Lived experience – Surviving the festive season

The festive season is around the corner and with it comes family gatherings. There is always anticipation as cousins, siblings, uncles, aunties and grandparents all come together to celebrate the holidays.

The festive season is around the corner and with it comes family gatherings. There is always anticipation as cousins, siblings, uncles, aunties and grandparents all come together to celebrate the holidays. 

For many adults and kids this is an exciting time, but for neurodivergent children these get-togethers present an increase in sensory input, social expectations and changes to routine. 

Parents of children who have recently been diagnosed with a neurological difference experience the most stress as they try to navigate family expectations and how to support their child’s needs.

Although most of the family looks forward to spending time with each other, the parents of neurodivergent children often take weeks to help their child prepare for these events. The day itself can progress smoothly or it can be made more difficult because extended family members are not fully supportive or flexible with their expectations.

The older generation can be attached to traditions, often insisting that everyone participates, without understanding the impact on those involved. Hugs, tousling of hair and squeezing of cheeks are seen to be harmless and part of showing affection, but any rejection by the receiving child can be the source of friction.

Educating family members is one of the most powerful ways to help them recognise and accept differences. This can involve months of conversations and sharing content that explains why your child might not want to be hugged or why they don’t want to open their presents in front of everyone. It’s possible that some people are not receptive to these conversations, and in these circumstances it is completely reasonable to implement and enforce boundaries that keep your child happy and safe.

Tips & strategies

You can set up your family for success by ensuring that you have a plan. You might want to consider the following:

  • Safe area – The combination of lots of people, noise, food smells and Christmas lights flashing, can be a recipe for sensory overload. If you are not at home, prior to arriving, agree with the host on an area that your child can use if they are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Sensory tools – A small bag of sensory tools can keep boredom at bay and can help your child to stay regulated. Make sure you ask your child to choose what they want to take along with them.
  • Ear defenders – Family affairs are often loud with voices, noises and music. If your child is hypersensitive to sounds don’t forget to pack their ear defenders. Don’t hesitate to be on the front foot with family members by explaining what they are and why your child uses them. This will avoid people mistaking the use of ear defenders for rudeness.
  • Preferred activity – You know your child best, but if you think the other children will be playing games that your child will not enjoy, ask your child to pack their preferred activity. It’s a long day to get through without something your child enjoys doing.
  •  Safe foods – If your child has specific dietary requirements, let the host know in advance. You want to be prepared with the food you know your child will eat, and also save them from being pressured by the rest of the family to “at least try” what is being served. 
  • Set expectations – Social niceties and expectations can be draining. Help the rest of the family accept your child’s needs. Don’t wait until the day of the family function to tell the grandparents that your child doesn’t like to be touched, prepare them beforehand so they have time to process and ask questions.
  • Support self-advocacy – Neurodivergent children do better if they feel comfortable advocating for their own needs. Your unwavering support is invaluable as your child learns and feels confident to self-advocate. This is a lifelong skill crucial for their wellbeing as they navigate a world of neurotypical expectations.

Stay safe and happy these holidays!

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