When you have children with special needs, summer can be extra stressful. During the school year, the school day provides a lot of the structure and routine that so many special needs children crave. But during the summer, we as parents are responsible for creating and maintaining the schedule that will help our children function at their best all day. We also have to anticipate how our children will transition to summer because it is such a major change in routine when school gets out.
Last summer, I decided to gear up for summer by doing a few things that would reduce stress throughout the summer. Here is my top ten list for gearing up for summer when you have special needs children.
- Decide that this will be the summer when you and your children will THRIVE. Sometimes we just have to change how we think about things. Whenever I get myself into the rut of thinking that I am just in survival mode (and sometimes with good reason), I find that I am giving myself permission to be on the brink of losing it. I am just one meltdown away from being pushed over the edge. But when I am trying to thrive in the situation I am in, just that mental shift works wonders with how I approach difficult situations.
- Stock your freezer. Mealtimes can be some of the most stressful times of the day, so do everything you can to make it less stressful. Double or triple your meals during the month of May and freeze the extra portions. You’ll be surprised how quickly you will have a stockpile in your freezer without a lot of extra work. Freezer meals also cut down on dinner cleanup time. I also like to precook and freeze all the meat I might need for recipes, it saves so much time. I have even started freezing things for breakfast. Pancakes and banana bread freeze great, and then you don’t start the day with such a mess in your kitchen.
- Decide how much structure you will have in your day. Many special needs kids need a lot of structure to thrive. But for me, it can be hard as the parent to provide as much structure as my kids really need. If I try to create too much structure, it is hard to be consistent. If I don’t create enough structure, my kids struggle more with what to expect each day and we have more meltdowns. Decide how you will balance these two needs. At my house, I keep our mornings very structured, but the afternoons are pretty carefree. I also post a schedule of our morning routine in the kitchen so my children know what the expectations are.
- Get the help lined up that you need to keep your child progressing. Decide if you can give your child all the help they need to keep progressing (academically, socially, physically) or if you need to enlist the help of others. Sometimes it is hard as a parent to be the caretaker, the therapist, and the tutor 24 hours a day. The first summer we hired someone to help my son with autism, I felt like such a burden had been lifted! I have also used volunteers from my church to help me with some occupational therapy activities. Sometimes you can even find college students who need experience working with special needs children.
- Start taking good care of yourself now so you’ll be in a good place for summer. We all know that an empty well cannot give water to anyone. Similarly, a stressed out mom who is at the end of her rope doesn’t have anything left to give to her family. If you find yourself battling fatigue, start getting more sleep and exercise now. I recently watched this video online, and it really hit home to me. I have to take better care of myself so I have the energy to be patient with all of my children the entire day. When I consistently get sleep and exercise, I am a better mom.
- Find programs in your area for special needs children. Do some online research to find programs that will help your kids with their specific disabilities. Some autism groups in the community have summer field trips. Local CHADD websites often have information on summer programs for children with ADHD. Some Recreation Centers provide Adaptive Aquatics, a program offering private swimming lessons for children with special needs at the same price as a group lesson. In addition to programs for special needs children, there are great programs for all children during the summer. Summer Movie Clubhouse has weekly movies for $1 (only $5 for all 10 movies!). Kids Bowl Free has information on free summer bowing.
- Decide what your family screen time policy will be. Decide in advance how much time your child will be allowed to spend watching TV, playing on the iPad, playing on the computer, etc. Having a policy in advance can reduce the number of arguments about screen time. I have found that my children behave much worse if I let them have too much screen time. Last summer, I let them each pick one 30 minute show and they rarely pushed for more because they already knew the expectation. Also, decide if you will let them earn extra screen time and what they have to complete before they can have any screen time.
- Figure out what life skills you want them to learn this summer. Summer can be a great time to teach some of those life skills that you don’t always have time to incorporate during the school year. The thing I worry about the most with my special needs children, is if they will be able to function well as independent adults. The more life skills I work on with them now, the better they will do in the future. Some ideas for life skills are: doing laundry, tying shoes, managing money, cooking, cleaning, combing their own hair, etc.
- Make a plan for helping your children stay active. We all feel better when we are staying active. I think this applies even more for children with special needs. Think about what physical needs or coordination areas your child might need to work on, and brainstorm ways to address that in a fun way. One of my children has very tight hamstrings and low muscle tone. We are incorporating stretching and muscle strengthening activities. We also love swimming lessons, riding bikes to the park or elementary school, and walking the dog.
- Honestly evaluate how your summer went last year. Think about what went really well last summer and what did not work. Did you have enough structure? Were you running around too much? Did you feel stressed out all the time? What was the hardest part of the summer? What was the best part? When I did this a year ago, I realized that the hardest part of summer was usually the week before school started. I was feeling burned out, my children were anxious for school to start, and honestly, I think they were ready for the structure that school provides. So we planned a short vacation for the week before school started. It was the best August we have ever had and I will always try to incorporate a short vacation right before school starts.