Holiday Etiquette for Family Members of Parents with Special Needs Children

Sensitivity is the order of the day!

It’s that time of year again, and many including myself are gearing up for a host of Christmas festivities which also includes a number of family dinners. Next week, my children and I will be traveling to visit family we haven’t seen all year. I am looking forward to it. I can’t wait to see my extended family. However, there is one aspect I dread every year – the unsolicited parenting advice, questions and comments about my son.

I’ve talked about this before, but my three year old son has special needs. He hasn’t been diagnosed per se, but he has not developed at the same rate as other children. Some doctors say he could be on the autism spectrum. Others say he has developmental delays. Some specialists say wait and see. After a wide range of medical opinions, I’ve chosen to do all I can to help him progress and leave it in God’s hands.

I first noticed my son’s special needs when he was less than a year old. He struggled using his index finger and thumb to feed himself. He also was not speaking. He never referred to me or my husband as mommy and daddy. Now, as a mother of two, I see the developmental milestones in my daughter that I didn’t recognize in my son. However, through the help of speech and occupational therapists over several years, he has come a long way. I’m excited to see his personality emerge and hear him express himself verbally.

However, despite overcoming many obstacles, my son’s progress hasn’t stopped annoying – albeit well-meaning – family members from telling me what I need to do and what I’m doing wrong. This can be very painful for a parent of a special needs child. We naturally feel responsible for our child’s challenges, so it hurts even more when family members heap on more parenting guilt. We already feel like it’s our fault. So, we don’t need people reinforcing that negative thinking.

Adoptive parents, John and Laura Casper, recently wrote about their challenges of raising an autistic son. He had a breakdown in the grocery store, and they had to remove him immediately. I know about these kinds of instances all too well. As an infant, my son had extreme sensory issues. On one occasion the lights and music at my church were so overwhelming, I had to remove my son from the sanctuary and watch the Christmas presentation from the narthex. I felt like crying when people kept asking me why I was standing outside with my baby. If we were at a restaurant or family event and people broke out in the “Happy Birthday” song or clapped too loud, my son had crying fits. As a result, I limited my family functions to a few a year. It was too painful to constantly explain my son’s behavior, and I didn’t want to feel blamed for it as if I wasn’t doing all that I could to help him.

I know I’m not the only parent who feels this way. So, I’ve put together a list of holiday etiquette for family members of parents with special needs children. “Special needs” could mean autism, developmental delays, sensory issues and physical or mental handicaps. Prayerfully, this list will help people be more mindful when they comment on children or offer up unsolicited and uninformed advice.

Please do not yell questions at special needs children over and over again. They hear you.

Many children with autism or developmental delays have trouble interacting with other persons or speaking. Yelling or asking the same question over and over again will not make them speak. It is just another painful reminder to the parent that their child is different. Please acknowledge the child, and speak to the child, but do not do so in a manner where you are trying to force a verbal response. The child hears you. They just may have trouble getting their words together, or they may be nonverbal. Please be patient.

Please do not judge a special needs parent if their child is not potty trained.

This one annoys me the most. I attended a birthday party this summer, and a family with a special needs “tween” attended. The boy had on a pull up. His little sisters shared with everyone that their brother was autistic. However, before the announcement, people stared at him with judgment and questions in their eyes. My son is three and is still not potty trained. It doesn’t mean that I am not working on it every day in addition to his teachers. It just means that my son, like other children with developmental delays, needs a little bit longer to learn how to do things.

But, I get the same reactions from people. People judge the situation before they have full knowledge of why the child is not potty trained. Before you judge or question your family member about why their child is not potty trained, take a step back and recognize that there may be a sensitive reason. Do not offer unsolicited advice. What you did for your children (without special needs) will not work for special needs children. Be sensitive and slow to speak.

Do not get offended if the parent brings their own food.

My son, like many children who have developmental delays or who are autistic, is very particular about the food he eats. Oftentimes, the selection of food is extremely limited. One of my son’s classmates eats primarily oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. His parents give him vitamins to supplement his diet. It’s not that they are not offering all kinds of food to him, but he like my son and other children are extremely funny about colors and textures. For example, my son won’t eat anything with skin (i.e., grapes, apples, meat). My son’s classmate’s mother and I had a wonderful conversation talking about the similarities between our children. She could relate to the all of the struggles I have at mealtime.

So, when we show up to the family function with special food and drinks for our children, please don’t get offended. We know you’ve slaved all day cooking turkey and the trimmings, but our children will not touch it. Again, please be sensitive and understand we are trying to make sure our child has something to eat at Christmas dinner.

Do not question your family member’s disciplining practices or parenting if the child has a breakdown.

As I said before, my son used to have breakdowns if he had a sensory overload. Sometimes, I would have to remove him from church, someone’s house, a restaurant or grocery store if he had crying fits or a breakdown. When my son had breakdowns, people stared at me as if I was hurting my child or abused him because nothing I did consoled him or calmed him down. I just had to remove him from the situation. These situations are extremely stressful for parents with special needs children, so do not suggest we need to discipline our children or are negligent in our parenting. Emotional breakdowns of special needs children are not the same as temper tantrums. There are many different causes. Please be understanding and again patient!

Don’t judge. Don’t blame or accuse. Be patient, and be loving.

Again, even without special needs, every child is different. Everything does not work for everybody. If you have a family member with a special needs child, just be patient. Don’t judge them or accuse them of doing something wrong. We are just like every other parent. We want the best for our children, and we are working very hard to help them engage and function in the world. We don’t need your pity, but we do need your support and love. Please don’t ignore our children, but extend to them love and acceptance. They want to feel like they belong to the family too.

I hope this helps and makes for some great Christmas memories and family gatherings.

ChristmasBlog

My family!

join the conversation

*