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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.