The holiday season is a time for family togetherness, community, and friendship when we enjoy parties and fun celebrations. Unfortunately, children who struggle with social and behavioral problems can feel lonely and excluded during this happy time.
There are many ways, however, that you can make things easier for your child throughout the season, by helping him enjoy the holidays and feel beloved. This article provides a dozen ideas designed to help your child with learning disabilities have a happy holiday and lessen stress on your family. Read these ideas and choose the ones that you think are the best fit for your child.
Help your child select or make unique gifts
Encourage your child to use his talents to create something special for friends and family. Many youngsters with learning disabilities have artistic and mechanical abilities. You might help him create an electronic greeting card on the computer, cook homemade cookies as a gift, or make items such as holiday decorations.
Prepare your child for events such as holiday parties
- Guests will arrive between 2 and 3. I will greet them at the door. I need you to stay in the family room. The children will join you there and play.
- Most of the grown-ups will be in the living room, and most of the children will be in the family room. I will visit you occasionally and see how things are going. Come and get me if you need me.
- The meal will start about 6. I need you to help me in the kitchen around 5:30. We will get everything ready and ask people to come to the table and eat.
Teach your child the names of guests ahead of time if possible
Consider showing your child pictures of guests before the party, or reminding him of people he has met before. Teach him how people are related to each other (brother, sister, wife, husband, cousin, etc.).
Role-play scenarios with your child
You might want to teach your child to receive a gift graciously, look happy when she opens it, and thank the giver by name. Or you might want to practice greeting guests at the door.
Prepare relatives and guests for the possibility of unusual behavior by your child or actions that might be misinterpreted
- Sometimes doesn’t get jokes
- Won’t understand a sarcastic tone of voice
- Will tend to take things very literally
- May talk without pause and not notice that someone wants to take a turn to speak
- Interrupts other people because he cannot tell when his conversational partner has finished speaking
- Dislikes being hugged, touched, or stroked
- Is clumsy and doesn’t like being teased about it
If you feel comfortable doing so, give your guests some suggestions on how they might respond to these behaviors.
Consciously include your child with a learning disability in conversation and other activities
If your child does not know when to get her words into a conversation, keep an eye on her. Ask her opinion when she wants to talk. If she talks too much, interrupt her and guide the conversation to someone else. Give her a role in games. Invite her to participate in activities.
Plan to handle overstimulation
The crowds, loud noise, hustle, bustle, and confusion of holiday parties can cause some children to get overloaded with sensation. They can explode, “melt down” or “shut down.” Make a plan with your child. Tell him that he can ask you for time to leave the party and be alone in an empty room in the house or go outside. You and other family members may decide to keep an eye on your child and take him on a walk or sit quietly with him if he seems to be overwhelmed.
Tactfully make accommodations for your child’s difficulties
- If a child has trouble reading before a group, ask the first few people who open gifts to avoid reading cards aloud. Hand your child his gift and say, “This is from Uncle John”
- If your child doesn’t get jokes, explain the joke to her privately or while laughing with everyone else as an extension of what makes the joke funny
Give your child a role that helps her to shine
You might ask him to:
- Cook something for the meal
- Put one of her projects in the living room, such as a mechanical train set he put together or an interesting science fair project
- Put together toys and games after the gift is opened
- Organize a group for a game
- Make a table centerpiece or decorations for a room
- Hand out gifts or other items to each guest
Thank the adults that guide your child
The holidays are a good time to express gratitude. Give your child’s teachers a note thanking them specifically for how they help your child. If a neighbor, babysitter, youth club leader, or other professional has taken a particular interest in your child, let them know how important they are to your child’s self-esteem and future growth. Help your child write a letter, give a gift, or make a special token of appreciation.
Read a holiday book to your child
Pick up a good holiday book and read it to your child for the sake of sharing the story. Let her hear the words and look at the pictures with no pressure to perform. Let her read if she wants, but if she makes mistakes, read the passage over correctly without being critical. If she gets curious, help her sound out words: but don’t make her do it. Just enjoy your child and enjoy the book. For recommended children's book titles, visit Reading Rockets' themed booklists, which include a number of holiday stories.
Ask your child to do good deeds and contribute to your community
The holiday season is a good time to ask your child to do service projects that help others. Your whole family could volunteer. Or you and another family member could try a new activity the first time and figure out the best way for your child to participate. Encourage children to follow up on their ideas that might help those who are less fortunate. These activities will help your child prepare for future careers and develop his self-esteem. Even more importantly, your child will learn that children with learning disabilities can make their communities better by sharing their unique abilities.
About the author
Dale S. Brown, Senior Manager of LD OnLine, wrote this article exclusively for LD OnLine. She is a nationally recognized expert on learning disabilities who has written four books on learning disabilities. She received the Ten Outstanding Young Americans Award for her work as an advocate for people with learning disabilities.
Dale thanks Emily Levy, director, EBL Coaching, New York, NY, and Jamie Via, parent, Worthington, Ohio, for their ideas and contributions to this article.