Will Your Family Choose Overwhelm This Holiday Season?

Dec 09, 2022
sitting on Santa's lap with sensory processing challenges

This article was originally published at Mutha Magazine on November 21, 2021. There's so much we can learn from the lessons of the 2020 holiday season, especially for neurodiverse families. 

What will your family choose to participate in, and how can you honor your kids’ needs, and your own peace of mind?

Lessons From Lockdown

For some families of kids with disabilities, the 2020 holiday season was in some ways ideal. There wasn’t the usual pressure to do everything, be everywhere, or socialize with everyone. Since then, many neurodivergent families are refusing to go back to the way it was.

We couldn’t gather in large groups, go shopping in crowded stores, hug and kiss grandparents or even fly to visit them. We couldn’t feel judged, couldn’t over-schedule.

Our kids were less likely to get overstimulated at home than they would in unfamiliar places.

Okay, we missed seeing loved ones IRL and playing with cousins, but we realized that we can get together with less pressure before and after the holidays. We didn’t miss the big gatherings, traveling from place to place, staying in unfamiliar beds, or even the ritualized frenzy of opening gifts.

My son used to want to play with one toy the whole morning, and we had to cajole him to open the next gift and the next… Why did we ever rush him? 

child sitting in front of Christmas tree reading a card

“Why are holidays so fraught? Because expectations are heightened, and holidays can feel like a test of how happy and successful your family is…
“Don’t stretch yourself too thin trying to create the ‘perfect’ holiday season. Decide what is important, prioritize, and say ‘no’ to what you can’t handle.”
-Child Mind Institute

Disappointed But Relieved

On Christmas Day 2020 I had a plan to drive-by my parents’ house, because I couldn’t imagine a year going by without seeing my family. I was going to bundle us all into the car, drive for 90 minutes, get out in the cold and wave “Hi” from afar, then get back in the car and drive home. Then, it rained, and we canceled. We had a quiet day. I felt disappointed, but also relieved.

I know that isn’t much of a story, but when I think of all the stress, long trips, overconsumption and exhaustion I’ve put my family through in the name of tradition, I want to puke.

Did I need a global pandemic to cut through my unconscious, ableist longing to be a “normal” family?

Why don’t I cancel more often? Isn’t it enough of an excuse that I have a kid with autism and ADHD, who is tired? He keeps it together all day at school, and on his precious time off he wants to sit around and play video games online with his friends. Writing that, I cringe, because I feel my internalized judgement getting bigger: I’m a bad mom who doesn’t do fun stuff with her kid. I neglect him and let him get addicted to screens.

Honestly, I do take him out, and sometimes it is even fun. Usually, though, there is a lot of complaining and it is exhausting. He is a tween and he wants to do what his friends are doing. He’s just not as flexible or easygoing as neurotypical kids, so he will fight about anything that isn’t playing video games (or eating dessert).

Holiday shops

Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

Plans, Strategies, Recovery and Expectations

Whatever we do, it takes extra energy. There’s the energy of doing the thing. There’s also the energy of planning for the thing so it goes smoothly, strategizing the exit strategy if it starts to go off the rails, giving my son enough advance notice and choice so that he feels respected and prepared, and then there’s the recovery period. There’s also all the usual extended family dynamics, coupled with my prickly feelings when my son isn’t behaving the way his cousins are.

External expectations don’t have to shape our parenting choices. In fact, internalized expectations don’t either. The good thing about being parents is, we can decide what’s best for our family. We get to create our own holiday traditions, set our own boundaries, and decide what brings us joy as a family.

FOMI or Family?

One long, lazy afternoon years ago when we were all piled in bed together reading and napping, my son made up a new acronym, FOMI, or “fear of missing in.” It is pronounced “foamy, because that’s funnier.” As a family, we all have more FOMI than FOMO, so why do we force ourselves out and about during the holidays?

We may have FOMO about the imagined “fun” we’re missing, but what are we truly missing out on?

  • Traditions? We can recreate the ones we really enjoy in our own way.
  • Food? We can simplify and rethink favorites that our kids will actually eat.
  • Family… I LOVE my family and want us to all be together. At the same time, it can hurt to be with them, especially in big gatherings. I need to be resourced for that.

I spend a lot of time around the holidays thinking about what I owe to my extended generational network, and how to meet all of their needs. I’m grateful to have them in our lives, and I want their love and approval. But what do I owe to my kid and his needs? What do I owe to my own peace of mind? Everything is a little harder for my kid. Am I able to be his advocate, or will I continue prioritizing what the rest of the family wants and expects?

Is there some compromise I haven’t found yet?

What Have We Learned?

The holidays are coming up again. Will parents of kids with sensory processing challenges and other developmental differences do their own thing, or will we go back to ableist, pre-pandemic norms?

Maybe we will find some creative ways to mark the holidays that don’t deplete our already thin reserves. Time in nature, spreading out family visits over the whole season, FOMI days, and playing together are a few ways we can bring our unique family closer together.

Our relatives might be surprised, now that we can safely gather again, that we are thinking twice about running our kids ragged just because it is culturally expected.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below.

This article was originally published at Mutha Magazine on November 21, 2021.

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