Preparing our special-needs child for large family gatherings

Written by Jen Forsthoff
Published on December 09, 2022

There’s nothing more wonderful than gathering with family and friends to celebrate the holidays. Sharing meals, baking cookies, giving gifts, and continuing fun traditions create memories we treasure for years to come.

But as our families grow and the needs of our children change, these gatherings have the potential to be more and more difficult. Participating in holiday gatherings and traditions with your son or daughter with special-needs can go from wonderful to awful all too quickly. Large family gatherings can offset your child’s typical routine and daily structure. You are often gathering in less familiar homes that are not kid-proof. Meal time is spent trying to feed your child food that is unfamiliar. And if you are like me, I do everything I can to convince my daughter to put on clothes that usually trigger sensory issues, even to the point of tears, just so that we can fit in with the color scheme for the family photo.

But don’t lose hope! I want to offer you some practical help as you prepare for the holiday season. With just a little bit of planning and preparation on the front end, I have found that I can set my child and my family up for a much better holiday. 

1. Adjust your expectations

I put this first, because it is the most important. We all have expectations going into the day. We want to eat a warm meal. We want to enjoy every conversation. We want to fully engage with family. But the reality is, your child will need you throughout the day, and you must shift your focus from time to time. You will have conversations that start and get cut off. You might have to wait to grab a bit of dessert later than you wanted. You might need to step out of the house and take your child for a walk to help them reset. My advice is that you adjust your expectations and simplify them. I have learned that if I choose to enjoy the simple moments of the day, my heart is full and thankful. 

2. Gather details and expectations of the day

By knowing what the day will bring and the schedule of events, you can better prepare your child for the details and expectations of the day. Find out what time you are expected to arrive and leave. Find out when the family will sit down to eat. Will there be family game time? Do you need to plan for a family photo? Is there a space available for your child if they need some time alone? As you gather details and expectations, you can make decisions on how to best prepare your child for each aspect of the family gathering. 

3. Communicate your child’s needs

As you gather details and find out what is expected from your family, be sure to communicate the needs of your child. Communicate ahead of time that you will need to arrive later or leave early based on the needs of your child. Ask for your child to be seated next to you at the table so that you are able to help them during meal time.  Let the family know that you will bring familiar food that you know your child will eat. Maybe even request that the family photo is taken as soon as you arrive so that your child can change into more comfortable clothing.  Any needs that can be communicated before the event will better help both sides of the family prepare for the day.

4. Prepare a ‘Grab-Bag’

If I bring a grab-bag for my daughter with just a few simple things, it makes a big difference. Consider bringing a comfort item for your child. A change of clothes is always good. Bring their favorite activities or games (they might even be able to play that favorite game with Grandpa). Bring the headphones or tablet that will help them settle when needed. No, this doesn’t make you a bad parent; family gatherings are long for all of us.  Bring anything that will help your child feel comfortable and meet any anticipated needs that might come up throughout the family gathering. Your child can even help you prepare this grab-bag.   

5. Gather Your Team

Don’t go into the day alone, but gather yourself a team. Talk to your spouse ahead of time so that you can take on the day together. Make a game plan together; maybe one of you will help your child during meal time, and the other can help during dessert. Maybe one of you will be ready to take your child on a walk and the other will be ready to give one-on-one attention if they need it before or after the meal. If you have older children who can help with ideas to redirect or comfort in those moments of need, prepare them ahead of time so that they can be ready to step in as a helpful sibling. Having a team and making a plan together prevents potential tension or frustration that can build as you try to do everything on your own. 

6. Give yourself permission to step away (or leave) 

There may be times when it is necessary for your child to step away. Give yourself permission to do what is best in the moment. Don’t push your child beyond what is reasonable. Chances are, your family will offer an extra set of hands or encouragement in those high stress moments. And if it’s best for your family to leave early, do so gracefully. You can always follow up later with a phone call and thank the family for the time that you were able to share together.

These few practical things, along with prayer, can really help you and your child have a wonderful holiday with family!  And remember, you are the parent called by God and chosen for your child. You are the best one for the job, and God will equip you for every season (Hebrews 13:21)… yes, even the holiday season! 

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Jen Forsthoff

Jen Forsthoff is the author of Chosen for Charlie: When God Gifts You With a Special- Needs Child and Champion For Charlie: Rise Up and Advocate For Your Child. Jen and her pastor-husband, Lucas, live in Michigan with their three children. Their oldest, Charlie, was diagnosed with Trisomy 21 at birth and has opened their eyes to the needs of families just like theirs. Raising Charlie, along with her experience as a classroom teacher and in ministry, has fueled Jen’s passion to positively impact families who face the challenge of parenting a child with special needs.  She writes, speaks, and advocates for families who need a message of hope and biblical truth to shape the everyday perspective of their role as the parent and champion for their child. In both ministry and educational platforms, Jen is a voice for parents raising a special-needs child. As God has opened doors through radio, television, community events/organizations, and ministry partnerships, she continues to bring a message of hope to families. You can connect with Jen at and on Instagram @jforsthoff.

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