Merry . . .Happy . . .Help! Taking the “Gimme” Out of the Holidays

14585776_sIt’s that time of year again, when your conscience, your wallet, and your child’s wishful face keep you awake at night.  Which is going to win? Let’s look at each of these forces and try to make it a win-win-win holiday season.

Your Conscience: Don’t Let It Be Your Guide to the Holidays

When parents of atypical children watch their kids struggle, the desire to make them happy is especially intense. You long to see your child’s face light up as she unwraps a pile of beautiful gifts. In the middle of the night you may fantasize, I want to make this the best Christmas ever for little Kara—she’s had such a difficult year.  I want to buy her the biggest, the best, the most . . . The goal is noble, but the result is not always ideal. All children need boundaries, and atypical kids need them more than average children do.  So ask yourself, how much of your urge to give has to do with you feeling happy—that is, with easing your own conscience?

Some parents (subconsciously) think they are to blame for their child’s special needs—it’s their parenting style (not true) or their “bad genes”  (no one is at fault for genetics). They may feel guilty or badly for their child, so they try to make it up to the child with extravagant  gifts. Other parents feel helpless in the face of their children’s problems. Giving presents will momentarily make things better, so they overindulge.  Don’t do it.  Your child’s disability is not your fault. And your child does not automatically deserve more generous gifts than a typical child as compensation for his or her condition.

Your Wallet: Make a Gift Budget and Stick to It

Nothing causes a parent to lose sight of all reason more than an unhappy little face gazing longingly at an ad for this season’s bright plastic piece of junk. (You know it’s junk, but the kid is dying for it!)  Remember,  your child will probably toss the piece of junk aside within days of unwrapping it. To control your impulse to grant all your your kid’s wishes, decide on a holiday budget before you start shopping. And in addition to asking your child what he or she wants, think about what the child would enjoy. Trust your instincts and surprise your kid with some off-the-list, budget-friendly gifts.

Your Child: Don’t Buy Into the Urgent Pleas

Many children who are atypical tend to think in black and white. For that reason, their pleas for specific items may come across as much more urgent than the requests of a less impacted child. The atypical child’s sense of urgency is not true urgency; it is a lack of self regulation and is frequently tied to ADD and ADHD as well as autism spectrum children.  These kids have difficulty with self-monitoring, planning, and delayed gratification.   It’s important not to mistake such struggles for true needs.  Many parents give in to the intense lobbying, which only reinforces that behavior.  Then the child later may spend a lot of time in therapy unlearning the bad habits the parents have unwittingly encouraged. Keep this in mind as we go through a list of strategies for planning a happy holiday season.

4 Ways to Put the “Happy” Back in the Holidays

1. Make a gift list early in the season. Post a blank sheet of paper on your fridge and encourage your child to start thinking about what he or she wants for the holiday. Have the child write it down on the list, cut a photo out of a magazine and tape it on, or draw a picture of the desired item.  This will encourage planning and can generate a discussion well in advance of the holiday about what is and is not reasonable.

2. Set rules for gifts before you buy them. You know what your child wants, but think it through. Will it need to come with rules? If so, the rules should be stated before you buy or promise to buy the gift.  For example, an iPhone must be open access, with parents able to check it at any time. Xbox gaming needs to be limited to specific times, or the child will lose the Xbox.  Don’t be afraid to “spoil” a gift with limits, just discuss them in advance so you don’t ruin the moment of gift-opening with rules.

3. Volunteer with your child. There are dozens of opportunities to do this during the holidays. Whether it is though a place of worship, a food bank,  or  a shelter, assisting people who have less than you do is an excellent way to build character and perspective.

4. Talk about the holiday spirit, not just the gifts. This season is a good time to teach your child about empathy, gratitude and a spirit of giving. During the fall, initiate  conversations about holiday activities you enjoy and  things you remember doing with your family when you were young. Help your child realize that it’s not all about receiving gifts.  Teach him how to plan for others.  What would his sister enjoy? What would be a nice gift for Grandma and Grandpa?  Go to a craft store to create a ceramic gift, or help your child write a poem with a picture as examples of inexpensive yet valuable presents.

The holidays are full of exciting things to do with children. There are special events, decorations, friends to visit, cookies to bake, community activities, Chanukah tunes or Christmas carols to sing. Sharing this time with your child is one of the best perks of being a parent!   Gifts are just one part of it—if you take the focus off them, your child will too.

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