A family or other social gathering means a major change in routine. All kids find this challenging, but especially those with attention or behavioral issues. It takes advance preparation to avoid having your child run out of patience—and the ability to behave well—while the evening is young.
Think ahead of time about what’s realistic to expect from your child. How can you help her be comfortable and engaged? You can avoid trouble by preparing her in advance. The same is true for your host—and yourself.
Helping Your Child
Talk ahead of time. Always tell your child how you expect her to behave, and be specific. While Aunt Sue may be fine with kids running in the house, Grandpa Al may not. Knowing what the rules are can head off some uncomfortable situations.
Find ways to keep her occupied. Children who tend to be impulsive need structure to minimize disruptive behavior. Fortunately, the holidays lend themselves to art projects, baking, family-friendly movies, and playing outside, weather permitting. Bring favorite toys, books, movies and electronics to keep her busy and happy.
Get ready to join in. Does your child have trouble getting along with cousins or your friends’ kids? You may need to help start up activities like games or movies to keep them busy. If your child easily gets frustrated when she doesn’t get her way, encourage her to share and be polite. But let her know she should find you if conflict arises that they can’t settle themselves.
Set realistic limits. Let your child know how long a visit you think will work for both of you. Don’t guarantee that she will have fun or find it easy. But express confidence that she will be able to handle it. And let her how much her cooperation and good behavior mean to you.
- Sensory processing issues: For kids who are sensitive to clothing textures—or those who are simply miserable wearing things like button-down shirts—have them dress nicely yet comfortably.
- Unfamiliar food: Strange-looking food can be upsetting for a child who’s a picky eater or anxious about new things in general. Avoid the problem by bringing what you know she will eat.
- Transitions: Kids who find it hard to change from one activity to another can do better if they’re coached on what to expect. Give plenty of warning when it’s time to stop watching the video or playing games with cousins and come to the table.
- Difficulty sitting still: Many kids find sitting quietly during religious ceremonies or a long meal very hard. Prepare them by explaining the sequence of the day’s events and the highlights you think they’ll enjoy. Find ways to limit her participation in the challenging parts—you might want to let her skip the mass and attend the reception, or plan a break from sitting at the table between the main course and dessert.
- Social anxiety: Kids who are anxious about meeting new people—or even encountering the extended family—will need support and realistic expectations. For kids who have trouble making small talk, practice conversation starters and basics. If you’re not sitting next to your child at dinner, remind her that she can find you if she needs to.
Preparing Your Hosts
Let them know what to expect. Along with preparing your children, it’s a good idea to let your friends and relatives know what to expect, lowering the chance of conflicts over behaviors.
“A child who has behavior difficulties at school is going to have them at Grandma’s house,” warns Dr. Steven G. Dickstein, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, “so make sure their expectations are realistic.” If you think you might leave early, or bring your child’s food, etc., let them know in advance. You don’t want to offend anyone on their big day.
Arrange for a quiet place. A noisy room full of dancing people, flashing lights and/or loud conversation can be way too much for kids who are easily overstimulated or sensitive to sights and sounds. Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, recommends arranging for another room children can use when they need a break. They can read, color or do another solo activity if they need some down time. There should be an unused room at any party, so ask your host before the event.
Avoid criticism. Dr. Dickstein also recommends asking friends and relatives to refrain from criticizing. Special events will be a better experience for everyone if there’s a pact to avoid hot-button issues. “Warn family members about sensitive topics in the same way you’d warn people in advance that your child has a nut allergy,” he says.
Stay flexible. If your child has special needs, chances are she won’t be able to handle a marathon affair. For instance, leaving early and missing the toasts may be better than staying and having your child be miserable or embarrass both of you.
Have a backup plan. If you’re going to an event with a spouse, you might want to bring two cars. That way, if one of you has to take your child home, the other can stay. It’s always nice to have a Plan B, even if you don’t have to use it.