Your Special Child - December 2008
Take the Holidays in Stride
By Amy Landsman
Whether you’re cooped up at 30,000 feet, or gathered around Grandma’s table,
here are some tips on easing the stress of the holidays for you and your child
with special needs.
Last Christmas, Laurie Moran had one of those “a-ha” moments, and it changed
the way she now views the holidays.
Each year Moran, the director of Project ACT/the Abilities Network in Towson,
would buy a special ornament for a little artificial tree she’d put in her
Last year her daughter said, “Enough already.”
“She didn’t want it…she said ‘It’s one more thing to do,’” laughs Moran. “…This
is coming from my 10-year-old!”
Moran’s daughter, Hannah, is on the autism spectrum and has ADHD. Like many
children with special needs, all the preparations plus the sudden change in
routine over the holidays can throw her for a loop.
“It’s so important for my daughter to keep that routine,” Moran says. “I lay
out a day-by-day plan. It really does make my daughter’s life much more
comfortable. She’s going to be more flexible if she knows what’s going to
Know What to Expect
Advance planning is a great strategy for making the holidays more
successful, agrees child development specialist and parent educator Aviva
Pflock. Pflock is co-author, with social worker Devra Renner, of Mommy
Guilt: Learn To Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids (AMACOM Books, 2005).
“Definitely do some preparation; talk about how things are going to be
different,” says Pflock, adding that parents can emphasize the positive aspect
of holidays, such as travel, visiting family, or even just sleeping late for a
Moran finds that advance planning helps avoid meltdowns.
“For special events in general, I talk to Hannah a couple of weeks beforehand.
I script what’s going to happen. I say, ‘When you’re really ready to go, I need
to know five to 10 minutes before, so we can say our goodbyes’…We’ve developed
Holiday traditions are great, but what if Grandma expects the whole family to
sit down for a formal dinner, and you know your child won’t last 10 minutes?
“Again, it’s planning,” says Renner. “If you know that the adults are going to
sit around and talk, have a movie for the kids to watch. Know that you’re going
to have to make accommodations for different age groups, different attention
spans, and that’s fine. The idea is to enjoy each other’s company, not to see
how miserable we can make each other.”
The same goes for whether you’re flying or driving. Explain to your child what
he or she can expect, focus on the pleasant aspects, and be ready to go with
“Cooped up at 30,000 feet with unhappy people is not fun,” laughs Renner. “[You
need] that combination of Be Prepared and Be Adaptable.”
With winter breaks lasting 10 days or more, there’s a lot of free time to fill.
Renner and Pflock suggest looking into vacation camps, cooking together,
visiting the library, or other focused activities.
That’s not always easy. Just ask Michelle Hart of Cockeysville, who is the
mother of three. Her oldest child, 7-year-old Jackson, has multiple challenges
and requires extensive care.
“We try to schedule activities. That can be challenging, especially when you
have a child in a wheelchair. We have to really think through ‘What can we do
as a family?’” Hart explains, adding that the National Aquarium and Maryland
Science Center are always good bets.
In the end, it’s important to keep things realistic, as Moran realized when she
didn’t have to put that little tree in her daughter’s room.
“The focus should be on the enjoyment of the holiday,” notes Renner. BC
For a Smooth Holiday…
Get support from other parents of children
with special needs. “You realize your child isn’t the only one who won’t eat
the mashed potatoes because they have pepper in them,” says Laurie Moran,
director of Project ACT/the Abilities Network in Towson.
Refuse to let well-meaning family and friends make you feel guilty. “The
parents always need to remind themselves, if they have to, that they are the
ones living with the child day in and day out, and they are doing what is in
the best interest of their child and their family,” says Aviva Pflock, a child
development specialist and parent educator. “No one can walk into your house
and, in five minutes, tell you how you should be doing things.”
Is your child sensitive to certain noises, foods, or situations? Let everyone
know in advance.
“Letting your guests know…your child may have sensitivities may help things
along. Maybe you’ve got an uncle who’s got a boisterous laugh that you know
will send your child running under the table screaming. [Let] your uncle know
‘Love your laugh, my kid doesn’t!’” says Devra Renner, a social worker.
@ Baltimore’s Child Inc. December 2008