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Ah, Christmas. A time to visit friends and family, to see Santa, to shop… and if you’re a mom, a time to pull your hair out from stress.

The Christmas season can be hard on moms. And over the past 3 years, I have learned that it takes on a whole new level with a special needs child. I absolutely love life with Roo, but sometimes just taking him to gatherings is tough. I don’t want to admit it, but “Why do we even bother to leave the house?!?” has crossed my lips a few times.

Um, hello, Darling, life with kids is crazy!

And life with a special needs child is downright indescribable. But as I have learned to navigate parties and chaos with Roo, I have realized how many of my strategies with him would have been great to use with my big kids too.

Here are some ways I make my season brighter as I’m preparing for the mad race through Christmas parties, Santa visits, parades, and Target trips. My list focuses on the limitations of mamas in the special needs club with me, but I think they apply to all moms.

Know your child’s limitations.

Roo can get overwhelmed easily in large groups, and going from party to party to party almost guarantees a meltdown. In our house we have a one-event-per-day rule—we find that this is best for everyone. And yes, I hear you: “That might work for you, but you haven’t seen my December calendar!” Maybe not, but I’ve seen mine. I have to say no to things that I want to do, disappoint family members, sometimes even miss out on opportunities for free babysitting! It is tough, but my family is worth it.

Don’t let their stress be your stress.

None of us want our child to have a meltdown in the middle of the mall, but the bottom line is, it happens. For all of us. No one is judging you nearly as much as you are judging yourself; and your child will survive this crying fit—and probably forget it much more quickly than you will. Are they sobbing for Santa? You can just walk away and try again later, or have a crying pic that you will come to adore years later. Either way, though, it is OK.

Play hide-and-don’t-seek.

Lots of kids get overwhelmed in new situations, especially at parties involving lots of people. Sometimes this can make a child act out and be a little wild, other times they might shrink back and get shy and clingy. Either way, a little peace and quiet might be just what he/she needs. Don’t be afraid to sneak away into a quiet room. I know you want to visit with your awesome cousin Jen whom you haven’t seen in a year… but taking a time out with your child for 10-15 minutes might give you an extra 30-45 minutes at the party in the long run.

Don’t underestimate the power of a good snack.

A sippy of milk and a graham cracker can go a long way to helping Roo get through a busy day of running errands. (And Starbucks baristas have even been known to give a free small cup of whipped cream to a certain cutie I know… Starbucks for Mom, Starbucks for Roo. It’s a win-win!) Even at parties, don’t take it for granted that your child will love the feast spread out before them. Lots of new foods can be just as overwhelming as lots of new people. I always head out with one or two foods that I know Roo will eat, like crackers and yogurt. And if you forget, ask the hostess! I know it feels like an imposition, but if she has kids, chances are she’s been there too. She would love to help you and your child to have the best possible experience you can at her home.

Travel with the comforts of home.

Kids can be comforted greatly by something familiar when in the middle of new surroundings. Pack a favorite toy or book that can provide a bit of home for a child who feels out of his/her element.

Schedule your own private party.

Remember that cousin you so wanted to see? Chances are she’s free to come to your house for breakfast one day. I know Roo does much better on his “home turf” and doesn’t take quite so much of my emotional energy. Or you could sneak in a girls’ night after the kids are in bed—even if it’s sitting on your couch eating microwave popcorn. Don’t feel like your social life depends on that party. It puts too much pressure on you AND your child.

Enlist a little help.

My husband and I know that we need to take turns being on “Roo duty” at parties. While the big kids can typically run off and play with minimal supervision, Roo needs constant monitoring to keep out of trouble. If you’re parenting solo at any given event, call a trusted family member or friend who will be at the party and ask if they would be willing to help. Even if someone would read your child a book or take them for a walk for just a few minutes, that can often be enough to let you recharge your batteries for the next round.

Get everyone on the same page.

Maybe you need a code word that says, “I can’t take it anymore! It’s your turn!” (For me and my hubby, it’s as simple as “Tag! You’re it!”) Maybe you need a code for “We need to get out of here before I lose it!” For certain, you need to communicate clear expectations (and maybe even rewards and consequences) to any children old enough to understand them. Knowing that everyone is going into the party with the same playbook takes a lot of pressure off of Mom’s shoulders.

Know when to pull the plug.

It’s OK to leave the party (or mall or church or whatever) early if things just aren’t coming together. I recently went to a surprise 40th birthday party for a friend, only to leave just minutes after the guest of honor arrived. It was disappointing, but Roo was being extra-ornery and Lamb was being unkind and Monkey was crying… and I just couldn’t take it. Rather than be on edge for the next two hours, it was better for us to leave. And again, this is a great opportunity to schedule one-on-one time with anyone you really want to see.

Be prepared, not anxious.

It is good to think through these tips ahead of time, but once you done that, relax. If something isn’t going well, you have the plan in place to deal with it—but until then, enjoy the party.

And no matter what, Mom, remember this: One day, you’ll look back on this and laugh.

Katy Epling is celebrating Christmas with her husband Jon and three wonderful kids in (hopefully) snowy Ohio. In addition to Hello, Darling! she can be found at Diary of a Zookeeper where she will be reviewing some of her favorite gift ideas for Roo (and the big kids too).

How do youfind ways to enjoy the holiday season with your kids?

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