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Birthdays, Holidays, and Family Gatherings

Originally published:

At IEL, we have updated our language to reflect our continued understanding of disability. This uses the term “special needs,” but the content remains relevant.  

Your child’s early years often are filled with celebrations, both secular and religious. Families often view each event (the first Thanksgiving or Independence Day; the second Passover, Christmas, or Kwanza; the third birthday) as special opportunities to bring together family and friends. After all, we love to see and share the changes in our children, such as when infants become toddlers who then grow into talkative 3- and 4-year-olds with imaginative minds.

How can you make these holidays and birthday celebrations meaningful and stress-free for your child, especially when he becomes the center of attention at gatherings? (The IEL tip sheet on Making the Holidays Memorable and Meaningful has great advice for all families.)

Holidays and birthdays are wonderful times to develop family ties and traditions. At the same time, they are also just another new day in the life of your child. Consider what your child’s daily routines are and how they will change because of the day of celebration.

Think about how your child responds to changes in her daily schedule. How does she react to gatherings of children and family? Is she comfortable in new situations, with new people? Consider how much attention may be directed to her. What are reasonable expectations for her participation? Children with special needs may have less tolerance for noise, new activities, and surprises. Have a backup plan if your child needs a break.

Most children enjoy short “parties” but prefer to return to their familiar and predictable schedule of mealtime, naptime, playtime, and bedtime. Consider how long the gathering may be and if and where you can find a quiet time or space for your child before he becomes restless, distressed, or fatigued.

Everyone will enjoy the event if you can avoid tears and crying. Finding a quiet room or outdoor area where you and your child can take a break is good planning. Reducing noise and distractions can help create a sense of normalcy and calm your child if she is becoming upset or irritable. Having familiar items, a favorite blanket, book, or stuffed animal may also be a comfort.

Finally, is the celebration for you or your child? If the celebration is for the adults, then arrange for child care by asking a trusted family member or friend to help out. If your child attends, keep his time in the spotlight short. Have a place where he and his caregiver can go and enjoy a normal routine. This will allow you to enjoy the event and not place too many demands on both you and your child.

Families and friends often are our best source of support, but large gatherings can be a source of stress. Consider your child’s needs first. Then let your family and friends know what the needs are and how you will meet them.

Susan Fowler

Susan Fowler

Dr. Susan Fowler is a retired professor of special education at the University of Illinois. Susan’s doctorate was in developmental and child psychology and she was one of the pioneers in early childhood special education and developmental disabilities. She also is a parent of a young man with exceptionalities.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2022