Thursday, November 21, 2013

'TIS THE SEASON FOR DYSFUNCTION: Family and Friends Edition

 The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
    but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
~ Proverbs 12:18, NIV ~

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
~ Proverbs 26:4, NIV ~ 

"They don't know what they don't know."  This wise phrase uttered 20 years ago by one of my dear friends, a colleague in the investment industry, has stayed with me through many situations over the years.  Intended to be his means of coping with others in our field who made rules without expertise,  I have adopted this pithy comment for use with the endless parade of critics who judge our life with special needs.  And you may want to grab hold of it too, especially as the holidays approach. 

No other time of year do comments by others have the cataclysmic effect on our families like they do during the holidays.  Attitudes by family and close friends can create a tension that makes parents of children with special needs positively dread this time of year.

Why?

Why do these statements get so under our skin?  Let me count the reasons:
  • Parents are already vulnerable due to the demands of the season.  Managing the stress that comes to parents raising a child with a diagnosis, while also dealing with the added, usual pressures of the holidays (See our post on couples) can leave little emotional capital for dealing with hurtful comments or actions inflicted by others.  Whereas we might otherwise let inconsiderate behavior slide off of us other times of the year, we can be a time bomb just waiting to be set off around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year.
  • As Proverbs 12:18 states, reckless words hurt.  People can and do make comments without thought at holiday gatherings.  Add some alcohol to the mix, and it gets even worse.  Sadly, for lack of anything intelligent to say, people at parties will say some of the most shallow, ignorant things known to come out of a human mouth.
  • We are in close quarters with people we may not like very well.  Virtually everyone has someone in their family whose company they could live without.  Whether it be an in-law, estranged former friend, or abrasive aunt, people like this can be hard to avoid when we are all crammed into one building for a celebration.
  • Holidays put us together with others who do not walk the same path we do.  While it can present an opportunity to educate others on special needs, it can also expose the apathy and ignorance of others.  Much can hinge on which type of people you encounter.
  • This season is filled with expectations.  Many of those expectations hinge upon those who are supposed to be near and dear to us.  All of us want love and acceptance from our family and circle of friends.  Mistreatment of our child equals mistreatment of us.  And who doesn't want to be judged a good parent by their loved ones?
  • We are incredibly selfish humans.  Just as God reminds us in Romans 3:23, our holiday parties are filled with a collection of perfectly imperfect people.  This means that while parents may be worried about wanting a lovely holiday experience for their child, the hostess may be worried that a special needs child in attendance is going to ruin their party.  We each operate from our own frame of reference thinking that we should be entitled to the kind of experience we would like to have.  Needless to say, those views are far from the meaning of any holidays in November and December.

 What to do

  • Do not skip psychotropic medications or visits to mental health professionals this time of year.  If you are seeing a counselor, you will definitely need their support more than ever during this season.  Psychiatrist, psychologists, and psychotherapists are uniquely equipped to offer you emotional strength when you are weakened by the challenges of the holidays.  They can offer you the opportunity to rehearse what you will say to those who come at you with reckless words.  They can also act as a competent sounding board, offering solid perspective regarding interpersonal relationships.
  • Get adequate sleep, exercise and meals.  Just like your children, you will feel out of sorts when you are physically depleted.  The mental acuity needed to deal with the unkind comments or behavior of others will not be at an optimal level if your physical needs are not met.
  • Set boundaries.  Decide with your spouse what your threshold is for unkind words and mistreatment by others.  In other words, there are comments or behaviors that you may be able to just let slide off of you, others you might feel compelled to address, and yet others you may sense are worth leaving the gathering over.  While we can't always anticipate the behavior of others, it is critical to make sure that you and your spouse have a mutual understanding and respect for your family's "hill to die on" where the treatment of your child's special needs are concerned.
  • Just as Proverbs 26:4 states, do not lose your cool with foolish, ignorant remarks or behavior, lest you look equally as foolish and ignorant.  A great article written by Jon Acuff wisely encourages us to view the hurtful remarks of others as starting with these 10 words, "I'm a complete stranger with some advice about your life."  Most of us do not spend day in and day out with our extended family or friends.  For all intents and purposes, they are largely strangers to our daily lives.  Therefore, they believe they are making intelligent, insightful remarks about something they only know about in a very remote way.  Little do they know how foolish they are.  I still have in-laws on both my side and my husband's side of the family who make extremely rude value judgments on our children and our parenting.  "They don't know what they don't know."  We limit our time with them and not only frame their words in the context what Acuff suggests, but also smilingly reply, "Thanks for the input," which politely shuts the conversation down before it goes any further.
  • Realize that the time to address offensive talk or actions from others is usually not at that party or dinner.  Unless it is harmful or your "hill to die on", you will likely have better results if you act in a discreet manner and contact the person after the holiday.  A calm, clear explanation of what the offense is and what your boundaries are, apart from the celebration, shows courtesy to the host or hostess while still addressing the difficulty.  Using "I" statements like "I feel...  when..." is less accusatory than saying, "You said...  You did..." 
  • Pray.  Not only pray for those you will encounter at these gatherings but pray for your own immediate family.  Pray for wisdom, calm, kindness and clarity in your own behavior.  Ask that God would help you to love others the way He does.  Pray that the Holy Spirit would open hearts and minds to your child's value as a person.  Forgive and continue to ask for a forgiving spirit going into the holidays.  And petition God for unity amongst all who are at your holiday celebrations.  Make sure that your heart is right with the Lord, and trust Him with the rest.
Above all else, remember why we even have almost a month of non-stop celebrating.  We are grateful for the boundless blessings Yahweh lavishly pours on us every day of our lives.  It is important to come together, uniting in praise of God for those blessings.  We remember, above all, our greatest blessing -- the saving grace of Jesus, who came to pay the price for our sins and make a way for us to reunite with Holy God.  What incredible reasons to celebrate as we usher out one year and welcome in another!  The more we keep our eyes fixed on those reasons, the more dysfunction of every sort will diminish.

PRAY:  Lord, it is way too easy to have the meaning of this season swept away by the behavior of others.  Holy Spirit fill me with the strength to keep my eyes focused on You and not my circumstances.  Grant me wisdom in setting boundaries with others.  Make me the best parent possible to my child, while reflecting Your love to everyone whom we encounter.

~ Barb Dittrich

Photo Image Courtesy of 123RF

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