By Donna Shea & Nadine Briggs
Both of us are veterans of stressful family gatherings. I (Donna) can tell you that I never attended a family gathering that looked like the one in the picture. It was always a dream, but never the reality.
Relatives in large groups can be a lot of fun, but can also easily overwhelm your child’s social skills abilities. Kids who become stressed by changes in routine, noise, smells, and their emotions more easily overcome extra demands. They may implode and be clingy and shy, or they may explode, and behaviors may escalate.
Prior proper planning can help alleviate stress — preview with your child who will be there and what they may expect. In my family, one my side, we tend to do holidays in an express-like fashion. We eat, we visit, and we call it an early night. On my boys’ dad’s side, it was an event that extended long into the evening with board games. Neither of my ADHD/Anxious/Sensory sons did well with long family events. One way we helped them was for each of us to take a car. That way, when the boys had enough, the one who’s family it wasn’t could take them home. Fortunately, they are both in their 30’s now and can drive themselves home!
Another way you can plan is to remember to bring any specific food requirements your child may have. They may need particular snacks to help them on a long drive. Bring a bottle of ketchup if your kid puts it on their turkey with you just in case your host doesn’t have any or if the bottle that grandma has expired in 2016 (believe me, this ruined a Thanksgiving one year, and I felt so badly for my kid). Hey, and if your child only wants to eat the dinner rolls, relax, it’s just a holiday.
Now might be a good time to pack a calming kit (we talk about this in our I Feel Worried book) with items that help soothe your child. A scented pillow, a favorite stuffy, coloring materials, gum, squeeze ball, are all ideas to add. You might also want to consider picking up a new toy (for example, a small Lego kit) as a different item to keep your child busy if there is a long wait for dinner. There is also nothing wrong with allowing a little screen time in a quiet area if your child needs it to regulate.
You might also consider positive behavior reinforcement with a small point system or token jar to help your child stay focused and on track — layout your expectations. For example, 1. Use your manners. 2. No going under the table, 3. Hands to yourself, 4. etc. I suggest no more than four. Then, tally up the points at the end of the day and have a small prize when they earn all the points. Please do not make hugging or kissing mostly-unknown relatives an expectation. Allow your child to wave or offer a high-five instead.
So what do you do if your child does lose it or starts to misbehave? Do what you would do at home. Take them to a quiet spot away from prying eyes. Allow a break in the action. We have to beware that we don’t behave more harshly towards our kids who struggle because we feel we are being watched and judged.
And sometimes, being judgy is the case with family members. I can’t tell you how many times we as parents of these guys hear, “if you would just ________” he wouldn’t behave that way anymore. Or, the other one, “if he were my kid, I would _________.” Well, he isn’t your kid. The best response that I have come up with for relatives who only see your child in snippets is to thank them for their experience and input, and then do what you know is right for your child. You are the expert on what your child needs. Stay true as their social coach during these significant social events, and you will both make it through the turkey dinner!