Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated in schools across the nation. Although some schools have taken proactive steps to prevent bullying, favoritism and leaving people out on the day that should be celebrating love, there is still anxiety for the parents of many children with special needs. When your child is on the autism spectrum or has ADD/ADHD, the making and receiving of Valentine’s cards and the attendance of school-sponsored functions can be extremely difficult for parent and child, alike. Here are a few tips to minimize your anxiety and to create a good day for your child.
Group dance, anyone? Although you may be one of the only parents of a student with special needs, organizing a group date to a dance will be the safer alternative and more fun outlet for most parents in your child’s class. The group dance is a great way for your student to attend the dance but not be forced to interact with one person for five to seven hours. Organize a faux cocktail party with parents and children and take pictures as a group. One fun thing one of my parents did was create a photo booth at her home – she used props she had around the house and took funny pictures with her iPhone. She used the camera from her iPhone to take photos and used her printer to make thank you cards/Valentine’s Day cards. Parties like these encourage the group revelry but also diminish social anxiety surrounding school functions.
Discuss Valentine’s Day with your teacher and parent allies. There is nothing worse for any student than not to receive Valentine’s cards. Make an all-or-none policy common in the classroom, especially in the home room classroom. Start with you — there are many printables on Pinterest and elsewhere online allowing you to cheaply create valentines for the entire class. Another great option is to put a cookie (allergen free, of course) in a baggie for each of the students in the classroom. Talk to your friends and allies and the parents with disabilities community and have them follow suit. If you can get your teacher to make this a classroom suggestion… even better!
Manage expectations. As I mentioned an earlier blog post, sometimes the best way to mitigate the social anxiety caused by Valentine’s Day is to encourage all members of your family to honor and pay tribute to the exceptionalities of all other members of your family throughout the week of Valentine’s Day. But if this comes from a note in your lunchbox, a lovely email, a decorated photograph or even an artistic abstract painting of hearts, your child’s heart will be full and overflowing come time for the school celebration. Although there isn’t much solace in “Well, your mother loves you.” looking beyond the day and cushioning the fall can be essential to social success in high anxiety situations.
Be a family full of love ambassadors. Don’t necessarily let society dictate how you celebrate your holiday. I counsel a family with a student with ADD and a student on the autism spectrum. After many failed attempts and broken hearts on Valentine’s Day, they decided to reclaim the holiday and empower each member of the family to be a love ambassador during the week of Valentine’s Day and every weekend of February. How did they do that, you may ask? Each weekend of February, every member of the family got to pick a charitable cause that they wanted their family to spend half a day dedicated to, they change the game of Valentine’s Day and made it about altruism and going beyond one’s self. To date they have volunteered at pet shelters, made lunch bags for the homeless, written letters and valentines to soldiers stationed abroad and had bake sales with proceeds going towards a plethora of causes.
Just because Valentine’s Day as it stands doesn’t work for your children doesn’t mean you can’t meaningfully and profoundly contribute to your community. Show your student with exceptionalities that while traditional, mainstream valentines may not work for him or her, your child can impart love in the community and around the world. This sense of esteem and self worth is much better (most of the time) than a Frozen valentine and stale conversation hearts. (No offense to Elsa.)
Bottom line: Reframe the holiday to what fits your family and your values