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How To Have A Merry Christmas With A Special Needs Child

The holidays are upon us and for most families, it’s the happiest time of the year.

Kids can be cajoled into doing almost anything with just a reminder of Santa’s imminent arrival. Yes, it gets busy with lengthy gift lists and special events, but there’s an underlying level of giddiness in the air. This has always been my and my husband’s favorite time of year and when we had my son, we were really excited to share that with him. Unfortunately, life does not always follow the plan.

For special-needs families, holidays are hard.

Really, really, really, hard. For example, my son is really sensitive and gets overstimulated very easily. When every place we go suddenly has tons of decorations and Christmas carols blaring through the speakers, it can be a lot for him to handle. He has sensitive hearing and HATES the high-pitched sound of bells, so at the very least, it’s a good thing there aren’t many Christmas songs with bells in them (I wish you could see my giant eye roll right now, but hopefully the sarcasm is translating through your screen). For kids with sensory issues, it’s a very fine line between their surroundings being exciting and terrifying. I always had these visions of taking my son out to all the community holiday events and watching him get so excited, but we quickly realized that we needed a plan B.

This year, my plan B is to relax about creating the “perfect” holiday season. There’s so much pressure to do All. The. Things around Christmas. Every program, parade, and class party comes with a costume theme, gift exchange, and menu item to prepare. It”s a lot to handle for every family, but add in a special needs kiddo, and there are at least 10 more obstacles to consider like:

• Is the time convenient for him to decompress from school beforehand?
• Which therapy did he have today and how demanding was it?
• If the crowd cheers too loudly for Santa, is it going to scare him to death?
• When is Santa’s arrival? If we get there early, will we have time for him to settle in and acclimate before things get started?
• Will there be food there that he’s going to eat or do I need to bring his dinner?
• How many “extras” have we already done this week?

Most of our issues are sound-related, but the list of possible triggers can be endless. There can very easily end up being a perfect storm of chaos to set him off, from which there is no recovery, and then you feel like you’ve just wasted all the time and extra effort it took to get to wherever it is you’re now racing away from. I’m not still bitter, I swear, it’s just the Ghost of Resentment’s Past.  

It’s been a special kind of heartbreak to see other kids that are the same age as mine having the time of their lives, while mine couldn’t be more miserable and upset. In years past, it has been hard for me to enjoy the holidays with him rather than focus on all the fun he’s not having. Even writing this has me trying not to cry, but we’ve had some HUGE holiday-related accomplishments this year. 5 years ago, who knew I would be so excited to hear the same snow globe song play for the umpteenth time before the sun comes up, because he can finally hear it without a meltdown.

Holidays With A Special Needs ChildHere are some of the ways we’re making the holidays happy for ALL of us this year.

1.Staying In: We’ve planned to take him to a couple of holiday events that haven’t worked out and that’s okay! He was either tired/sick, the place was going to be packed, or he was just being an all around grump that day. Chances are, he will eventually love to go see Santa and watch more Christmas parades than I can handle, but he’s just not there yet. When the activities that are supposed to be fun suddenly aren’t, why do them? It’s going to be a much merrier Christmas if we meet H where he is, instead of where he should be.

2. Chatting Up the Cheer: I can’t count the number of conversations we’ve had with him (since Halloween!) about Christmas and all that comes with it. We’ve always talked to him a ton, but it can be easy to forget how much detail there is to explain that we tend to take for granted. He’s finally at a level of communication where preparing him for what’s to come can help him understand what we are doing. He had his school program last week and we have talked to him so much about the noise level, who was going to be there, and how he should try his hardest to be brave. He came home every day telling us “I brave!” and “I try!” and he actually made it through 30 minutes of it before he had reached his limit. That was a big step for him and he’s still telling us how brave he is. He knows he did something major and he’s proud of himself, which is helping to add to his excitement about Christmas.

3. Uncomplicate the Process: We’re only going to wrap a few of his presents this year and leave the rest out with a bow or in gift bags. We aren’t even going to push him to open everything on Christmas. We’ll do a little bit at a time and if he doesn’t get through all his presents, we’ll just extend his cheer for the next few days. It’s going to kill my little Type A heart not to have all the paper and presents put away, but I’ll find a way to deal. It will probably involve a festive cocktail or two, but whatever gets the job done!

4.Let It Go: The bottom line is: if my kid isn’t having any fun at the “fun” activity, he’s not missing out. I think part of my frustration and fear with this whole holiday mess is that I’m afraid he’s missing all of the most magical parts of his childhood. But he’s not. I’ve never had a desire to go sleep in the woods, so I’m not resentful that I never went camping. He may eventually love all of this stuff that I’m so desperate for him to experience, but he might not.

I’m sure some of you are screaming at me to appreciate the blessing of having a child who is oblivious to Elf on the Shelf (!) but that’s easier said than done for me. I’m working to accept and be content in the fact that he is who he is. I know that I can give him a childhood that he will treasure by not pushing him to do all the “fun” things that he hates. He has a blast being at home playing with us and listening to his dad play the same Cars song over and over (and over. And over. And over.). Those are going to be the memories he will love and cherish, not the 34 Christmas events we dragged him to every year.

Photo by Snapshot30A Photography

So far, these few changes have made it a more fun, laid back holiday season for all of us. I have my Christmas fun after he goes to bed at night and I’m finding new ways for me to celebrate (pro tip: A giant Santa coffee mug and sassy, festive wine glass are both HUGE helpers. Michael’s for the win!). Even simple things like really stopping to check out the decorations while I’m shopping and listening to Christmas music while I race through my to-do list every day help me to feel like I’m getting to savor the season. Being forced to slow down on all the extras and expectations has enabled me to appreciate the small things that have always made Christmas so magical.✨

I’m sending you all good wishes for a relaxing, wonderful holiday season and a happy new year. If you want to follow along with more of my crazy shenanigans, check out my bio below.

Happy Holidays with special needs child

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6 Responses to How To Have A Merry Christmas With A Special Needs Child

  1. Megan C December 21, 2017 at 10:20 am #

    You are amazing. Enjoyed reading this…looks like you and your sweet family are going to have a great Christmas on the Emerald Coast!

    • Sara Tallent
      Sara Tallent December 21, 2017 at 10:33 am #

      Thanks so much for taking the time to respond, Megan! Aren’t they just the sweetest! Happy Holidays to you and yours, too! xo

  2. Linda comella December 21, 2017 at 11:46 am #

    You and Chris are so amazing! God has given you a special child in Hayden and He has obviously graced you with so many gifts and talents to raise him! So enjoyed reading your blog! Can feel your heart and soul in your words! Merry Christmas!

    • Sara Tallent
      Sara Tallent December 21, 2017 at 8:14 pm #

      Thank you for your comment, Linda! Merry Christmas to you!

  3. Libby McPherson December 21, 2017 at 6:21 pm #

    I truly enjoyed your blog and will continue to follow you as our special needs child is now a sophomore in college he is still training me. I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas.

    • Sara Tallent
      Sara Tallent December 21, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Libby. We are so glad it connected with you and are grateful for you taking the time to read and respond! Thanks for your kind words and we hope you have a Merry Christmas too!