The Holidays are my favorite time of the year, but they can be challenging for families, especially families who have children with developmental disabilities. Your family may find their entire schedule and life turned upside down in the next few weeks. You may be invited to Holiday parties, children may have school programs, family members and friends may visit and schedules will change. If you celebrate Christmas, you may even have to wear a scratchy Christmas sweater! As a parent, you may want to curl up into a ball after all the Holiday decorating and merry-making (aka stress). But, there are things you can do to make your and your family’s lives a little easier during this holiday season.
To begin with, you can prepare your child for the changes in the next few weeks. A visual schedule can be helpful. Talk over the activities you are doing and when it is happening. You may start utilizing some antecedent strategies. You can role-play with your children to help them understand what to expect from the new activities scheduled. Explain expectations and talk about ways they can use their voice to ask for a break or communicate their feelings.
The next thing is to practice. Does a sibling have a music concert? Practice sitting through a song at home, and increase the duration of songs. Practice sitting in a folding chair vs. on the sofa while the song is playing. Turn the volume up louder to mimic a school auditorium. Try to recreate the music concert experience and practice attending. You can provide reinforcement when it is due. Be prepared and keep known reinforcers on hand. Use differential reinforcement. Your child wiggled in their sit all through the concert, but they didn’t scream or cry. Reinforce the sitting and the absence of yelling. You may want to use the Premack principle. “If you do this…then you will get this…” The Premack principle can be a useful tool to get a child to participate or do a less preferred activity. If a child is able to sit for a Holiday photo and smile then they get access to their table for 15 minutes.
The next thing you can do is prepare others. Your family may not be like other families, in fact, no two families are the same, so don’t be shy in sharing how your family functions during the Holiday season. If people are visiting, be clear about the family’s schedule. Talk about how you handle escalations in behavior, share your quiet times, how early you get up, and favorite chairs, rooms, or activities they need to know about. Be upfront with accepting invitations and explaining that plans may change in your family at the last minute. Talk to hosts about your child. Share the great and the not-so-great. They love to dance, but often have issues with transitions. Explain the way you may handle something, especially if it can be surprising for others, or ways your child may react to certain things. If your child doesn’t like loud noises, explain you may leave if it gets too loud. It’s better to talk about things up front before an issue arises.
It is important to put your family first. Be prepared to turn down invitations. It’s okay to say no. If a party is at 7 pm and will be hard to attend due to the family schedule, it is okay to say no. Plan your weeks and activities to ensure the best possible outcomes. Set your family up for success. Talk with your family members and determine what they want to do and what their priorities are, work to make those happen and then sit back and enjoy the rest of your time. You don’t have to be perfect. Your Holiday card may only include part of the family or you may miss a party, but you will feel less stressed and a lot more joyful.
~Dr. Anissa Jepsen, Ed.D, BCBA, LBA-SD