By Jessica Leving
The Stress of Holiday Traveling for Neurodiverse Families
Ah, the holidays. Delicious food, twinkling lights… and, for many, travel headaches and awkward family gatherings. For families affected by autism, OCD, and other neurodiversities, this time of year can be fraught with stress at every turn as you navigate big crowds, new places, and changes in routine.
Siblings of neurodiverse kids often draw the particularly short end of the stick in these situations. Combine an already stressful circumstance with kiddos who struggle more than their peers with change, and it’s easy to see why parents might not have the bandwidth to consider how their neurotypical children are feeling.
But whether they express them or not, the other kids in the family are having feelings in those chaotic moments, too— and if ignored, those feelings can result in dire consequences later on.
Siblings of the Neurodiverse
Siblings of children with disabilities have a statistically significantly higher likelihood of developing internalizing behaviors and disorders (like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders) later in life, according to psychology professor and sibling research specialist Dr. Avidan Milevsky. This increase is likely due to sibs’ propensity to shove feelings down and turn inward rather than “burden” parents.
“Parents are already spending a lot of time, money and emotional energy on tending to the child with the disability, and the ‘well’ sibling doesn’t want to burden the parents further—so they just keep it inside,” says Milevsky. “Or, for some, there’s a limit on what they can keep internal. Sometimes it boils over and we see siblings explode in very disruptive ways. That’s why it’s so important to have an avenue of support for siblings.”
But all is not lost! There’s plenty that parents can do to help neurotypical sibs enjoy the holiday season. All that’s required is a bit of extra care and planning.
See tips below to ensure the brightest, merriest, cheeriest season for all the children in your family.
Troubleshoot in advance
Know that your child with autism is likely to get overstimulated at airports? Make time before the trip to sit down with the other kid(s) in the family to share your plan of action (whether it’s having headphones handy, getting assistance from airport staff, etc.).
Most importantly: Let your typically developing children know that you will be in charge of taking care of Child A’s needs, and that even though Mommy or Daddy may appear stressed, you have it under control (even if you’re not so sure you do!). It’s critical for kids to know that the adults in their lives have a handle on things, and that it’s not the sibling’s job to manage the situation.
Be sure to also give sibs a chance to express any feelings they may be having in advance about the trip, and let them know all feelings are normal (even if it’s something you might wish they didn’t feel, like embarrassed or mad). Even if the inevitable meltdown ends up being stressful in the moment, letting sibs know it’s okay to feel uncomfortable and that you’ll be there to talk afterward helps validate and normalize feelings that might otherwise be repressed—and result in unwanted consequences down the road.
Make time for separate activities
One of the major benefits of family get-togethers—if you’re lucky—is being able to trade off childcare with other adults in the family. It’s easy to be tempted to leave all the kids with grandma if she offers, or send the whole brood to hang with cousins. It may even feel natural to ask your neurotypical kids to keep an eye on their sib while you get some much-needed grown-up time.
But your other children deserve a vacation, too — and that means the opportunity to be a kid, not a caretaker. If possible, try to build in some time for sibs to hang separately with different family members so that everyone can have a chance to fully experience a few fun activities on their own terms.
Of course, don’t forget to ask your kids if they’re okay with that plan before pawning them off on an aunt or uncle, when they may prefer to stay with their sib! Every child is different and there’s no right answer—the key is to offer choice to kids who may not feel their voices are heard very often.
Talk to other family members before your trip
Having a conversation with extended family about the way that they talk to ALL your kids can be a helpful way to avoid falling into traps like “you’re such a huge helper, what would your Mommy do without you?” or other comments that can cause children to feel inappropriately “parentified”.
It’s wonderful to praise kids for lending a helping hand, but let other adults know you’d prefer if they comment only on the direct action they see (i.e. “That’s really nice that you just shared your cake with Johnny!”) and not extrapolate into an assumption that they always share, are always calm or patient, etc.
While these comments are of course well-intentioned, they run the risk of making sibs feel boxed into a certain role or category that’s unfair or even inappropriate for their age level. As much as we all want to raise kind, generous, patient kids, it’s important for sibs to know that it’s ok if sometimes they don’t want to share, or want to do something by themselves. We all deserve to be a little selfish sometimes! If you try to raise a kid not to need self-care or advocate for themselves, you’re liable to end up with an adult who doesn’t know how to practice self-care or advocate for themselves, either.
A version of this post first appeared on Medium.com.
Jessica Leving is the author of Special Siblings: Growing up with a sibling who has special needs (Amazon.com), a picture book aimed at helping kids ages 3–8 understand the emotions they might grapple with having a brother or sister with a disability. Jessica based the book on her experiences growing up with her brother, Billy, who has autism. She speaks to parents and siblings of all ages about sibling issues and is currently developing a podcast on the topic. For more information, visit https://makeit-sing.com/special-siblings.