The holidays are well known for being a joyful and exciting time of year, but also stressful with all the last minute shopping. For people with disabilities and their families there is another layer to this. School is usually out for a week at least, and people with disabilities often spend that time in their family homes (whether they live there or live in a separate home). This can be a time of uncertainty, and people walking on eggshells to make sure there is no tension or risk of an outburst, especially during a family party or gathering. I wanted to give 5 simple steps we can all take to center the holidays around enjoying the time we have to spend with each other, especially those who have members of their families with disabilities.
1. Remember that people are more important than tradition.
It is easy to get carried away with tradition and creating expectations for ourselves that stress us out when they do not happen exactly as planned. Learning to let go, and not hold ourselves to those unrealistic standards is a huge part of enjoying the holidays, and life in general.
2. Don't pity others for their unfortunate situation.
I have often been tempted to pity others and act out of that pity to try and make people feel better about their situation. Let me tell you, this approach has never ended well. I have found that if I pity others because they don't have something that I have in their life, or feel bad for them for a situation they are in, it usually makes them feel worse about it. Instead, I try to listen and stay impartial but empathetic to their situation.
3. Let people talk about themselves.
I believe at our core as human beings we all want to connect. We are "social animals", as Aristotle put it. Naturally, we feel more like we are connecting when we talk about our own experience and someone else validates those feelings. For a moment we feel like we are not alone in our journey, but share it with someone.
I love the quote from How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
4. Avoid overindulgence.
Unpopular opinion, I know. The holidays are the one time every year where we feel we can overindulge guilt free. The paradox here is that we think we will be happier by giving in to our desires to overindulge with food, but the consequences don't really make us happy later. Try to have some structure in your day, and not just make it about entertaining yourself, and you will find that you will have less regrets.
After we indulge, it is a struggle to go back to "normal life". In my experience as a caretaker for many years, I saw a pattern with the holidays. Often families would remove all boundaries and let the person with disabilities enjoy all the things they are not used to, like overeating, playing video games for long periods of time, watching lots of TV and other things. To go from no rules or boundaries at home to their residential program, they would start to resent their caretakers and will often feel upset to the point of a meltdown and even aggressive behavior. Also a reminder to caretakers to be patient after the holidays.
5. Use a code word.
This one is a little cheesy, but if done right it can be just the right tool in a heated moment. Choose a code word for your family so that if things get heated, someone says it to remind everyone not to take things so seriously. I have heard stories of people bursting into laughter after someone used a code word in a heated moment, releasing all the tension.