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Jan 09

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Special Needs Children and Holidays with Extended Family Don’t Always Mix

Holidays with family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, can be just as challenging for special needs parents as it is for their special needs child. You may be quite relieved that the holidays are now over and that both you and your child get a break until the next family reunion.

Some lucky parents receive tremendous emotional and practical support from their own parents. The grandparents may function as confidantes, babysitters, and provide financial help for those expensive medical evaluations and therapies.

But for other parents this is far from their reality. You may have parents who are elderly and require your care giving skills, so that you are the “sandwich” generation caring for your own children and your parents, too. You may have parents who live too far away to provide practical support. Or, you may not be emotionally close to your own parents and they have trouble understanding what you are going through and they just don’t “get it.” 

Although your parents, the grandparents, may be coming across as indifferent to your needs or judgmental about your parenting style, they may be just as concerned and worried as you are, or want to help but don’t know how. It may help you to understand what grandparents may be going through emotionally, so you can figure out how to maintain your relationship with them, and how to help foster a good grandparent-grandchild bond. That bond will benefit your child, your parent, and in the long run, you.

Without information, grandparents can say and do things that are very hurtful to you and your child. Does any of this sound familiar?

  • “You just need to be a stricter parent.”
  • “Your child is just fine. He’s just being a kid.”
  • “Stop wasting all your time and money on endless doctor appointments. You are looking for unnecessary labels that won’t change anything.”
  • “He is a great kid and will mature out of this stuff.”
  • “We’re not encouraging the spanking that was common in our day, but a little less spoiling and being more firm will be fine. It’s our job to spoil him, not yours.”

Many grandparents don’t know where to turn when they get the news from you that there is something wrong with their grandchild. You may be joining support groups, talking to other mothers, reading books on the disability and researching interventions, but the grandparent may not have easy access to such support and information.

We also have to respect that many grandparents were raised in a different culture and in a different era, when even words like “cancer” were whispered. Disabilities certainly were not as accurately diagnosed. Frequently disabilities were under-diagnosed because they were not well understood, so they seemed “rare.” When they were diagnosed, children were often institutionalized rather than kept with their families in the community. With the stigma often associated with disabilities, your parents probably think they didn’t even know anyone with a disability. If they did, there was likely a “code of silence” between parents.

Given all that, many grandparents may be reluctant to turn to their peers who are pulling out photos of their beautiful grandchildren to show off. So grandparents may not have their own friends available as a source of support.

The “invisible” disabilities may be even harder for grandparents to understand. They may blame your parenting style. If only you would only ‘toughen up’ and start disciplining, or stop being so overprotective, your child will be fine. They may trivialize the disability by saying “he’ll grow out of it,” and not understand how much of your daily time and energy your child needs from you. Or, they may have low expectations for your child because of the disability, because that may have been the norm in their day.

On the other hand, some grandparents may appear indifferent, because they don’t want to “burden” you with their worries and feelings. They may expend effort to hide their emotions from you in order to protect you, not realizing that they are coming across to you as uncaring.

Some grandparents may criticize your child for behaviors that they think are misbehaviors, but are really part of your child’s disorder. For example, one girl with OCD had a tantrum when her grandmother moved her toy blocks as she began a cleanup, because then the blocks weren’t symmetrical. Her need for symmetry was one of her OCD symptoms. Her grandmother, unaware of this, just thought she was being a difficult child. A power struggle ensued in which no one won, of course. Or a child with attention issues may have trouble following instructions such as “help your grandma get the dishes and the snacks and put them on the table so we can eat after the Monopoly game.” The grandparent may then chastise the child for not following instructions and being unhelpful, when in fact the misbehavior was really a neurological skill deficit—the inability to process multi-step instructions. If a child has sensory processing issues and doesn’t like to hug or be hugged, a grandparent may feel rejected or insist on hugging anyway.

Help Grandparents Get on Board

Many disability organizations have information booklets specifically written for grandparents. Or you can create your own information booklet by downloading brief articles or sharing your disability books with the grandparent. Sometimes reading an explanation from a medical expert, rather than hearing the information from you, their adult child, will really change the grandparent’s perspective and make your relationship with them more relaxed. It is also likely to improve the grandparent-grandchild bond.

Permanent link to this article: http://blog.drwalisever.com/2012/01/special-needs-children-and-holidays-with-extended-family-dont-always-mix/

1 comment

  1. Robbie Cymbrowitz

    Great job Helene!! I am very impressed. I will forward this valuable information to parents and school districts.

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