7 Tips for Summer Gatherings When You Include Special-Needs Families

Please tell me I am not the only one who cringes with mixed emotions about summer get-togethers!  I love the warm weather, time outdoors, and opportunities to connect in a relaxed setting.  Still, I know these reunions, weddings, graduation parties, and family picnics will get my children's diagnoses to be noticed in ways I would rather forget.

I fight dread anticipating the comments from extended family members already, "Oh, another piece of cake won't hurt her," "Well, it's not like he'll die or anything," "You need to stop babying her/him," "You knew this was a risk when you had kids, but you just had to have kids anyway," "Have you tried putting her on meds?" "You need to get another job if the bills are so hard to pay."  All of those armchair quarterback remarks tend to flow easily from people who see you maybe once every 2 or 3 years.  It's insulting and difficult.  With my kids reaching their teen years now, 2 have even discussed staying home rather than put up with the challenges and demeaning remarks coming from others about behavior, diet, and treatment.

Nevertheless, we can never change the culture if we don't engage in the culture.  This means bravely daring to attend some of these summer gatherings, even if it has to look a little different from the ordinary.  Here are 7 tips to help make those occasions much more pleasant for all...

For those extending holiday hospitality:  

  1. Be sensitive to your guests of every kind.  Simply stated, treat your guests as you would want to be treated.  If you had a broken leg, you would be grateful for assistance into your host's home and a quick seat where you can relax.  The same may be true of a niece, nephew, cousin or grandchild.  If that child has sensory issues that affect sounds, lights, or food, accommodate him or her with a quiet space in your home where they can go to regroup with their parent with a toy or something else you know they like.  Try to see if any of your guests have issues with gluten, dairy, or other dietary challenges.  Perhaps, ask the parents ahead of the party how you can make the time together the most comfortable.
  2. Change your expectations for that child's participation in the usual activities of the day.  Depending upon ability level, a child may not be able to join in everything you have planned or even stay at the party as long as you would like.  Remember, much of what goes on with someone who has special needs is not visible to the naked eye.  Try to include as much as possible, but be flexible.  Perhaps plan one activity that you know the child with challenges really likes or is especially good at.  Definitely take any mobility issues into account.  If a child with special needs, don't consider your party ruined, just understand that this is part of the challenge with some diagnoses.  Relax, be supportive, but go on with your celebration regardless of how one of your disabled guests may behave.
  3. Be kind with your words.  The worst thing you could do for yourself and your guests is to make judgmental comments during a holiday visit that is supposed to be happy.  When you cast aspersions on parents and their children with challenges, you gain the reputation of being a bad host.  They will have no desire to return to your company any time soon.  Realize that there is much you do not understand, and build others up rather than insulting them at a family occasion.  Tender statements like, "I love you no matter what," "I so appreciate you coming, even if it could only be for a little while," or "How can I support you right now?" can make such a huge difference in the lives of those who are struggling.

For the parents of a child with challenges: 

  1. Plan ahead.  You know your child.  You know their limits.  Plan around what you know.  If your child has food sensitivities or special requirements, bring the appropriate food with you or discuss it with the host.  If the noise will be too much, pack ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones.  If the entire event will be too overstimulating, limit the hours you will be at the gathering.  Get creative in making adaptations.
  2. Foster your inner assertiveness, rehearse your words, and plan to politely explain if you must bow out.  Oftentimes, children with special needs do poorly with extreme temperatures.  If the family is planning a holiday celebration outside and the temps are nearing 100 degrees, tell your hostess of this challenge.  It is better to deal with the difficulty head-on than to be miserable and have a scene that escalates at a party.  If something does occur at the party, try to keep a calm demeanor and muster a smile.  This too shall pass, and the calmer you stay, the more quickly it all tends to blow over.
  3. Expect ignorant comments when you are at a summer gathering.  Prepare your mind to be thinking "They don't know what they don't know," if etiquette is breached.  Even if someone is knowingly rude, remember that they are only one emergency room visit away from being you.  And you never know when that might happen.  Two of the more verbally unkind and judgmental people in our lives ended up being mothers of special needs children themselves eventually.  Although they would never say it, they would likely feel pretty embarrassed if they had to come face-to-face with those comments today.  Additionally, gatherings such as these can offer opportunities to gently educate others on the truth about disability or chronic illness.
  4. Establish your own summer strategies.  Are the fireworks too unnerving for your child?  Maybe your family wants to watch from a distance where the noise isn't a problem.  Would you prefer to blow bubbles or pinwheels rather than attending a parade?  Make some special time together to do just that.  Is the wedding ceremony too long to sit?  Perhaps waiting for the receiving line afterward or making a brief appearance at the reception better suits your family.  Whatever strategy you choose, make it your own to make the summer more memorable and enjoyable.  That will minimize the stress you may feel from other demands on these occasions.

Whether you are the host or the guest, our best guidance can be found in Colossians 3:12-14 (NIV),  "Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."  This means that whether host or guest, we all need to offer one another some grace and mercy on these summer occasions.  After all, they should be joyful celebrations and not miserable requirements.