Parents of children with special needs have unique challenges to overcome during the biblical feast days. Even the weekly sabbath can be difficult for a child with autism, aspergers, ADHD, or other special needs. Let’s talk about how to help your child cope with the holidays.
Remember that kids and teens with special needs are easily over-stimulated. In addition, these children are often not social people. Noises and crowds overwhelm them. The unfamiliar decorations, visitors, sights and smells, and routines add to increased levels of anxiety.
Anxiety is difficult for all of us to control. All children need to be taught to have self control, but when a child is facing physical disabilities, it is even harder to learn this essential skill. You can patiently teach your child biblical character, but in the meantime, you can also show grace and love by helping your child understand why the holiday times are so different.
Here are some ideas:
Is the environment over-stimulating to your child?
If your child has a sensory processing disorder, then too much stimulation through his five senses can really cause trouble. For instance, if your child is sensitive to noise, how will he react to the holidays? Keep in mind that crinkling paper, loud praise music, dancing and singing, loud prayers in Hebrew (which is probably not your child’s primary language), children running and playing, and noisy meals with clanging utensils — these all start to add up!
Simply knowing what senses can overload your child will help you think of coping strategies. Often, simply escaping the stimulation for a short time can help. A walk outside or a short drive in the car can help. Plan ahead for coping strategies that fit your child’s needs.
Is your child able to hear you?
Let your child know what is expected of him. Remind him to look you in the eyes before you speak, so that you can see that he is actively listening to your instructions. The moment of personal, one-on-one, eyeball-to-eyeball attention can really communicate love to your child as well.
Does your child need a predictable routine?
At home, your child is used to predictable things happening in his day. Breakfast is at this time, school is at that time, Dad comes home here.
But during sabbaths and feast days, nothing happens at a normal time. In addition, late night meals, unfamiliar foods, and new people can add to a sense of being “off kilter.”
As much as possible, let your child know what to expect next. If you don’t know what is next, it’s okay to tell your child that, too! But do communicate with your child often.
When something unexpected happens, take a moment to pull your child aside. Say, “Honey, I know we were expecting to eat lunch next, but we just found out that we’re going to have a short prayer service first. We will stand and hear the men praying, then we will eat lunch after that.”
Remember that your presence is the most “predictable” thing in your child’s life. It is enjoyable for mothers to talk and spend time with other women; however, remember that your child also needs you. Communicate your love for your child through little touches, looks, hugs, and smiles, even in the midst of the grown-up stimulation coming at you. Remind your adult friends that you might need to take a moment here and there to spend quiet time with your child.
Are there too many choices?
In the midst of so much unfamiliarity, don’t make the mistake of offering too many choices to your child.
Sometimes we adults think we can communicate love by offering choices. “Would you like grape juice or apple juice? Would you like to try the plain challah or the sesame challah?”
However, you can eliminate some of the stress by being the Mom to your child. Take charge! Tell your child, “I am going to put these foods on your plate, then we will pick up a cup of water, then we will sit here next to Mrs. Jones. I would like you to hold the spoons and forks for me while we go through the food line. Now sit here quietly with your hands folded until I return with our dessert plates.”
Remember that your child is a child. He might not be able to process everything going on and make choices in unfamiliar environments at the same time. It’s too much! Be the adult leader your child needs, and kindly guide him. You’re not his buddy; you’re his mother.
Is your child tired?
He probably is tired. Maybe he is sleeping in a strange place. Maybe the festivities are going late into the night, after sugar-filled meals. Maybe you’ve been traveling to get to this place.
What can you do to preserve your child’s normal sleep routines? How can he get a nap? How can he get to bed?
Sometimes we moms feel sorry for ourselves when we have to leave shabbat or a feast before other adults, so that we can tuck our kids into bed or take a few minutes for a regular bedtime routine. Remember that this is a season. The Father has given this child into your care. Feast days and shabbats will continue for many more years; you only have this short time to mother your child.
Are the expectations of others too high?
Sometimes we expect the behavior of children to be super human. Yes, they should be obedient. No, they should not have tantrums.
But during a feast is not the ideal time to train your child. You have many days at home during the rest of the year during which you can train and teach your child — and you should!
The feast days, however, are times for grace and caring. Don’t worry about looks you might receive or comments you overhear. You know the circumstance better than others. Keep your eyes on your task at hand. Remember to give thanks for your child and not to compare him to others.
(And maybe you can ask your husband to shield you from especially meddlesome people and to stick up for you. I’m sure he’d be happy to do that!)
Is a meltdown coming?
Many special-needs children exhibit physical cues before having a meltdown or tantrum. Does your child shake his head back and forth? Does he make a coughing noise in his throat? Do his eyes start to cross a bit?
Keep your eyes out, Mom. Many meltdowns can be prevented by careful observance.
But if he has a meltdown, it’s okay. Your pride will be hurt, but it won’t be the end of the world either. Can you physically remove him from the environment? Can you hold him? Can you sing together?
Have you asked the Rauch for help?
This is the most important advice of all. What a mighty God we serve! He is standing, ready and waiting, to assist you.
Ask Him for wisdom, a request He always answers.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5, ESV).
When He gives you advice, especially through your husband, don’t be double-minded. (Remember that your child needs predictability.) Have courage to do what the Spirit has revealed to you.
“But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8, ESV).
Best of all, use these times to pray with your child. This is the best “coping strategy” you can teach him, right? And even if the holidays don’t go exactly as you planned, you’ll have these precious memories to look back on, as you taught your child to walk with the Father moment by moment.