Ho Ho Huh? Tips for Surviving the Holidays

January 2011
Contributed by Lorna Irwin, Idaho H&V
You’ve done whatever you need to do to give your deaf or hard of hearing child access to communication at  home through amplification, creating a good listening environment and/or employing some form of visual communication.Suddenly the holidays arrive; the extended family gathers, the noise level goes up, and it’s enough to confuse any child, let alone one who can’t hear everything that’s going on. How can you reduce the stress of family events, and even turn them into something meaningful and memorable? We’ve gathered the following tips from Idaho Hands & Voices families and other sources.
It Helps to Lay the Groundwork.
Talk to your child ahead of time; use books, family pictures and other visual aids to help explain what will happen. Involve your child in planning the event, if possible—let him help decorate, bake, and shop, plan the menu and guest list as age and ability allow. Not only will he better understand what is going on, he will be an important part of it.
Make sure that your child is aware of what is planned each day, and keep him/her updated  when plans change. One mother finds posting a written schedule to be beneficial, and not only duringthe holidays. And it doesn’t hurt to take some time each morning or the night before to make one-on-one contact and  confirm that my girls understand what is on the agenda; sometimes we assume that they heard something when they didn’t. This strategy has even wider applications: We knew that our deaf child would not be aware of what was happening unless we signed our conversations or took time to fill her in, so we were careful to make sure she got the information one way or another. To our surprise, we later realized that our hearing children, even when sitting right beside us as we discussed plans, weren’t always paying attention and could benefit from the same kind of consideration!
Noise, multiple simultaneous conversations, relatives who don’t know sign language or don’t understand your child’s hearing loss all conspire to make communication difficult. The deaf mother of a deaf child reports that in both the past and the present, she has hated large gatherings. I speak well, but one-way communication doesn’t sit well with me. My son seems to be blamed for anything that goes wrong when other kids are at fault as well, because of communication issues. I cling to my mother and chase after my kid to keep me away from chatting with others . It helps to explain your child’s specific needs to the rest of the extended family; still, it’s not unusual for a parent to end up facilitating communication. The most important thing for us is making sure they’re not left out of dinner table conversation, which means being patient about repeating things and explaining jokes, even though the point of the conversation or the humor of the punchline may be lost on the third or fourth re-telling…. We can’t interpret everything that is said, but we try to hit the high points and recap what is going on…. When talking to someone else, I try to at least sign for myself; my daughter regards half a conversation to be better than none, and I pass on interesting stories and other tidbits of information. Remember, though,that this is also your chance to visit with friends and family; arrange times when you can enjoy the company of other adults on your own. As my daughter grew older, she came to understand that we needed “just talking” time, and developed coping strategies. She’d play with the younger children, who found her quite amusing and didn’t care that she couldn’t talk, or disappear with a book or other project. We’d have a break and be better able to interpret for everyone when she returned.
For the child who depends at least in part on his hearing, do what you can to minimize background noise. Turn down the Christmas carols! (Bah, humbug.)If your child uses an FM unit at school and you have access to it during vacation, pass the microphone around or set it in the middle of the table—hide it inside the centerpiece if your child is self-conscious about it. The mother of a child with a cochlear implant says that hearing with only one ear makes it diffcult for her son to localize sound; group conversations are diffcult for him to follow. Be sure to point out the speaker; we often name the person who is speaking and point. Another way to identify who is speaking, and get everyone to take turns speaking, is to pass around some kind of token. “It’s your turn to talk if you’re holding the reindeer.”
Sometimes it may be possible to make holiday plans which reduce communication problems and stress. The deaf mother who has a horror of large get-togethers reports that she’s chosen to have a small Thanksgiving dinner with a few family members rather than attend the big gathering. She suggests staying on the home turf as another option: I’m trying out something different for Christmas this year, a family gathering in my home. My son will feel more comfortable in his own environment; he can boss the other kids around, more empowerment to him. It’s my home and a more deaf-friendly environment for both of us. Another idea is to employ strategic seating at the table, making sure that your child has visual and/or auditory access to people who communicate well with him and are willing to take the time to repeat or  interpret what is being said, or just carry on a conversation with your child—and they don’t always have to be his parents.
Merely surviving the holidays is hard enough; it’s a special time of year, when we want to honor family traditions and build relationships. We’ve also garnered a couple of tips on how to make this time of year meaningful.
The holidays may be the one chance for children to get to know relatives who live at a distance. No matter what form of communication they use, one-on-one conversations are easier; do what you can to encourage these.One Christmas, my father had purchased a small wooden model for my daughter, intending to help her put it together. He thought he’d need my help as an interpreter, but I suggested that he try writing. Simple vocabulary coupled with a ‘hands-on’ type of activity resulted in smooth, independent communication for both grandfather and granddaughter; he was thrilled and she still remembers that afternoon. Not long after, my father suered a severe stroke and died about a year later, so this memory is very precious to her.
Adapt family traditions to fit the needs of your children: In my family and my husband’s, the father of the family always read the Christmas story from the Bible before presents could be opened. Instead of doing this, we enact the story using a sturdy Nativity set and sing “Happy Birthday” to Baby Jesus when we place Him in the manger. Our children understand the meaning of the holiday without fidgeting through something they find diffcult to understand.
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