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Tweak Your Traditions

Adjusting Holiday Habits for Your Child With Special Needs

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The holidays are a time of beloved family traditions ... unless you have a child with special needs, in which case you may find those traditions to be impractical or impossible. With a little tweaking, though, you can start your own traditions, just a little off from the old. Here are nine holiday habits and how to adjust them.

Tradition #1: The Holiday Baking

Special-Needs Carol 6: Have a Hypoallergenic Christmas
Text copyright © Terri Mauro. Artwork copyright © Bobbie Peachey.

The Tradition: Sugar cookies with colored icing and sugar sprinkles. Pumpkin bread warm from the oven. Fruitcake, maybe hard as a brick, maybe tender with chunks of fruit and scents of spice. Pies for dessert, coffee cake for breakfast around the tree, gingerbread men to be decorated with sweet icing and bits of candy. Recipes passed down through the years.

The Tweak: Those traditional recipes may be ending their run if your child has food allergies, Celiac disease, diabetes, or other reasons for a restricted diet. But all that means is you're going to develop some new recipes that will be traditional to your own family and especially yours. Sub out the gluten, the nuts, the sugar, the eggs, whatever harms your child. The love stays in. Read more.

Tradition #2: The Christmas Cards

Special-Needs Carol 2: I'm Dreaming of a Quiet Christmas
Text copyright © Terri Mauro. Artwork copyright © Bobbie Peachey.

The Tradition: You order cards well ahead of time, maybe preprinted with your family name, kids, dog, the works. You pen a thoughtful holiday letter about all your family's triumphs through the year, slip the cards and letters in envelopes with specially selected Christmas stamps and coordinated return-address labels, and send them out well in advance of the holiday.

The Tweak: If you had hours for making out cards and sending them out early, you'd probably use them to catch up on sleep. If you're going to get cards out at all -- before, say, February -- you'll need a much quicker method than pen, paper, and stamps. Fortunately, online cards make it easy to e-mail greetings to lots of friends and family at once. Read more.

Tradition #3: The School Pageant

Special-Needs Carol 10: There Goes Routine
Text copyright © Terri Mauro. Artwork copyright © Bobbie Peachey.

The Tradition: There's not a dry parental eye in the house as adorable cherubs take the stage, one cutie-pie class at a time, to sing carols, stumble through recitations, do little dances, and create heartwarming holiday memories. They've been preparing for weeks, you know, for their turn on the risers, and other than the occasional endearing goof, they're glorious.

The Tweak: All that practicing may be fun for most kids, but for many kids with special needs the disruption of classroom routines are intolerable, not to mention long hours in an echoing gym waiting around through long rehearsals. Consider whether the payoff of being on stage is really worth it for your youngster, or if a cameo appearance might be better than a longer performance. Read more.

Tradition #4: The Mall Trip

Special-Needs Carol 11: Carol of the Mall
Text copyright © Terri Mauro. Artwork copyright © Bobbie Peachey.

The Tradition: A fun day of holiday shopping! Parent and child enjoying the sights and smells of the decorated stores, shop-hopping in search of special gifts, standing in line for a chance to sit on Santa's lap, maybe grabbing a nice lunch at a mall restaurant or a snack at the food court. Coming home as the sky starts to darken with loads of shopping bags and fun memories.

The Tweak: The hustle and bustle of Christmastime commerce may be thrilling for some, but many kids with special needs are overwhelmed by crowds and noise and smells and lines. Even Santa may not be enough of a lure to stand still endlessly waiting. A short focused trip in off hours may be a more enchanting choice -- though the food-court snack can stay. Read more.

Tradition #5: The Holiday Outfit

Special-Needs Carol 8: You Better Watch Out
Text copyright © Terri Mauro. Artwork copyright © Bobbie Peachey.

The Tradition: You've always dreamed of it -- the little girl dressed up in taffeta and petticoats and lace, hair elaborately arranged, perfect down to the shiny paten-leather shoes; the little boy dressed in crisp shirt and tie, every hair combed and in place, pants pressed and pleated. They'll pose for photos, they'll be made over by family, they'll make a beautiful Christmas card.

The Tweak: For kids with sensory sensitivities, all that fancy Christmas dressing is a recipe for tantrums, meltdowns, and abject misery. Really, though, clothes don't have to be uncomfortable to be festive. Even comfy sweats or that favorite dress she won't take off can get a holiday makeover with special accessories. You want them smiling for that photo, right? Read more.

Tradition #6: The Worship Service

Special-Needs Carol 3: Too-Silent Night
Text copyright © Terri Mauro. Artwork copyright © Bobbie Peachey.

The Tradition: Christmas eve. Candles lighted, congregation quieted, choir singing songs of the season. Your family fills a pew, kids in holiday finest, eyes shining at the sight of wreathes and trees and the baby Jesus in his crib. The children sit quietly, hands folded, eyelids maybe a little heavy at the late hour, and your clan has a blessed Christmas experience.

The Tweak: Your kid doesn't "do" quiet church behavior even on an ordinary Sunday, so there's no reason to think that Christmas eve wil be any different. Choose the shortest service, put together all your ordinary routines and precautions, and make it your goal to have a successful experience as opposed to sitting through the entire thing in quiet contemplation. Read more.

Tradition #7: The Family Gathering

Special-Needs Carol 12: Hark, the Relatives Complain
Text copyright © Terri Mauro. Artwork copyright © Bobbie Peachey.

The Tradition: A house full of parents and kids, dressed in holiday finest, dining on traditional family recipes handed down through the years, working thorugh traditional family tensions handed down through the generations. Kids behave, elders are respected, plates are cleaned, decorum is observed (at least until the adults get crocked on eggnog), and everything goes just so.

The Tweak: Your child doesn't do things just so, and neither do you anymore. You've learned to roll with things a little more, not sweat the small stuff, choose your battles. So you'll want to go to family gatherings prepared -- with food your child can eat, toys your child can play with, cotton balls to keep cruel comments from your ears, and a plan for a quick getaway. Read more.

Tradition #8: The Holiday Party

Special-Needs Carol 1: We Won't Go
Text copyright © Terri Mauro. Artwork copyright © Bobbie Peachey.

The Tradition: Good food, good drink, good friends, good times. Welcoming a houseful of people in to admire your hospitality, your holiday decorating, your cooking skills, and the perfection of your children and family life. Whether a New Year's Eve bash or a Christmas open house, entertaining is the way you offer your season's greetings to friends and acquaintances.

The Tweak: As much as you may enjoy opening your home to outsiders, your child may see it as a disruption and a violation of space. Even if your youngster cautiously welcomes festivities and friends, you'll need to plan for stress meltdowns and create a haven of routine and privacy within the swirling commotion of hearty partying. Read more.

Tradition #9: The Christmas Carols

Special-Needs Carol 4: Echolalia Bells
Text copyright © Terri Mauro. Artwork copyright © Bobbie Peachey.

The Tradition: Sweet songs fill the air, gentle carols telling sacred stories, lively melodies heralding Santa's arrival. Perhaps you go door to door spreading musical cheer, or croon together in the living room as a family blended in harmony. Those traditional tunes warm your heart, lift your spirit, and make the season bright.

The Tweak: Well, sure, you'll still sing those old standards, unless your child can't stand the sound of music, or you're too exhausted from putting out stress flare-ups to raise your voice in song. For something a little more apropos to the way holidays really feel in your house, try my Special-Needs Carols written just for parents like you. Read more.

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