Christmas Magic is a Feeling, Not a Thing

It’s that time: the holidays are upon us. With Thanksgiving being so late this year, it feels like they came on fast and furious. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed; even when you are aware and intentional about trying not to let the stress get to you, it can creep in as there is just so much to do.

As I go about all the tasks of getting ready for the big day — many of them revolving around my kids and making things special for them — I find myself thinking back to my own Christmas memories. It definitely puts things in perspective. Of course there are a few memories of seeing a certain toy under the tree that I had been hoping for, but mostly what I remember is the overall experience and how it all felt. I think of decorating our tree while a fire glowed in the fireplace, the stockings hanging from the barn-beam mantle of my childhood home, playing in the snow with my sisters and coming in to the chocolatiest hot cocoa that my mom made in a big cast iron pot. I remember Christmas Eve parties at my grandparents’ house with so much laughter and happiness. There were the different kinds of cookies my grandma made; she made extras for replenishing the trays and stored them in shirt boxes hidden from my grandpa so he wouldn’t get into them. Then coming home late, getting tucked into bed, waking up and sitting at the top of the stairs with my sisters, while my parents went downstairs, turned on the tree lights and oohed and ahhed about the gifts. My dad would always say, “Oh boy, Santa has been here!” We waited — impatiently — for him to tell us we could come down to see for ourselves. The morning was just our family of five, but I remember being excited to see my cousins and celebrate with our extended family in the afternoon.

With that, I think the Grinch had it right: “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?” So when you feel yourself getting caught up in the frenzy, let this serve as a reminder: Christmas magic is a feeling, not a thing.

Here are a few of our traditions that don’t involve “stuff”.

  • Christmas tree campout. The first night that our tree is fully decorated, the kids make beds with lots of blankets and pillows and sleep beneath it.
  • Holiday movie nights. We have a few favorite movies that we watch together in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day. We turn off all the lights except for the twinkle lights from the tree and other decorations, there is popcorn and sometimes peppermint stick ice cream.
  • Light tours. After dinner one evening in December, we make hot cocoa and drive around to look at the lights and decorations while the Christmas music station plays on the radio.
  • Volunteer. We have been bell ringers for The Salvation Army to help and also spread a little Christmas cheer.
  • Cookies. Many years we baked chocolate chip cookies (a little less time consuming than traditional frosted cutouts) and packaged them on festive plates and delivered to random neighbors, some we knew well, and some we did not, just to bring a smile.
  • The Elf. I know this can be a polarizing subject, but we have a very boring elf who merely moves from place to place each night. He doesn’t make messes or meals or play tricks, and the kids still love the simple excitement of finding him in the morning.
  • Carry on traditions. I kept some of the traditions from my childhood Christmases that I loved. Let’s just say my kids also wait at the top of the stairs.

Happy holidays!! Tell us what you do to create Christmas magic!

–  Kelly Ryan, LMSW, Parenting Program Director

Holiday Not-So-Fun? Seven Tips for Enjoying the Season with Your Special Needs Child

 

Both my boys struggle with different challenges: my oldest is on the autistic spectrum and my youngest is an alphabet soup of ADHD (with a lot of “H”), ODD and OCD. After years of therapy, educational intervention, and pure patience, at 19 and 16 they are both very functional in the world — attending Oakland Community College, working, both with realistic hopes and dreams for an independent future.

When they were small though, it was a different story.

When my oldest was in preschool and early elementary school, he was obsessed with ceiling fans. He would sit and wave his hand in front of his face because he was “making the fan.” He banged his head against his crib and later up and down on his bed. He memorized “Green Eggs and Ham” and would recite it to himself when he got bored. He would answer questions based on what he guessed the question might be; his speech therapist said he had a huge vocabulary for his age, but no understanding of what the words meant or how to string them together. As he grew older, his “presenting” issue became auditory processing disorder, and many of his behaviors settled as he matured.

While he had a number of unusual mannerisms and ways of perseverating, he never really had behavioral issues. Enter son number two. He was a 24-week micro-preemie, born at 1 lb. 7 oz. in an ambulance. We didn’t even know about him until the end of his three-month stay in the University of Southern Louisiana hospital, where he “always progressed and never regressed.” He was clearly determined to be here and has had no physical challenges — in fact, he became a competitive gymnast and extreme sports enthusiast, from skateboarding to snowboarding, parkour to rock climbing. The determination that helped him survive stuck with him, and his frequent frustration resulted in many outbursts at home, in school, in public, and at family gatherings. People were far less tolerant of his constant curiosity; the tearing apart of anything that interested him; the interruptions to conversations; and the insistence on scaling walls, furniture, fences, stair railings; than they were of his brother’s relatively more muted and explicable behaviors.

Needless to say, the holidays were challenging. When the kids were little, we lived in San Francisco and typically stayed home for Christmas but flew back to Michigan at Thanksgiving to visit family. This involved packing, airports, airplanes and confined spaces, and long car drives from one family gathering to another. The Michigan weather at that time of year often precluded being outdoors, while at home, hikes, scooters and bikes, tree-climbing, playgrounds, and the beach were all necessary outlets available to us year-round. Containing the energy of our youngest was especially challenging, made worse by Grandma believing “children should be seen and not heard.” Fortunately my sister had a master’s in early childhood education and had been a Head Start teacher, so her house was often a respite. Still,  noisy and crowded family gatherings were hard for both boys in any location.

Here are some tips that helped us get through our holiday excursions:

  1. Talk to your kids about your trip and what to expect. Explain the parts that will be fun (e.g., the moving walkways at the airport, getting to see and play with their cousins, yummy desserts) as well as what will be challenging (e.g., sitting still on the plane, being quiet at Grandma’s house, playing indoors most of the time). Talk about what quiet activities they can do and let each child pack a carry-on bag. Now is not the time to stay attached to your screen rules so if the 6,000th  viewing of Frozen or an online game on the phone is going to help you survive the plane trip or salvage some adult conversations, go for it.
  2. If you have a long plane trip, try to break it in half. For us, the mid-point between San Francisco and Detroit was Minneapolis, which made two 2-1/2-hour flights rather than one 4-hour flight to Chicago and a hopper to Detroit. This gave the kids time to run around and two flights that were about one movie long when the kids got bored with books! Tip: Pack external batteries and be sure you bring chargers for the rental car so you don’t run out of juice.
  3. Think about how to arrange seating on the plane. For us it was sometimes best to split up the boys, so we would each take one and put him at a window. We’d put our youngest, who was most likely to kick the seat in front of him, behind his brother. When they were a little older, it was easier to take all three seats plus the aisle across and put the boys next to each other, with the grown-ups switching off. If the kids all want the window seat, make an agreement about timing and when you will switch seats – but make sure they understand that it may not work exactly as you plan if the seatbelt light is on.
  4. Unless you know you are going to be very comfortable staying overnight with family, consider getting a hotel room if you can afford it. This will give your family an excuse to leave a large gathering and give you somewhere to go. Many hotels have a small indoor pool that can be a gift for expending pent-up energy. If you are concerned this might hurt your extended family’s feelings, make sure they understand your concerns are not about their hospitality, but about meeting the practical needs of your children.
  5. Talk to your family ahead of time. Make sure they understand what you are dealing with, what your children need, and how it may be different from the needs of the other kids in the family who they may see more often. Ask if they can set aside a “quiet room” in the house where you can take the kids. See if at least one family member is willing to be your ally, support your efforts, and make sure you get some adult time and respite.
  6. Scope out your recreational options ahead of time. Find the indoor bounce houses, the community pool (which may even have a water playground), the gymnastics places that offer open gym times, etc. If you are visiting a place where you grew up, your school friends who still live in the area and have kids can be an invaluable resource for the “secret” things to do with kids. If you are lucky enough to go somewhere warm, take frequent walks, go to the playground, and bring some adults with you so you can catch up while the kids run around. This can be a far better way for your family to get to know your kids than in a stilted family environment with an “adults only” vibe.
  7. Arts and crafts offer great cross-generational opportunities for bonding. Print out multiple copies of holiday coloring pages and offer crayons and colored pencils. Make ornaments for the tree or get some unpainted dreidels to decorate. “Stained glass” can be made using sheets of transparency film and markers. If space permits, consider setting up a dedicated arts and crafts table for the duration of the holiday.

These tips don’t include meeting physical challenges, which we did not have to manage, but here is a great article by a dad who travels frequently with a child who needs a wheelchair and has had a feeding tube. Real Simple also has some helpful tips for celebrating the holidays.

While you will be focused on your child, try to make sure you take some time for yourself and your spouse. Even if you don’t get some physical respite, take some mental respite. Remember that you are doing the best you can in a challenging situation. Don’t assume that the heavy sigh of a family member is directed toward your child. If someone offers to help, let them! Take the time to teach them how to help care for your child, and you’ll not only give yourself a break, you’ll give them the gift of getting to know your child better and strengthening those family bonds.

– Kathy Henry is an adoptive parent to two teenage boys. She is also a marketing consultant, business coach and copywriter who volunteers for several organizations, including the Beaumont Parenting Program.

It Goes By So Fast

 

“It goes by so fast.”

Parents generally don’t like to hear these words, unless they’re talking about sleepless nights or the terrible twos. Then, they want time to pass quickly.

But the harsh reality of parenting is that childhood really does speed by. It seems like just yesterday, my husband and I were the parents of an only child. Now we have three. Our firstborn was a generously plump bald little guy who was just 6 weeks old when Halloween rolled around. We dressed him in a fuzzy orange onesie with a green stem, black triangle eyes and a crooked mouth all strategically arranged on the hood. It was sized for a 6-month-old but it was perfect for him because we had been calling our son Pumpkin Man since the day he was born.

At his second Halloween, our Pumpkin Man was one week away from becoming a big brother. We dressed him as a monkey because he often acted like a silly little monkey. We took one of my all-time favorite pictures that Halloween night as he sat in front of a big bowl of fun-size chocolate. He liked the look and feel of the shiny wrappers and was content watching the Snickers and Milky Way bars slip between his tiny fingers. As a child with no older siblings and parents who had yet to expose him to the pleasure of candy, he was content and clueless.

Fast forward a few years. Now there are three children in our family. All of them are old enough to trick-or-treat and they all crave sugar. At this point, we have Halloween traditions that include going to the pumpkin patch for a photoshoot and hoping everyone cooperates. Our hard drives are filled with tons of these photos to look back at along with pumpkin-carving shots and, of course, pictures of the kids in the various costumes they spent months deciding on.

In addition to the family traditions, October 31 helps us mark milestones for our middle son, who is on the autism spectrum. We remember the early Halloweens when he wouldn’t even go outside because it was too dark. We celebrated the first time the five of us were able to trick-or-treat together because our son sat the entire time on my husband’s shoulders. It was up there that he felt safest as we shuffled through the decaying leaves and braved the cold while rushing from house to house to fill orange plastic pumpkins.

We laugh about the Halloweens where we pilfered through his candy bag because his allergies prevented him from eating most of the treats and his autism somehow prevented him from caring about the theft. We lament about the year when he finally realized he was getting candy he couldn’t eat and demanded a nut-free, dairy-free alternative. We celebrated the year he finally remembered to tell people about his allergies politely. And, we smile at the unique costumes he’s chosen, including a light bulb, a construction barrel, and a spider web.

It’s fun to look back on 14 years of Halloween pictures and see how the kids have changed, with each costume serving as a showcase of the kids’ likes at interests at a given age. For example, after many years of being a Disney princess, our daughter moved on to more “sophisticated” costumes. Her most recent choices included a poodle-skirt clad ‘50s girl and a vampire.

Each year, Halloween looks different in our family. This year it will look something like this: our daughter will trick-or-treat with a group of friends. Our oldest son will likely hang out at a friend’s house like he did last year, marking the second time he doesn’t trick-or-treat. Our middle child will accompany us in a yet-to-be-determined costume (but probably a recycled one since it’s so last minute). He will politely ask for candy he is not allergic to and hopefully not consume most of it before we get home. As for the chocolate, his siblings and maybe even his parents will vie for the choice pieces, including the full-size candy bars, Twix bars, and KIT KAT bars.

This much-anticipated night will go by fast for our two trick-or-treaters, just like their childhood.

– Jen Lovy is a Beaumont Parenting Program volunteer.

Happy(?) Mother’s Day

I’ve never been a daughter and a mother on the same Mother’s Day. Well, that’s not exactly right. I am still my father’s daughter on Mother’s Day, but my mom passed away before I became a mom. The first Mother’s Day without my mom was bad. Really bad. I missed her like crazy. I had been trying for some time to become a mom myself without success. I was lost — a train wreck. I went to the cemetery where she was buried to visit her grave. I asked my mom for help becoming a mother myself. I literally said, “I don’t know how much pull you have up there yet, but if there’s anything you can do to help, I really want to be a mom.” Three-and-a-half weeks later, I found out I was pregnant. My daughter (who has my mom’s blue eyes even though her father and I have brown eyes) was born the following February.

Awwwww. That’s a sweet story, right? Beautiful happy baby, beautiful happy ending, beautiful happy first Mother’s Day, right? Wrong! My first Mother’s Day as a mom was bad. Really bad. I was still a train wreck. But — you know — I had a new baby. I wasn’t sleeping as much as I was used to. My body was getting back to normal, but I was still adjusting to nursing and my C-section scar. It’s understandable that I would be emotional. And of course, I still missed my mom. It was hard to celebrate that day without her, even as I held that gorgeous gift she had managed to send me. It would get better. I would get better at living through those days that screamed for her.

Over the next decade or so, my family and I tried all kinds of things to celebrate Mother’s Day in a way that would work, in a way that would be better. I wanted to honor my mom but also celebrate having the role I’d wanted my whole life: my favorite job of being a mom. We tried doing Mother’s Day the way my mom did it: making dinner for all the other moms in my life including my mother-in-law and our grandmothers. But honestly, that was too hard because it was what she had done. We tried to be out of town, going places that she liked to go, for Mother’s Day. Don’t get me started about keys locked in cars, hot water running out in a cabin we stayed in, or restaurants that closed down without our knowing it (they were the last time we passed through!). Nope, that wasn’t the fix either. Once each trip fell apart, I did too. Even though my amazing husband and kids did everything they could to make the day special.

So here’s what I’ve figured out, 22 years later. I can’t make it right. There is nothing I can do, nowhere I can go, no plans that I can make that will compensate for the fact that I am motherless on Mother’s Day. So I don’t. At some point on that day every year, I’m going to fall apart. I’m going to be a train wreck. I know it. My family knows it. That’s OK. It’s a testament to the amazing woman who gave me life and raised me to be the (hopefully at least half as amazing as she was) mother that I am. I spend my day with the people who made me a mom and I miss the woman who should be there to see it.

– Nicole Capozello, Parenting Program staff

Ways to say “I love you” to your child this Valentine’s Day

hand coloring a heart

We often speak these three little words — I love you — to our children. Recently I thought about how I showed my children how much I loved them on Valentine’s Day. Children may forget how often they hear those three little words, but I can attest to the fact that they will remember many of the things you do and carry that with them into their adult lives.

How do I know? Last week I ran into my grown daughter’s childhood best friend. She asked if she could come over this year and have my husband make his famous heart-shaped pancakes. “Or,” she asked, “Can I come over for your red dinner?” This reminded me of how important these fun things can impact our children as they mature.

Celebrate with food

  • Make heart-shaped pancakes or waffles for breakfast. Better yet, how about making them for dinner with lots of whipped cream and strawberries?
  • Write a note to your child and put it into his lunch bag or backpack, so he is surprised to find a note from you. You can event do this each day for the entire month.
  • Decorate their lunch boxes in hearts and stickers. The kids will feel extra special when they take it out of their backpacks at school.
  • Cut their sandwiches into hearts.
  • Make a dinner with all red foods. Our tradition was spaghetti, red JELL-O, I added a little food coloring to muffins and to top it off, strawberry milk. (Note: We did the same idea in March for St. Patrick’s Day.)
  • Make your children’s favorite dinner or order heart-shaped Valentine pizzas. Many neighborhood pizza shops make them for Valentine’s Day.
  • Invite a child’s friend over for dinner that night.
  • Bake a heart-shaped treat together. It could be a cake that you frost in red or pink, with lots of red jimmies or heart-shaped candies on top. Maybe you make heart-shaped cookies or Rice Krispie treats together.
  • Make fruit kabobs with different red fruits.
  • Make strawberry sundaes together and top them off with strawberries and raspberries.
  • Treat your child to lunch or dinner at her favorite restaurant.
  • Have an indoor picnic together in the family or living room.
  • Have hot cocoa with marshmallows together.

Celebrate with art

  • Using window paint, decorate your child’s window with hearts and messages. It washes off easily. You could even create a window mural together.
  • Make hearts out of construction paper and decorate your house.
  • Write a special poem about your child that expresses your loving thoughts and feelings.
  • Sing and dance to your child’s favorite songs.
  • Paint a picture together.
  • Make a photo collage of your child or family over time.
  • Write a chalk message for your kids to see on the driveway or sidewalk when they leave the house.
  • Make special Valentine’s cards or pictures together and send them out.

Brighten up the daily activities

  • Volunteer at their school Valentine’s Day party.
  • Bring your child’s favorite pet or stuffed animal with you in the car when you pick him up from school.
  • Read your favorite childhood book together.
  • Visit the library and check out books on love or kindness.
  • Write a message to your child and put it into a bottle. Leave it for her to find when she takes a bath.
  • Have a warm towel ready for them when they get out of the bath.
  • Give lots of hugs, kisses and snuggles. Kids never get enough of them.
  • Vow to tell your children how much you love them every day, for the next 365 days.

Playtime fun

  • Spend the day together doing your child’s favorite activity.
  • Learn how to say “I Love You” in a different language and teach it to your children.
  • Give lots of Eskimo kisses.
  • Play your children’s favorite game with them.
  • Play outdoors together.
  • Take your daughter to the salon and get a manicure together.
  • Plan a scavenger hunt around your home with the prize being a book or activity together.
  • Watch your child’s favorite movie or television show together. You can make pink popcorn to enjoy during the movie, too.

Other ideas

  • Send a Valentine card to your child in the mail. Children love to receive mail.
  • Take a family picture and put it in a heart-shaped frame for your kids to put in their bedrooms or special place in the house.
  • Send a voice message to them via phone or leave a message on the answering machine for them to hear.
  • Help someone in need. You and your child will feel satisfied with your act of kindness and it will be remembered.
  • Make a donation or begin a college fund for your child.
  • Buy your child a special treat or toy and have your child wake up to it.
  • Take a trip to the toy department together and let your children pick out something special.

From past blog posts, you may know how truly passionate I am about reading to and with your child every day. I couldn’t let Valentine’s Day go unnoticed, so here is a list of books on love and kindness that you may want to read.

– Lori Irwin, M.Ed., is a Parenting Program volunteer. She’s a former teacher of children with severe disabilities in reading, a consultant with a leading educational book publisher, and a mother of two adult children.

Coping with Christmas after loss

sad child wearing Santa hat looking out window at rain

The tree is decorated, stockings hung, twinkling lights and vibrant colors are everywhere. Your calendar is full of holiday parties, the to-do list is long, and the music of the season speaks of joy to the world and how it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yet all that fills your mind is the void of someone you loved and lost. In the past two years, the Parenting Program team of staff, students and volunteers have experienced some significant, sudden and tragic losses. The Christmas season after loss can bring a tremendous amount of grief, during a time when the general expectation is that everyone is feeling holly jolly and full of the holiday spirit. Everyone copes differently; for some people, surrounding themselves with family and their traditions is a comfort, for others it magnifies the loss.

Here are some tips for coping with grief during the holidays. Some you may love, others not so much. My hope is that you may find something here that makes this difficult season a tiny bit more tolerable, and that there are moments of joy even amid missing those who are gone.

“Someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

  • Acknowledge that the holidays will be tough and verbalize this to friends and family.
  • Consider what traditions you would like to keep, and what traditions you may want to change, even if just temporarily.
  • Create a new tradition to honor the memory of your loved one.
  • Purchase a candle and when you turn on the lights of your Christmas tree, light the candle in memory of the person you lost.
  • Think about the location of your holiday celebration. Make a conscious decision whether you want to keep it the same or make a change.
  • Keep in mind that not everyone will be grieving the same way you are.
  • Put out a memory box with small slips of paper and pens so people can write a treasured memory. Take some time to read the memories aloud, or invite guests to read them individually.
  • Prepare one of your loved one’s special recipes, or something that was a favorite of theirs.
  • Be honest about how you are feeling, and what you do and do not want to do when it comes to holiday gatherings and celebrations.
  • Participate in a service project or activity in honor of your loved one.
  • Make an appointment with a counselor or therapist. Maybe this has been something you have putting off, but with the holidays bringing grief even closer to the surface, it may be a perfect time.
  • Consider choosing a few of your loved one’s belongings and gifting them to someone else who is grieving the loss.
  • Visit your loved one’s final resting place and leave a wreath or poinsettia.
  • Ask for and accept help, whether it is assistance cooking a holiday meal, shopping or emotional support.
  • Give yourself a gift. Treat yourself to something you have had your eye on.
  • Focus on gratitude. Even if it is something tiny, make a point to write down one thing you are grateful for each day.
  • If you have children who are grieving along with you, be sure to talk to them about what they may be feeling and consider doing a memorial grief activity or craft together.
  • Say no. If a certain event or gathering just seems too much, give yourself permission to skip it.
  • Don’t feel guilty for the moments of happiness and joy you may feel throughout the season; it doesn’t mean you don’t love or miss the person who is not with you this holiday season.

– Kelly Ryan, LMSW, Beaumont Parenting Program Director

Create a holiday book together

boys with gingerbread houses

It’s hard to believe that once again the holidays are sneaking up on us and will be knocking at our doors before we know it. Last year I posted a book list for children of different ages from newborn through 18 months. If you’re looking for children’s books to give as gifts, please take a look at that article.

Like many of you, my husband and I took pictures of the special times together with our children during the holidays. We took pictures of selecting our tree and decorating it, baking cookies, visiting Santa at the mall, and the list goes on and on, culminating with the arduous task of taking down our tree. We did little with those pictures until the following Christmas, when we would look back at them and reflect on the special times we had together and the people in our lives that made our holiday so special.

Then one year I decided to capture all of our special times together and make our own book. Each time we did something for the holidays with our children, I captured those special moments with a photograph. Throughout the holiday season, we collected several dozen pictures. When the holidays were over, we looked through our pictures and chose our favorites, then put text with the pictures. I used my kids’ words and ideas. We even added a page with our puppy’s paw print.

That book became our coffee table book that year and the children looked at every day. It also seemed to be the book that houseguests gravitated to; they commented on it and asked questions. It was truly our family’s favorite holiday book. It was the last decoration put into the holiday bins, so it was the first item pulled out each year.

In January after the holidays are over, we often find time to do things that we weren’t able to do in December. Preparing for Christmas and Hanukkah is time consuming, so January is the perfect time to reflect, look at photos and make a special book together.

So this holiday season, capture those memories and enjoy them for years to come. There are several companies and apps that can help you accomplish this, including Shutterfly and Snapfish. Your book can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like it to be.

Head over to Tom’s Guide for several ideas and updates on how to do this. The site also ranks the various photo book services. One service in particular, Mixbook, offers a step-by-step direction guide to first time book makers. However, look at the reviews on the website to find the place that works for you. Tom’s Guide also ranks the companies that are available for you to create a book that your children will love.

Happy reading!

– Lori Irwin, M.Ed., is a Parenting Program volunteer. She’s a former teacher of children with severe disabilities in reading, a consultant with a leading educational book publisher, and a mother of two adult children.