A friend’s college-age son recently got a puppy, and both came to stay with her for a week between semesters. Her son was responsible and diligent about taking care of his dog, but went about things, well … differently … than my friend thought best. She tried to respect his choices, but found it more and more difficult not to comment. She later told me, “I have a newfound awareness about what it’s like to be a grandparent.”
Extended family, too, such as grown siblings and their families. Perhaps nothing is as complex, emotionally loaded, and potentially painful for parents of special needs children as these relationships. And the holiday season often brings forth issues that otherwise can remain on the back burner.
I’m fortunate. My parents, brothers, and their wives were supportive of Gracie’s special needs and offered the considerations that we needed at larger gatherings. They understood—to the degree they could, based on their understanding of the situation—and for that I am grateful. (I don’t need to tell you how no one fully understands it unless they live it 24/7.)
Anecdotally, though, I have heard oodles of stories about stress, conflict, and hurtful criticism given by grandparents and extended family regarding the parenting of special needs children. Ideally, the parents of these kids would turn to their biological family and in-laws for support. But when validation and support is not forthcoming, it’s painful and feels almost like a betrayal. It compounds the parents’ often prevailing sense of isolation.
We all want the same thing
At family gatherings, we all want to enjoy that unique sense of family togetherness in a peaceful and joyful way. Ironically, conflicts may arise over differences in expectations about what that means and how to go about it.
Here’s a common holiday theme
A special needs child becomes overstimulated by all the hype and excitement. This over-arousal bubbles over into emotional and behavioral symptoms right when the adults are trying to create a happy, peaceful, and memorable holiday. Savvy parents attempt to prevent this, and/or deal with it as it unfolds, but face others’ lack of understanding.
It’s easy for everyone to drift into the blame game. The prevalent thinking becomes if only she could see; if only he would understand. Then that dreaded “S” word of judgment appears: should. He should; you shouldn’t; she shouldn’t; they should.
Yet, it’s nobody’s fault. Like my friend with her son’s dog, grandparents and extended family don’t—and can’t—have the same understanding as you, the parent. Even when things are explained, and they genuinely believe they understand, they view the situation based on their own knowledge and unique life experiences. They also have their own priorities and considerations that may or may not be best for you and your child.
So how might we best deal with extended family?
My philosophy on this is simple, yet hard earned, after years of attempting multiple scenarios to try to please everyone.
Give yourself permission to do what you know in your heart is best for you and your child. Go about it in the most loving and gracious way you can, but be firm about your and your child’s needs. Often, doing what you know in your heart is best means having to say ‘No’ or ‘Not as much’ to others. Be courageous. Explain if necessary, but try not to get caught in a no-win over-explanation to people who, quite frankly, may never be able to fully understand.
Beyond that, don’t get too invested in what others think or say. Everyone has their own unique path in life; they are not living yours. You are under no obligation to jump through hoops to make others feel more comfortable to the detriment of your child(ren).
Obviously, you also respect the extended family, and if your special needs child’s behavior goes over the top, you step in. This may mean taking some time off alone with the child, or even calling it an early night.
But if you can say that you made the hundreds of decisions surrounding the holiday season based on what is best for you and your children, while going about it with grace and dignity, then you can feel at peace.
Allow yourself to feel good about the amazing job you are doing while juggling multiple priorities and other people’s competing needs. And don’t forget about your own needs in this equation!
To help you communicate
I am pleased to offer a brochure that you may find helpful. “Grandparents of Special Needs Children” is intended to prompt thoughtful consideration and conversation about family relations from a grandparent’s point of view. It’s applicable for extended family as well. Download it here.
During this upcoming holiday season, I wish you and your family peace and joy—however that looks for you. Even—and especially—if your ideal holiday differs from what others might expect.