All of the strategies that appeared in the previous post are applicable here as well. Setting goals, visualizing the event, reading the room, practicing gratitude.... They all work for family events as well!
Family gatherings often involve an additional aspect that a lot of holiday activities and events don’t: Personal interactions with people who know you and your child intimately, and who may or may not agree with your child’s diagnosis and/or your approach to their social challenges.
Regardless of your relationship with your family and where they stand on how you parent your child, here are some tips for supporting your child with social learning challenges (and yourself!) during family gatherings.
- Share your child’s goals with your family. Let them know what your child is currently working on and where they are in the process. You may even want to include things that your child is not yet ready to do. For example, your child may be working on greeting people, but not yet ready for hugs. Or your child may be working on reciprocal conversations, but only regarding their topic of interest, not novel information. This will give your family a good idea of what they can help reinforce with your child without expecting them to do things they are not yet ready for.
- Ask your family to help your child problem-solve when appropriate instead of doing things for your child. Teaching kids how to problem-solve is one of my biggest goals in life. It is typically easier and/or quicker for adults to do things for kids instead of allowing them to figure it out on their own. But by doing this, we rob them of the opportunity to experiment and work through things. When I meet a new student I have no idea what they can or can’t do. Your family may feel the same about your child. But I know they can try and they can learn. Which means I expect them to do both!
Often when I am meeting with a new student at Starfish Social Club, they will have something to throw away. Instead of telling them where the nearest trashcan is, I ask them to think about where a trash can might be. If they say, “In the restroom,” I ask them to see if they can find the restroom. It would be much quicker and easier for me to tell them where the trashcan is, but that doesn’t teach them to use their strategies and figure things out.
- If your child struggles with perspective-taking, encourage your family to explicitly state their thoughts and feelings. An example may be, “Oh you like apple pie? I prefer cookies. We have a different thought!” At Starfish Social Club I overemphasize the concepts of sharing a thought and having a different thought. Understanding that people have different thoughts and feelings is a core deficit for people who struggle with perspective-taking.
Children who are more advanced in their social awareness are often aware of this on the surface, but may struggle to take other people’s thoughts or feelings into consideration when they differ from their own. A great example is a child who struggles to understand that other people feel uncomfortable when they pick their nose, even though the child really enjoys doing it. An example of sharing thoughts and feelings for a situation like this may be, “I feel uncomfortable when you pick your nose in front of me. How can we problem-solve this?” This strategy gets MUCH better results than, “Ewww, gross! Stop doing that!” Another example would be, “I have learned a lot about robots but my brain thinks it would like to talk about something different now. Have you seen the new superhero movie?”
- Give your family notice if your child struggles with emotional regulation. This can include anything from full-blown meltdowns to arguing when upset. I have worked with kids with social/behavioral challenges for about 15 years and one thing I see frequently when a child is struggling to regulate themselves is that people want to help. But without understanding what the child needs and why they are doing what they are doing, most help is not helpful. Ask your family to step back and let you help your child unless you ask for something from them. In addition to others probably not having the history, relationship, or information necessary to help your child, I frequently see techniques like bribery, distraction, or punishment used by people who don’t know ‘the plan’ for that child.
- Speak positively about your child. When I was a teacher in a self-contained behavior unit, the other teachers would often approach me in the lounge at lunchtime to ask what was going on with one of my students who maybe was running down the hallway or who had a meltdown on the playground. I refused to speak negatively of my students. They got plenty of that from everyone else. Instead, I would say something like, “I’m so proud of him! He was really upset but he was able to practice his coping skills and make things better! Thanks for being concerned about him!” If you take this approach with questions or comments from your family that have a negative tone, they will at most start talking positively about your child as well, and at least stop talking negatively.
- While the previous tips are mainly geared toward the adult members of the family, the biggest struggles may come in the form of other kids. All of the previous tips still apply to kids once they are about 8 or so, but keep in mind that kids may need more support when it comes to their interactions with your child. If we leave things up to chance, chances are your child will struggle when it comes to socializing with cousins/nieces/nephews/someone else’s kids. It may be necessary for you to stay with your child to help scaffold and support their interactions.
During every weekly group at Starfish Social Club, we have game time. Our teaching assistants are there scaffolding and supporting interactions to help kids learn new skills and use them appropriately. If a child is looking for someone to play with them, an assistant may ask, “Who would you like to ask to play with you? Remember, they may say yes or they may say no.” If two (or more) kids are disagreeing about who will go first, an assistant may say, “Hmmm, it looks like you are all sharing a thought about going first. I wonder how we can solve this problem fairly?” If an assistant notices a child is struggling with engaging in a conversation, she may say, “I notice she is telling you about what she got for Christmas. Can you think of a comment or a question about it?” Often the support we give our kids helps other kids engage in more socially expected behaviors as well!
May your holidays be filled with peace and joy, love and laughter, and social success for your child!