Parenting Gifted Children Through the Holidays

bio_MMcleodby Molly Isaacs-McLeod, JD, LLM

Holiday stress. It all begins with Halloween and doesn’t let up until January 1, when the winter doldrums set in (but that is a topic for another day). Holidays can be stressful because we are more pressed for time than usual and there are all kinds of expectations not usually in play – family gatherings, parties, gifts, maintaining and establishing traditions, travel, traffic, etc.

Much of the stress suffered by gifted families stems from intensities that one or more family members experience, parents included! So how can some of the stress be tamed for beleaguered parents and their children?

Prioritize – Think through what is really important to you and your family members during the holidays. What events do you enjoy the most? If a particular event causes tension or stress, is there a way to visit with some of those people at another time?

Plan – If your family functions better with a “road map,” create one by mid-November. Write out planned events and activities throughout the season. In addition to providing some predictability, this will also serve to provide a visual of how over-committed your family might be. Make adjustments if needed. If you have several family members, you might have each person pick an activity that is special to them and add those to the calendar, even it if means removing other items.

Coordinate with family members – Talk with your family, children included (especially), about what they want for the holiday and plan accordingly. Every once in a while you might discover that everyone has been doing something because they thought everyone else wanted it, and in reality it is not a priority for anyone! By the same token there may be things that everyone has really wanted to do that no one has brought up because traditions have always been followed.

Divide and conquer – If some, but not all, of those living under your roof (or returning to your roof for the holiday) genuinely enjoy certain events, there is nothing wrong with dividing up for part of the holiday. Send those who enjoy the event with apologies from those who don’t.

Don’t be afraid to say no – If there are activities or events that no one cares to attend then simply say no. You can politely refuse an invitation (even one to a long-standing or traditional event) with a “we are so sorry not to be able to make it this year.” No specific explanation is required. You can always add that you are trying something new this year, or that you have other plans – even if those plans consist of donning PJs early in the evening and having a family movie night.

Diet – Be sure to stick with your family’s preferred/required way of eating as much as possible throughout the holidays. It has become more and more acceptable to bring food that meets your needs and those of your family. Assume your host’s priority is that your needs are met and you are comfortable.

Routine – Our gifted children often thrive on routine even if they rebel against it. Understand that their worlds are completely changed for a couple of months. They are in school, out of school, back to school again. There are parties and events that might push the limits of their ability to cope whether due to sensory issues, lack of sleep, introversion, or the anxiety that can turn on when routine tapers off. There is often a parade of relatives and “friends” with whom our children are not familiar or comfortable. Try to provide a few touchstones of a regular schedule throughout the day.

Take a day off – Cancel everything and spend a day enjoying quiet time in the house. Do what makes you and your family members most comfortable – wear your PJs all day, watch a movie or cook together, spend time curled up reading and drinking tea.

The holidays are definitely a time to “apply your oxygen mask before attempting to assist others.” Children will often take their cue from you. If you are stressed and anxious they will pick up on that and, depending on their temperament and age, will either exhibit similar behavior or capitalize on your weakened state! In all seriousness, be sure you have control of your emotions; your children will pick up on that too. By prioritizing and perhaps cutting back on the “busy-ness” of the season, we set a good example for our children in healthy living and possibly establish new traditions.

Molly A. Isaacs-McLeod is an attorney, mediator, educator, and mother of three gifted children. She provides advocacy, mediation, and educational planning services to families seeking appropriate accommodation for their gifted children. She is co-founder and president of Parents of Gifted Students Inc., a support and resource group for families of gifted children, and is a SENG Model Parent Group facilitator. Her areas of practice included estate planning, disability, and mediation. Prior to law school, she worked in public health where she gained experience in program development and management.

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