15 Tips for Thanksgiving

With Your Extra Needs Child

For many families, Thanksgiving presents extra challenges, and some parents are feeling bad that their family doesn’t have the type of holidays they see on TV, in movies, shared on social media, or described by other families.

For those families with children with extra needs, whose children may have trouble with traveling, changes in routine, tolerating noises, handling crowds, greeting strangers and unfamiliar relatives; whose children may have trouble with the excitement of taking turns, sharing toys, or playing with cousins, who won’t eat much of the food that is served, who have trouble if they miss a nap or a meal, or who are uncomfortable in their “fancy” clothes- I’m thinking of you today.

For these families (and ALL families) - here are some Thanksgiving tips…

1-Accept The first thing to do is just accept. Accept that your child has challenges that may make the holiday different and, perhaps in some ways, more difficult. You may never have the type of holiday that you remember as a child or that you dreamed of having for your own children. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have an enjoyable holiday. So, what are you going to do?

2- Have Realistic Expectations- So many families don’t realize that by not considering what their children can and cannot handle, they put their children and their families in situations that are destined for failure. It would be better to have realistic expectations and set your family up for success.

3- Learn how to say “NO!”- If you can’t handle staying at Grandma’s with 10 other family members, find a nearby hotel or make it a day trip. If cooking all the food is too much for you to take on- have guests bring some of the food. If you decide that your family can’t handle a large holiday gathering this year, opt out and celebrate a quiet holiday at home.

4- Be sure you take care of yourself- Many parents are tired from the everyday challenges of meeting the needs of their high needs children. Adding the challenges of a large family gathering can be a lot for parents to handle, especially if unresolved childhood issues tend to arise. You must make your self-care a priority instead of a “luxury” that never happens. As the holiday approaches, take time for a walk, get adequate sleep, eat healthy meals, meditate, go see a movie, or spend time with a friend.

5-Be proactive- Anticipate your child’s needs and act before a problem occurs- set the stage for success- If celebrating at someone else’s house- try to get there early so that you are not walking into a crowd, which can be overwhelming for children. Stay close to your child, especially if there are many other “excited” children there. If necessary, find a quiet place for your child to have a calming moment. If your child needs activity, take them outside for a walk or a chance to run around.  Stay in tune with your child, and “respect” what they communicate to you. If they say or show that they need a break- give it. Be prepared to take a break or leave at the first sign of overwhelm- instead of extending your stay and increasing the likelihood of a melt-down. Be sure your child is fed and rested before joining the celebration. (Food may not be served right away; the food may not be to your child’s liking or in accordance with any food restrictions your child is following.) If your child will only eat one food- let it go. For one day, it won’t hurt him, and with everything else going on, that may be all he can tolerate at the time

6- Be on your child’s side- If family members or other guests don’t understand your child and the challenges she faces, don’t give them free rein to criticize, insult, punish, or judge your child (or you). You may need to establish boundaries with these people so that they don’t take the opportunity to treat you and your child badly.

7- Be helpful and informative- Help your family and friends to assist in making the holiday enjoyable for your child. Hopefully when they realize your information is not a criticism of them, but rather a desire to be able to pleasantly spend time together, they may be more receptive. It may mean that no one rushes to your child and envelops them in a tight hug, voices are quieter, or music is not so loud.

8- Be Consistent- Try to maintain eating, sleep, and activity schedules as much as possible. A hungry, sleep-deprived child will have a much harder time dealing with any challenges that the holiday presents.

9- Be Prepared- Always bring something your children can play with, especially if traveling to a child-free home. Packing some Legos, puzzles, books, blocks, cards, and games can mean the difference between a fun, successful holiday and a frustrating day of constant correction as your children explore their surroundings and deal with boredom on top of all the other challenges of the day. (And this may lessen the desire to be “in front of a screen”!)

If your child has food restrictions or eating challenges, be sure there is at least one or two things he will be able to eat.

If there is a chance your child may need to leave early, but others in your family may want to stay, bring two cars. If necessary, you may have to have someone, or everyone stay home and have an alternate celebration.

10- Be Involved – As much as you may want to socialize with family and friends and relax and “enjoy the day”, you may have to be “on duty” to help your child manage the complexity of the day. Playing with excited cousins, sharing toys, respecting personal space, controlling behavior, excitement, voice volume, and physical activity may be a lot. If you can be present to keep things from getting out of control or to monitor that your child is engaged and not getting into trouble or being harassed, your child can have a much more enjoyable day.

11- Be understanding- Whatever distress your child communicates to you may just be the “tip of the iceberg” in regard to all the overwhelming thoughts and feelings he is dealing with. You may have trouble understanding why something is “such a big deal”, but it is, and you can help your child navigate this difficulty.

12- Be Safe- Remember you may be going to homes that don’t have children and are not “child safe”. Never assume that a home or room is safe for your child. Also, visitors to your home may have items in bags or suitcase that can be dangerous for children. Be especially mindful of the dangers of guns, medications, drugs, cigarettes and e-cigs, and chemicals and cleaning products.  Finding a gun in a closet, blood pressure medication in someone’s pocketbook, cigarettes in an ashtray, or a nicotine containing e-cigarette left on a table, can be a fatal discovery for a child.  (Poison Control 1-800-222-1222)

13- Be Flexible- Don’t be so attached to your memories of your own childhood holidays or your visions of how you wanted the holidays to be for your children. Now is the time to make new memories and traditions. Let your children help you figure out what works best for your family with your children, AS THEY ARE!

14- Be Mindful- Be aware and accept the present moment, as it is, without judgement. No matter what is happening in this moment, remember- it only lasts a MOMENT and will not be available again. It will be replaced by another moment, and then another, and another.  And none of us know how many of these “moments” we will get to experience!

15- Be Thankful- No matter how difficult things are, there is always something to be thankful for. Take the time to think about what you are thankful for. Write those things down. Ask you family members and guests to do the same and share at the table. This is a wonderful tradition to pass on to your children!

I hope you have a happy and uneventful Thanksgiving!


Juliet Marciano- All Rights Reserved 2019

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