5 tips to enjoy Christmas gatherings with kids

Allison Moore

Grandma left a voicemail saying, “We’ll be eating at one o’clock.”

I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I started to foresee what this would look like.

The toddler would undoubtedly miss her nap and proceed to fuss and complain about every course set before her while simultaneously shunning every attempt at affection.

The perfectly crafted schedule for my big girl with autism would be thrown out the window only to be replaced with bouts of uncontrolled screaming, meltdowns, and tears.

Dear God, how will we make it through this “joyous” season again this year?  

It seems all of the gatherings of family and friends we deeply desire to spend time with end up in catastrophe, followed by days of recovery. I’ve prayed, calmed my soul, enlisted the help of professionals, and yet this time of year still brings with it anxiety and dread.

Most people think of holidays as days off to rest, but all too often for us, they’re grueling days with an angry special needs child railing against her change in schedule. I know I’m not alone in feeling like I’ve been hit by a tractor-trailer after the holidays.

So to all the other parents out there struggling to make it through: What if instead of letting Christmas run over us we approached celebrating differently this year?

Five Tips for Making it Through the Holidays With Kids

1. Pray for wisdom.

Spending time with the Lord and listening to His direction is always the best first step. In Jeremiah 29:13, God promises, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

When we’re inclined to think God doesn’t care about our details, we just need to open up the book of Daniel to see His detailed prophecies or explore passages in Exodus to learn the depth of details involved in building the tabernacle.

Think ahead to all the gatherings and changes in schedules. Pray for wisdom in deciding which events to incorporate into your holiday season and which ones to decline. Sit down with your spouse, formulate a plan together, and then release yourself from the guilt of trying to please everyone.

2. Establish healthy boundaries.

Genesis 2:24 says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” My friends, this means your spouse and your kids come before either extended family.  

We want to love our extended families well, but if it comes at too great a cost for our own family we must reconsider our choices.

We want to love our extended families well, but if it comes at too great a cost for our own family we must reconsider our choices. If the gathering takes our focus off the reason for the season (Jesus), then we must make some changes.

Do what is best for your family before what is asked by extended family. I know the inevitable guilt trip is painful to hear, but our responsibility is to Jesus first. As parents, we are given clear priorities for our lives: the Lord first, our spouses second, and our kids third (Deuteronomy 6:5, Ephesians 5:22-31, Proverbs 22:6). Every other relationship comes after these.

Bible teacher Oswald Chambers once wrote, “If we obey God, it will mean that other people’s plans are upset. They will ridicule us as if to say, ‘You call this Christianity?’ We could prevent the suffering, but not if we are obedient to God. We must let the cost be paid.”

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

It’s way too easy to take offense when those who are hosting the gathering have little or no memory of napping toddlers, or can’t grasp the concept of the sensory overloaded special needs child.

The flashing lights and sparkly decor with a hefty helping of unusual food are challenging enough. Add many unfamiliar faces aspiring to squeeze your cute kid without warning, uncommon sounds, and an unfamiliar environment, and the whole event is a recipe for disaster.

We cannot assume those who love us understand our unique lives. We must open our mouths in love and express our greatest needs, while leading with our best efforts to prepare our challenging or fragile kids and accommodate as much as possible.

4. Don’t aggravate your kid.

Colossians 3:21 says, “Don’t provoke your children to anger.” A breakdown always ensues when a child who typically goes to bed at 8pm is expected to behave well past 10. We may want our children to be a delight, but we are expecting too much of them when we sit down for dinner several hours after they usually eat.

Don’t set your kids up for failure by putting them into situations beyond their years. Either adjust naptime or prepare to miss the later festivities before meltdowns. Don’t be angry and discipline a child for age-appropriate behavior. When we keep our kids out past their bedtimes, we are responsible for their behaviors, not them.

5. Consider hospitality.

As daunting as this seems, consider the benefit of being able to control the time of an event to allow your little ones to take a nap or escape early to their own bed. How about the freedom to infuse the menu with items tailored to your kids or have alternatives handy if needed? Offering to host gives you control over this and other sensory overloading triggers that create a tailspin.

We all know this isn’t the easiest of undertakings, but consider the benefits. Could we give ourselves a large dose of grace and settle for less than perfection when it comes to cleaning and decorating? Also, ask guests to bring one or two items to fill the menu and ease the burden of full food preparation.

We used to host Thanksgiving every year because it’s easier for my special needs child. No one batted an eye about bringing something to share. It still remains one of my favorite holidays because I was able to limit most of the things that tend to make my girl crazy.

At the end of Thanksgiving this year, my husband and I were asked if we’d be back in town for Christmas. We both smiled weakly and replied in near unison, “We’ll see.”

I don’t know what Christmas will bring for us this year, but I’m praying now for the guidance to love the people in our lives well, without making our family and ourselves go insane.

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