by Debra Hartley
If you’re like me, one of the first things that comes to mind when someone says “Fourth of July” is fireworks. They are iconic, right? The second thing that comes to mind, especially here in Hawaii, is something every holiday shares: food! We LOVE our food here and we love sharing it with friends and family at the beach.
Unfortunately, fireworks can be difficult and scary for younger children and some of our special needs kids. (Thankfully, food goes over better!) Setting aside fireworks and food, some of the next things that I think of are family, community, and the birth of our nation.
So how can we effectively communicate the meaning and importance of the Fourth of July with our families? Step one is simple: start a conversation. Based on the age and comprehension of your child(ren), you can tailor it directly to them pretty easily. Crafts, visual aids or sensory objects can help the conversation for younger kids and a more in depth discussion with your older kids with some questions can carry the meaning deeper.
Here are some talking points to get you started:
- The original name of the holiday – Independence Day (which sends my brain down another bunny trail with Will Smith, spaceships and aliens…but, I digress). Independence from whom, why, when? Focus on the social history and ignite the imagination by talking about the 5 senses – what would life have been like at that time period with sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste? What would be different.
- Our flag is another iconic symbol during this holiday. Learn the origin story of our flag with the whole family and explore the meaning of each element – the colors, the stars, the stripes. (Most of us grew up learning respect for our flag; if your kids have not been taught this in school, now is a great time to share that with them.) Tip for younger kids: work with them to design their own flag with symbols and elements that have meaning for them. Learning this process can be a lot of fun as well as educational.
- Talk about what life is like in other countries and how life is different here because of the freedoms that were so important to our founding fathers. For older kids, you could talk about our form of government; with younger kids, ask them to tell you what they’ve noticed from school or watching TV.
For kids who get over-stimulated at holidays, this day may not be as much fun for your family. A little preparation can make the holiday run much smoother. Each child’s coping mechanisms (or lack thereof) are different. Take the ideas below as a jumping off point to explore what your kiddo needs.
- Begin talking to them early about your plans, where you will be going, what you will be doing, who you will be seeing. The fewer surprises that happen that day, the better. Turn it into a fun story with verbal cues that they will be able to remember and you can use again that day. If you need a little help developing your “social story”, check out this sample from Positively Autism. https://www.positivelyautism.com/downloads/socialstory4thofJuly.pdf
- Plan your time for a few days leading up to July 4th as well as the day of to make sure your child is well rested. A few full night’s sleep and a good nap can remove a potential hazard of combining exhaustion with over-stimulation.
- Whatever your plans, take along some “comfort objects”. The foods and snacks that are familiar and comfortable, toys that will occupy them, and even plan their outfit carefully. Kids are affected by their clothes, just as we are – we sometimes wear a specific outfit for a “confidence” boost when we are facing a stressful situation, this concept can also help them. Having familiar items around when they are over-stimulated can be calming.
- If loud noises are an anxiety trigger for your child, start early to get them comfortable with ear plugs or noise reducing headphones. Even if you stay at home for the fireworks, there are almost no areas on Oahu where you can avoid the noise. If your child cannot handle earplugs or headphones, try watching fireworks on YouTube or TV a few days early. Start with the volume soft and then gradually increase the volume as loud as is safe.
- Wherever you find yourself on July 4th, scout out a quieter area with little sensory stimuli. Take your child there when you first arrive so they are familiar with that spot. Then, if they do become over-stimulated, you both have a plan in place to calm down and take a breather.
You and your occupational and speech therapist know your child best. Get some tips from them to make this holiday fun & safe. It is possible!