Posted by Jamie Granatino, M.S., BCBA, Clinical Director of BCOTB
As a proud new parent of two amazing teenagers, this fall I’ve been thinking a lot about family traditions and incorporating children into the rest of an extended family who may not get to see them often. I hope these tips will help other parents to help their children adjust to all of the changes in routine that come with the holidays!
- Orient your child to their environment: If you are hosting Thanksgiving at your home, set up decorations and any extra furniture that you will need for your guests in advance so that your child can become familiar with the changes. If you are going to a friend or a relative’s home, if possible, bring your child there at a time when it is quiet so you can show him around, let him see where the play areas and bathrooms are, and find a place where you could bring him if it becomes too noisy or overwhelming and he needs a break. If it is not possible to bring him there beforehand, ask the host if they can send you pictures or even a walk-through video of the house that you can view and explain to your child.
- Familiarize your child with the other guests: Holidays are a wonderful time for us to catch up with family and friends who we haven’t seen in a while, sometimes months or years. For children, not just those with developmental disabilities, this can be frightening or overwhelming being confronted with “strangers” who they may feel are invading their personal space with unwanted hugs and kisses. Even if your child has met the other guests before, do not assume that they remember them or have positive associations with them. Show your child recent photos or videos of the people they will spend time with. If your child is sensitive with sensory concerns, you may even want to prepare them for scents (a strong perfume that Aunt Gladys always wears), textures (the scratchy sports coat that Grandpa wears), and touch (Grandma’s big kisses or pinches on the cheek). Prepare your family members as well, by sending them a “family newsletter” on how your child’s life and development has been going, and let them know helpful tips for spending time with him (i.e. “Henry is shy when spending time with people, but he loves cars and a great way to get him to play with you would be to sit down on the floor and zoom them around! Once he approaches you, you can ask if he’d like tickles; if he repeats “tickle” then go ahead and tickle his belly, he loves that!”)
- Put it all together in a story: Social stories are a great way to introduce children to new situations or demands, particularly when you also use practice and role playing. On each page, write 1-3 sentences about a particular aspect of the situation and accompany it with a picture. Some people use cartoons or line drawings, but a photo of the actual person or place can be even more effective for some children. Focus on appropriate behavior and problem solving (i.e. “If someone tries to hug me and I don’t want them to, I can shake their hand, give them a high five, or say no thank you.”) that will be helpful to the child. After developing the story and reading it together, role play different parts of the situation that you think will be the most difficult for your child so that they are comfortable with different parts of the situation and have learned how to respond.
- Plan for flexibility: Even with all of your careful preparations, there may be things that will be difficult for your child to handle. Make sure to have food from home that your child is comfortable eating, toys that they enjoy with them, a quiet place where you can bring them to take a break and get away from the noise and people, and be prepared that your child could need to leave a little earlier than planned. If you are able, bring two cars so that if you have other children, one parent can stay with the others while the other parent takes the child who has had enough family bonding for one day home.
The holidays are a wonderful time for us to spend time with others and show them how proud we are of our children. Just remember that your child may need a little extra help preparing for the festivities in order to really enjoy them. What other things have you done to help your child get ready for holidays? Share your ideas in the comments below!