Last month, on the way home from my nephew’s baptism party, my husband said, in a shocked tone, “That was the best family party we have ever been to. The kids were amazing and had so much fun! I wasn’t even stressed out or worried about the kids getting over stimulated. What just happened?”
Throughout the rest of our 3-hour car drive home, we discussed what had made this particular party so much fun. We also compared it to other parties that were not nearly so pleasant. Parties that ended in tears and meltdowns, parties that we had to leave because one of our kids was just too over stimulated to handle. Parties that I swore would be the last I attended because things had gone so poorly for Danny and/or Charlotte.
We realized this particular party in September had been so successful because we have some family members who are 100% committed to making family gatherings pleasant for my two SPD kids.
Though my family has always been supportive, they haven’t always known how to help. So what changed? As I think back over the last few years, I can come up with a lot of little things that helped open up the communication lines between my family members and me which helped my family—who love my kids unconditionally—gain a better understanding of our sensory issues.
So, I have a few pieces of advice, things I have learned the hard way, things you may find helpful during these challenging holiday times.
Make sure your family members see your kids in a variety of situations
A few weeks ago, my younger brother exclaimed in surprise, “Danny’s like a whole different kid when he’s in a small group! He talks more and interacts with me. And he isn’t as hyper or frustrated. I can see now how parties affect him and why you want to make some changes.”
Since most of the contact my brother has with Danny is in big groups, he had no idea how well-behaved and fun to be around Danny can be when his senses are regulated. My brother didn’t realize that the reason Danny sometimes behaved so erratically and anti-socially was because of all the sensory craziness at big parties.
If your family members only ever see your kids in stressful situations where they are “acting up,” they may not even realize things can be different. They may have no idea how much better things could be if some changes were made to the family functions. Once they understand, as my brother does, how different things can be, it is more likely that they will be in your corner.
Be open about what is happening even when things aren’t going well
Last year in November, we were at my mom’s house celebrating Charlotte’s birthday. Mom’s house is rather small and the basement has some crazy acoustics. When you get 20 or more people down there, it is unbearably loud. At the beginning of this gathering, I found Danny standing in the middle of the chaos yelling, “Everyone, be QUIET! Stop yelling!” but no one even heard him because of all the noise.
I could tell Danny was getting set to melt down, so I took him aside and explained that we couldn’t make everyone be quiet. Instead, Danny would have to go upstairs to the bedroom where he could have some peace. I explained that he should do this anytime things got too loud, which is exactly what Danny did throughout the night.
Later in the night, after the party was over, my mom mentioned something about Danny being put into time-out so much that night. She misunderstood and thought he had been getting sent upstairs all night and she didn’t understand why. Once I explained to her that Danny was trying to get away from the noise, she realized how difficult it was for him to deal with. Since then she has made every effort to make parties less noisy and more manageable.
If my mom hadn't asked me about the supposed timeouts, I don't know if I would have explained to her what had happened that night. This experience made me realize that I need to share what is going on with my family, so they understand what my kids' difficulties are.
Give concrete solutions to the problems
Voicing your concerns and difficulties is a good idea, but don't stop there. In all likelihood, your family may have no idea how to help your kids. Remember, it probably took a lot of research and observation for you to understand your kids, so give your family members some help. Come up with specific ideas on how your family can assist your kid with his sensory needs. For example, in the past, after Danny had difficulty at a party at my sister's, I mentioned that when Danny can go into her basement to get away from the noise and chaos, he has a much better time. Since then, Beth has been conscientious in making sure her basement is cleaned up and ready to be played in anytime we come over for a party.
Don’t give up
You may feel like you already have enough on your plate with parenting a special needs child/children. Possibly you resent having the responsibility of educating your extended family. They should just understand, right?
Not so fast. Though I have felt this way, too, now I understand that expecting others to comprehend what you are going through is unrealistic. I never would have understood before having my own special needs kids. How can I expect my family members, who don’t see my kids every week, to understand without me helping them?
Remember, this is a process. It may take a while for you and your family to discover the right formula for making parties a success. Try to communicate openly with your family with love and understanding. It's not easy for them either, but if you work together, you can someday come away from a gathering marveling at how much fun you and your kid actually had.