Holidays are a time to come together with friends and family, celebrate, and relax. However, for some families, attending gatherings can be stressful and require extensive preplanning regardless of how exciting it is to spend time with loved ones.
If you have or know a child with social challenges, such as autism, Asperger’s, a nonverbal learning disability, attention deficit disorder, or mental health issues, you know better than most how anxiety inducing holiday gatherings can be not only for the child, but also for you and others involved. The Fourth of July is no exception, and possibly more than most, can present challenges and induce sensory overload.
Fun for some, overwhelming for others
Amid the fireworks, parades, children with sparklers, bustling backyard BBQs, unfamiliar locations, new foods, smells, faces, crowds, and the potential summer heat and humidity, the Fourth of July can be an increased sensory input nightmare for individuals with ASD and other sensory sensitivities. Not to mention, for those who are accustomed to strict daily routines, having this interrupted in order to attend a family function and participate in July Fourth activities may be a difficult adjustment.
That being said, there are ways parents can plan to assuage these challenges in the days leading up to the event as well as on the day of the event. We hope you find the tips below helpful in making your day successful and enjoyable!
Leading up to the Day:
1. Talk to the host beforehand- Contact the host of the family gathering a week or two in advance to discuss ways to make your child feel safe and comfortable as well as answer any questions the host might have. Some things you might want to decide on together are:
• Your child’s food preferences so as to respect his or her level of routine. For example, some individuals always have mac and cheese for lunch or only on Tuesdays. Try to honor the change in routine and provide preparation for that.
• Ways in which you can honor and celebrate what your child already likes by incorporating those into the day. For example, if your son or daughter loves water, maybe incorporate some water play into the day by setting up a sprinkler or a waterslide; something all the children can enjoy.
• Signs that your child may be experiencing stress so the host can help you keep an eye on him or her throughout the day.
• A designated place in the house where your child can be alone if there is a need to decompress.
2. Give Advance Notice- Taking your child’s response to a change in routine into consideration, give your child advanced notice about attending Fourth of July events. Some children may have anxiety about upcoming changes so instead of having your child fret for many days, perhaps inform him or her of the family gathering just a day or two in advance. You know best how many days in advance to let your child know.
3. Share a Story- Once you have told your child you will be attending the event, help him or her understand what to expect by making a story about the day. Using verbal and visual cues, describe the sounds, sights, smells, feelings, and tastes that can be expected on the day. For example, show pictures of Aunt Susie’s house, pictures of who will be attending, what food may be served, and so on. Show a muted video of what fireworks look like then show your child again with the volume on low. Give examples of anything your child may experience on a typical Fourth of July, thereby decreasing the chance of something surprising or unexpected evoking a strong negative reaction.
4. Get to Bed Early- The night before make sure you and the rest of your family members get to bed at a reasonable time. The next day will be busy and you will need a good night’s rest to ensure more patience and understanding. In addition, your child will benefit from a good eight or more hours of sleep so he or she starts the day with a positive frame of mind and nerves intact. In the morning, give yourselves plenty of time to depart, avoiding rushing and high energy.
On the Day of:
1. Show the Safe Space- When you first arrive, show your child the assigned private location available to only him or her to go and be separate from other people. Be clear that it is okay to go there during any part of the day if quiet time and an opportunity to calm down is needed. Make sure that all adults who might feel responsible for your child during the day are aware of this safe location should the child seem to be missing.
2. Inform Others- When needed, inform other family members how they can best help throughout the day. Sometimes, family members may misinterpret your child’s behavior as intentional misbehaving when in fact it is an uncontrolled response to emotions such as anxiety or fear. Educate friends or family members on signs indicating your child may be reaching the threshold of what he or she can handle.
Likewise, let your family members know that although they may be well meaning that increased verbal stimuli during an episode may actually increase your child’s stress. When under stress, the brain’s ability to process language plummets. Observing from afar and knowing the plan for when your child needs to decompress is much more effective at deescalating a situation.
3. Items to Pack- Have ear buds or headphones on hand so that your child has a way to dull or block out the sounds around them. Especially during parades or fireworks, your child may be able to enjoy the visuals better if there is soft music playing in his or her ear. This can be calming and soothing and your child will still be able to hear you speaking to them. Be aware that using noise cancelling headphones with children extremely sensitive to assaulting noises will require you to get into your child’s visual field to communicate with them.
Also pack items that have been effective in calming your child and offering a sense of familiarity and comfort. It is good to have games, fidgets, types of food, etc., easily accessible for when your child shows signs of discomfort and sensory overload.
Photo credit: Adrem68
Take Care of Yourself:
Preparing for family gatherings and all other aspects of a holiday like Fourth of July creates a lot of extra work for parents. If your child is comforted by his or her routine and a holiday celebration disrupts that, as the parent, you have to take on the responsibility of preparing not only you and your child but also your extended family members.
This being said, you need to find ways to help yourself not just survive the day without any major meltdowns, but also find time to enjoy yourself. Speak with your spouse or partner in days leading up to the event about how you can trade off and assign different parts of the day to one another. It is important that you build in ways to “give yourselves a break” so you have time with family members you haven’t seen in a while and enjoy the splendor of the day.
Additionally, make sure you are not too hard on yourself. Do your best to keep your self-talk positive. It is easy to take on so much responsibility for your children’s needs and behavior that you can forget your own needs. Remember that your children are unique individual people and although you try to do everything you can for them no one can do EVERYTHING for another person.
No matter what happens on the day of, remember that you can only do so much. Prepare the best you can, field the challenges as they come, and remind yourself to enjoy little moments throughout the day. If struggles arise, get through them with as much grace as you can muster, keep love at the forefront of it all, and know that tomorrow is a new day.
Sharing is Caring
Sharing these strategies with you is important to us and we want you to know that we are not only here to offer advice, but to hear you out as well. Feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at 802-878-2332. We are always looking for more blog ideas so if there is something you would like to learn more about let us know and we can consider writing a blog about it in the future. To read more blogs like this click here and don’t forget to share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or via email with others who may benefit from information on how to prepare for July Fourth! Thanks for reading!