Samantha Curiale-Feinman, MS.Ed., TSHH, Director
Independence Day has traditionally been a holiday where people get together to appreciate barbecue, fireworks, and good company. After several months of quarantine and sheltering in place, many of us are looking forward to participating in activities this weekend that allow us to socialize reasonably and safely. However, holiday get-togethers can be stressful for not only those with social anxiety or communication challenges, but also for those that have been out of the “social game” for the past several months. Reintroducing yourself or a loved one to social events may at first feel very overwhelming, and although such occasions can produce immediate stress, the key to success is preparation to ensure that strategies are put in place to set individuals up for comfort, confidence and success.
What is a Strategy?
The purpose behind having a toolbox of strategies is to minimize the need to demonstrate the reactive behaviors that may occur when one feels confused or stressed in overwhelming and demanding situations. What is commonly perceived as ‘challenging behavior’ or withdrawal from social situations generally results from anxiety or a lack of understanding of the expectation in such environments. When a person becomes overwhelmed and cannot communicate effectively, they tend to get frustrated. Arming oneself or a loved one with proactive and rehearsed strategies is essential to feeling confident in any social environment.
Strategy #1: Pick a Familiar Location for Get-Togethers
If possible, host your get-togethers at a familiar, rather than unfamiliar, location. When that is not possible, it may be helpful to visit the unfamiliar location ahead of time so that one can get a “lay of the land,” and become familiar with what to expect in terms of the environment on the day of the event. Wherever the location may be, try to also identify a quiet spot where one can retreat if the demands of the environment become too overwhelming. It is important to convey the message that it is okay to take a few moments away from the crowd if the social requirements become too demanding.
Strategy #2: Plan the Guest List Accordingly
If you or your loved one is sensory sensitive, tolerance levels with regards to noise, activities, and movement may be minimal. Add in COVID-19 risks, and it is essential to try and plan more intimate parties with guests that you or your loved one are familiar with. Let your guests know ahead of time what your get-together protocol will be with regards to both practicing safe socializing but also how to support those with social hesitation should they begin to demonstrate behaviors of being overwhelmed. Knowledge and preparation is key.
Strategy #3: Use Social Coaching
Preemptive social coaching focused around how to engage in a friendly and natural, but also safe way can also be helpful. For example, reviewing and role playing the protocol for introductions can look something like this:
“When people come to the house and say hello, you should say hello back and smile, but to minimize risk, we are not shaking hands.”
Again, practicing ahead of time and role playing are essential. Role playing assists in decreasing the anxiety associated with meeting and greeting people so that when it happens at the actual event, the action is familiar.
Strategy #4: Establish Socializing Routines
Remember that the familiar may be more comforting than the unfamiliar. Try to establish traditions and routines to make get-togethers more predictable. Examples of predictable routines may include serving comforting and preferred foods, decorating, baking, watching movies, or game playing. Showing pictures of friends and family participating in activities from previous years can be a great way to set comfort for the upcoming activity. With preparation being key, discuss ahead of time what will happen and remind yourself or your loved one of what was enjoyed during get-togethers of the past.
Using Your Strategies
Your implementation of strategies will depend a lot on you or your loved one’s readiness level with regards to participation in social settings. Giving individuals the tools to deal with frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed in social situations can help prevent the stress and anxiety sometimes associated with such events.
Remember to keep things familiar and try to plan intimate settings. Limit your guest list to people who know you or who will understand if you need to step away. Prepare ahead of time by role playing social situations and telling stories of what will occur. Allow the freedom to step away if one finds themselves becoming overwhelmed.
Finally, have fun. Relax and know that your efforts will pave the way for everyone to have a joyful and relaxed time.
Happy Fourth of July everyone!