie dough, boxed muffin mixes and seasonal cupcake papers during a family bake session. Enjoy creating festive holiday mixes by blending a couple of cereals, some nuts and a bit of chocolate or peanut butter chips and serving in a fun holiday bowl. Your budding chef will enjoy the cooking and eating experience while working toward improving executive function through following directions and planning. They will increase motor skills while mixing and measuring their favorite recipe. Kids will also enhance mathematics concepts and skill through measurement and counting, as well as social connection, and even empathy through creating favored family treats and adjusting ingredients to needs or desires of others.
Shared experiences and adventures are a perfect way to create memories that will be talked about for years to come. Joining forces and combining traditions to support the needs of your child provides a great opportunity for compromise and respect. Play to your child’s strengths and be ever vigilant about your child’s needs and sensitivities. For example, if your child enjoys visual stimulation, ring in the holiday by taking a driving tour of the dazzling and twinkling Christmas lights. Encourage chats about the sights during the journey and, afterwards, around the tree at home, perhaps while sipping a warm beverage and enjoying a holiday treat. Your child will experience visual joy while building language and social skills. Is your child sensitive to sound? Bring along a set of noise-canceling headphones when shopping in crowded malls, attending parades, parties or caroling events.
Perhaps you grew up in a family with the tradition of creating handmade gifts and treats for one another, but these days, your time is limited. Try crafting together. Create ornaments or other keepsakes at your child’s developmental level. Kids will love creating and sharing. In addition to family bonding through problem solving, laughing and creating together, increased executive function, language development, fine motor and spatial development are advanced.
As you journey mindfully through this holiday season, explore innovative pathways and scaffolds of support toward parental and child learning. These unique experiences and opportunities may create discoveries leading to resolutions for amazing possibilities into the New Year and beyond.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Angela Shaw is a writer and retired special educator. Her son-in-law is active-duty military. Angela and her husband spend their time enjoying their military family and exploring the scenery along the way. With a writing focus on special education topics, Angela synthesizes her teaching experiences and education to support and encourage families and educators navigate the diverse learning needs of the children in their care across a changing educational landscape.
Read the article here.