On Being Twice Exceptional During the Holidays

I recently asked participants in our Parent Empowerment Group what they love about the holidays. Just a simple question, but since they are parents of twice exceptional students, I had to give the caveat – “in theory.” Holidays can be dreadful for parents of twice exceptional students because of how they affect their kids and sometimes how the holidays affect the parents themselves. Oftentimes sensitivities lead to overwhelm and best laid plans go awry. Applying intentional strategies during the holiday season allows twice exceptional families to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecies of meltdowns and regret.

The top two responses from my Parent Empowerment Group of what they love about the holidays included: Food and Family. Those are often awesome aspects of the holiday season. When you think back to a particular holiday can you conjure up the aroma or taste of certain foods? I certainly can. For me it’s crispy potato pancakes loaded with sour cream and homemade applesauce, or sticky jelly doughnuts. I remember welcoming reams of guests or piling in the car with my siblings to go visiting. But what happens if your child only eats certain foods, has aversions and dramatic reactions to certain dishes or is identified with ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder)? What if your child cringes at the thought of being hugged or can’t handle loud and crowded gatherings?

It’s often hard to reconcile your fond holiday memories and your 2e child’s needs. I remember a client whose son could benefit greatly from participating in a wilderness program, but my client lamented separating from him during the holidays. Her wise husband reminded her that holidays often included their son sitting apart from everyone else in a darkened room eating plain pasta. Human nature allows us to ‘forget’ certain things, and we are eternally hopeful. Sometimes selective memory is a great defense mechanism, but oftentimes it reminds us that parenting 2e children and loneliness often go hand in hand.

Holiday time either provides a much needed interaction with loved ones, or more likely serves as a reminder of the challenges in parenting a 2e child. In some cases, the pandemic has taken the pressure off extended family expectations of large and loud gatherings. This may be a bonus for your 2e child but may be a bummer for you. Or perhaps it’s great for you, but your sensory seeking extrovert needs action and craves large gatherings.

It’s important to take stock of what is important to you. Start by asking yourself the theoretical question “What do I love about the holidays?” “What’s important to me about the holidays?” Then ask those two questions of everyone else in the family and see how much you can meet each other’s needs. Here are four suggestions for making your holiday less dramatic and more fun:

  1. Adjust Expectations

Particularly now when times are ultra-stressful, it’s important to reframe how our holidays will look. If you love certain foods, but your child doesn’t, that doesn’t mean you have to miss out. Give them what they need (include protein if possible) and enjoy your special meal. Perhaps place photographs on the table of the loved ones who taught you your recipes – as though they are there with you. Tell stories about those loved ones – but refrain from asking, begging or pleading with your 2e child to eat the dishes. Pass down family lore, not family drama.

2. Anticipate and Avoid

You know what triggers your child. Avoid these situations at all costs. Today is NOT the day he will suddenly clear his plate or empty the dishwasher. So if those and similar requests set off your 2e child, refuse to engage. Use a paper tablecloth, disposable plates, cups, and utensils and at the end of the meal, grab the four corners of the tablecloth and dispose of the whole thing! Make it easy for you to enjoy your holiday meal. If you want to visit (socially distanced) with friends or family – give your 2e child an out. Use the pandemic as his excuse – he is worried about exposure. Make it easy for you.

3. Ask Questions

While you may anticipate triggers, don’t assume you know what your 2e child wants or is thinking about the holidays. Ask him what matters to him. Ask him what he loves and hates about the holidays. If his first answer is sarcastic or avoidant, that’s okay, back off and broach the subject again at a later time. If there are certain things you absolutely want to happen, ask your child what will make it easier or them.

4. Get your child’s input.

The more you can involve your child in holiday preparations, the better it will be. Let go of perfectionism and let him hang the decorations or decorate the cookies. Maybe it will be helpful for him to make the seating cards and decide who sits where. Perhaps he can foods from a menu of choices you give him. Perhaps he can help wrap presents or decide on the family movie.

            At the very least, give your 2e child an out. If it’s too overwhelming for him, let him off the hook. Let him know the plans, tell him you’d love for him to join in, but also tell him you understand if he doesn’t. If you don’t push him, he may actually join in the festivities sooner. Even if he doesn’t participate at all – you’ve given him the clear message that you understand his needs, and that’s a gift in itself.

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Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-esteem in their students and clients.

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