Navigating the Holidays with a Communication Impairment 

October 9, 2023by jineantheslp0

Happy Holidays, Parents!

Let’s be honest – navigating family dynamics during the holidays can be challenging at the best of times. When your child is not behaving as extended family members would expect, perhaps not speaking much at all, especially compared to similar-aged cousins, answering in unexpected ways, getting very upset during conflicts with cousins and not able to to make him/herself understood, melting down at the drop of a hat, you may want to just flee, lash out, or vow to never attend family events again. Have you ever been asked by a (hopefully well meaning) relative, “Why does Johnny talk like that?” or “When is wrong with Selena?”, or, “Have you taken Mo to the doctor to find out when he acts like that?” 

Maybe another parent at family gatherings is always bragging about how their child is talking/reading early or posting videos in a family WhatsApp group of their much younger child doing things that you spend hours worrying your child will never be able to do. I have spoken with so many family members who dread holiday events and family gatherings for some of these reasons. It can be so painful to listen to the questions and suggestions of family members, especially if you’ve already tried some of their ideas or just don’t have the money to try them right now.

So, what can parents do to make holiday gatherings less stressful when their child has a communication delay/impairment? I don’t think there is a one-size-fits all approach, as different families and cultures have their own ways of doing things. In my family, for example, my husband’s side is Chinese, and my side is anglophone white Canadian. What would feel like the best approach for one side likely wouldn’t fly with the other. I’ve compiled some suggestions that have worked for different cultures and family dynamics below and would love for you to check them out and see what might work best in your situation.

Tips for Navigating Family Dynamics

Raise awareness/educate family members

Many families have limited knowledge about communication development and assume that a delay/disorder with communication means that your child lacks intelligence. Fear is also a common reaction to the unknown. Hurtful comments can sometimes be avoided by empowering family members with knowledge. Consider sharing information with relatives so they can increase their own knowledge and understanding about what your child is experiencing and how they can be supportive:

    • Send them this Navigating DLD Guide
    • Click HERE for stuttering information 
    • Click HERE for information about speech sound disorders: 
    • Autism
    • Think language think DLD video Click HERE

      Give suggestions on how to interact with your child
      Many family members do mean well but make hurtful comments due to ignorance or fear regarding how to interact with your child. You probably have a general idea about what tips would be best to share with family members based on their capacity to adapt and openness to suggestions. General ideas include:
      • Be patient
      • Give child time to express themself (pause and count to 10 while listening attentively)
      • Show active listening (put away phones, give child full attention, smile at them)
      • Repeating back what you thought the child said and asking them if it was correct
      • Share specific information about your child such as:

We know that sometimes ______ is hard to understand. If you didn’t understand her speech, you can try asking her to repeat herself. If you still don’t get it, it is ok to tell her you are sorry you didn’t understand and ask her if she can show you what she wants in another way, like pointing. Please try to relax and act like this is not a big deal. You probably feel worse/more uncomfortable than she does. You could also ask one of us to help since we are more familiar with her speech patterns.

Other ideas that may better describe your child include:
      • _______ is currently communicating via single words and gestures. To interact with him, please get down on his level, be very patient, and speak to him in short, simple phrases, repeating as needed. He loves snuggles, dancing, high fives, and playing dinosaurs, so you can try to initiate these preferred activities if you want to get to know him better.
      • ________ has developmental language disorder. This means that understanding what you say to him and talking to you is harder for him than for many other kids. If he doesn’t follow an instruction during group activities (e.g. getting ready to go sledding outside), please break it down for him into simpler chunks and ask him to repeat back to you what he needs to do so you can see if he understood. Also, if he is telling you a story about something that happened to him, be patient and let him finish. Sharing his experiences using words can feel really challenging for him, but he trusts you enough to feel safe to try his best. Feel free to ask him clarifying questions when he is done.
      • _______ often finds big group gatherings overstimulating. We have encouraged him to take breaks and quiet times as needed, as this is how he stays regulated. Consider joining him in a quiet room and asking if he would like to play cards or engage in another quiet activity, knowing that sometimes he may prefer not to interact so he can recharge.
      • _______ uses a communication device (iPad, core word board, etc.) to communicate. Research shows that this does not hinder kids from learning to speak verbally, so please do not ask us or him about this. If you run into trouble communicating with him, tell yourself to relax and try again. If you still encounter challenges, please ask him/us to help you.
      • We know that ______ stutters. He is more likely to stutter in exciting and overwhelming situations like holiday parties, especially when he is overtired. Please act as relaxed as possible if you are interacting with him and he starts to stutter. Great strategies include being patient, letting him finish speaking without interrupting/helping him say the word, and modeling slow, relaxed speech yourself.

Preempt hurtful comments

Consider sending a group text/email or calling families individually and sharing as much information as you arecomfortable sharing, such as asking them not to comment directly on communication challenges and to be patient with your child. Below are several suggestions you could tweak based on your preferences:
Option 1: “Hi family. _________ is experiencing some differences with how he communicates. We are on top of this and exploring different avenues to help him. We would appreciate it if you did not compare his communication skills to other kids and don’t bring this up during our time together.
Option 2: “Hi family. _________ has been assessed/is on a waiting list for an assessment of his communication skills. We are aware that he is not as strong in this area as some other kids. Please refrain from commenting on this or making suggestions on how to help. Ideas to interact with him include offering to play catch with him, doing puzzles, or playing lego.
Option 3: “Hi family. We have been hurt by comparisons between cousins in the past. Please do not comment on ______’s communication skills. He is in speech therapy and we prefer not to discuss this further.”
Option 4: “Hi family. ________ is a bit behind in his communication skills. We are exploring many options for him and would love you all to be as patient, encouraging, and gentle as possible. If you have experience with things that have helped kids communicate better, please talk to us when ______ is not around.”

Provide feedback

Many family members mean well but will fumble a bit when they try new things, such as following your suggestions on how to interact with your child. Even if it is hard for you to watch, remind yourself to assume your relative has the best intentions. With gentleness, share ideas on how they could try a different approach next time. Here are some factors to keep in mind:

        • Start with a positive comment on what you appreciated. 
        • Phrase constructive feedback in a way that shows it is a journey and often doesn’t come naturally to people so the listener is less likely to become defensive
        • Make reference to a professional as giving the suggestion
        • Thank them for trying and being part of the team

You could say something something like this: 

I was so pleased to see you interacting with ______. I could see you were trying to be patient, but I noticed that a couple times you interrupted her before she was done talking. We’ve struggled with this too, but have learned from her speech therapist that since she is more sensitive than other kids and has communication challenges, it is extra important that we give her a chance to finish talking rather than filling in the word even when it takes her a bit longer to get it out. Thanks so much for being part of the team!

Create a safe and comfortable environment for your child

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we have family members who are abusive or straight up unkind humans. If this is the case, you will need to have boundaries in place for the wellbeing of your whole family. Consider joining other holiday events with people who can respect your boundaries and communicate love and acceptance to both you and your child. Sometimes friends become like family and you will choose to steer clear of family events for the sake of your child, at least in the short term. This is ok!

Build yourself up and affirm yourself so you can be present

Before a big event, it can help to positively affirm yourself and speak true, helpful thoughts over yourself so you can be in a healthy, positive frame of mind. To get yourself started, consider downloading my free Positive Affirmation list, specifically geared towards healthy, helpful ideas to meditate on and speak over yourself. Remind yourself not to compare your child to other children and focus on the beautiful individual you are raising. It is also okay for you to take breaks.

Build up your child

Encourage your child by speaking truth over them as well. Help them develop positive self-esteem and focus on positives prior to a big event. Remind yourself of the challenges your child faces and celebrate positive steps they take rather than focusing on the negatives.

With the extra sugar, late nights, unwrapping of gifts, sense of expectation, alcohol (for some families), boisterous family members and so on, we all tend to get overstimulated at holiday events. My holiday wish to you and yours is that you will be able to connect with those you love and build trust and safety with those in your circle. When your child has a communication impairment, you may feel extra stress or anxiety but this does not have to rob you of peace and joy.

I hope that with these suggestions and tips, navigating the holidays feels a bit less daunting now and a lot more cheery!


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