Holidays bring lots of big emotions. And, for ADHD children, they bring extra challenges. Get 17 tips for making holidays more enjoyable for your family.
Sometimes “Happy Holidays” seems more like a hopeful positive affirmation than a greeting. Like if we all say it often enough and emphatically enough, it will actually come true and all of the stress, anxiety and other big emotions that tag along with the holiday season will magically melt away. Sadly, it often doesn’t quite work that way. The holidays can bring a lot of joy, but they can also bring lots of those joy-opposites. And, for families with ADHD children, the holidays can present some increased challenges.
For one thing, the holiday season often lacks structure and routine. Things that are usually touted as essential to successfully managing ADHD. Plus, many families travel over the holidays. And that adds extra layers of potential disorder.
And, the holiday season also brings lots of big emotions. For grownups and kids alike. It’s a season that stretches many weeks where everything is a little off kilter. Mix in some extended travel, or extended hosting duties, and this can quickly lead to being overextended, overwhelmed, or some other kind of sensory overload for anyone, but ADHD children may be particularly prone.
Read on for 17 tips for prying some of your potential stress out of your upcoming family holidays and making them more enjoyable for you and your kids.
1. CHECK YOUR MOTIVATIONS AND EXPECTATIONS.
A moment of introspection can go a long way to improving your family’s holiday experience. Check your own expectations and motivations and compare them to reality.
Make sure you have realistic expectations regarding your limits and your child’s limits. ADHD children are often delayed in developing executive functioning skills. Skills such as impulse control and emotional regulation skills. This means that your 11-year old may actually be functioning as a 7 or 8 year old. And this may never be more obvious than at the holidays.
The holidays provide lots of opportunities for comparisons and judgments. Like how your kid’s behavior compares to his cousins that are about the same age. Or, how your methods for addressing misbehavior compares to how you were raised, or other how other relatives think that it should be handled.
2. MAKE A PLAN.
Take a look at the entire holiday period and get an overall picture of what your schedule will most likely look like. Starting from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
Take a moment to consider the nature of your holiday plans. Will you be traveling? Will you be receiving visitors? Are you expecting lots of social activities?
Identify any potential problem areas for your ADHD children. Either because they are areas that have been problems in the past, or because you know they involve areas that are often challenging for your family. And, identify events or activities that you are fairly certain will be fun for you and your kids. Try to make sure that your overall picture includes more of the latter. And, try to build in some days with private family playtime or low key kid-friendly activities. Like a visit to a park or indoor playspace.
3. BE BOTH SELECTIVE AND STRATEGIC.
You will likely have options to participate in many different holiday events. But remember that you can pick and choose. You don’t have to accept every invitation. Also, you don’t have to take your child to every event. Consider getting a babysitter.
And, plan with the entire holiday calendar in mind. One event may be fine in isolation, but can turn into a complete disaster if it happens to be the third one that week.
4. HAVE A DAILY SCHEDULE.
Try to plan out a schedule for each day in advance. So that you have the opportunity to avoid overscheduling too many activities that can lead to being overtired and cranky. And, so that you have a clear idea of where you will most likely be when any witching hours hit.
Make sure the day’s plan includes time for regular meals, some rest, and time/space to take any needed medications. And adjust accordingly.
And, make a point of discussing with your kids at the start of the day what the plan for that day will be. For instance, setting out a schedule of who you’re going to visit, who is likely to be there, what activities will be taking place, and how long the event will last.
5. RIGOROUSLY EVALUATE TRAVEL PLANS FOR YOUR ADHD CHILDREN.
If you know that you will be traveling for the holidays, think about how you will actually be traveling and what the travels schedule will be.Travel can be inherently stressful. Is the mode of travel that you have in mind really the best option for your family just because it is the quickest or the cheapest? Think about whether some alternate mode of travel might be better even if it takes a little longer of might be a little more expensive.
There was a period of time where I decided that it was better to drive over 1,000 miles to reach our Thanksgiving destination, rather than get on a plane. Obviously, it would have been quicker and more efficient to fly, and many folks thought that it was an extreme choice, but to me it was worth it. During that time period, after a series of horrible travel experiences, I knew that it was almost inevitable that my youngest child would have a very bad airport and plane experience. (You know, the kind that gets folks kicked off planes, or denied boarding.)
Even though this resulted in two days of driving and a night in a hotel, not having to deal with other passengers and flight staff guaranteed a less stressful experience, and a better start to our holiday. Although a long car drive in the abstract might sound rather hellish, it turned out to be fun. Or, at least we were able to make parts of it fun.
Also, if you have ADHD children that take medications, as you are making travel plans, don’t forget to factor in time changes. This can throw your medication schedule out of whack. Confer with doctor to see if changes need to be made.
6. IF AT ALL FEASIBLE, STAY IN A HOTEL.
If you will be traveling out of town, consider staying in a hotel rather than bunking down in relatives’ homes. This guarantees you time to have downtime. And gives you a place to which to escape if necessary.
Plus, it might be easier for your ADHD children to adhere to different behavior standards when everyone knows that changes are for a defined period of time. And, that they will have the opportunity to go back “home” to the hotel and relax.
7. CREATE SOME BASIC STRUCTURE OR ROUTINE THAT CAN REMAIN IN PLACE.
During the holiday season, there will probably be times when your regular routine is disrupted for an extended period of time. Even if you know that your regular routine for your ADHD children will have to fall by the wayside. Like during extended school breaks or traveling. Try to create something simple that can remain in place every day instead. Even when you are traveling or visiting away from home.
This could be identifying three things that you can do every day without fail. Something in the morning, something in the afternoon, and something in the evening. And, it could be helpful to try to incorporate things that are part of the regular routine. So, for instance, an easy one is bedtime story. You can make a point of continuing to do that one even when traveling. By planning ahead and packing some of your nighttime story books. Or, perhaps there is a particular show your kids like to watch. You could download several episodes and plan to watch one together at the same time every day.
8. INCORPORATE DAILY PERIOD OF EXERCISE.
Experts say that you should incorporate some daily period of exercise in plans for your ADHD children. Over the holidays, this may often mean some advance planning and research. If you will be driving extended distances, map out where your opportunities are for visiting parks or family friendly rest stops. And, look for similar opportunities in your destination.
You can usually find some good ideas to start with through Google and Yelp. Search your destination city + “best activities for kids” or “best indoor activities for kids”. But be sure to check the hours that places will actually be open while you are there, since many places have different schedules for different holidays.
9. MAKE ADVANCE PLANS FOR PROBLEM RELATIVES.
We all know that there can be lots of baggage surrounding the holidays. There is always the backdrop of accumulated holiday experiences from years’ past. Old family dynamics that seem to snap back into place almost seamlessly.
Are there certain relative who always push your buttons? Have a plan for how to handle it.
We have a large extended family. And it includes this one great-aunt figure who can be rude and mean. And she has often done or said something that greatly upsets my oldest child, and/or me on behalf of oldest child. We know this. And I also know or assume that her behavior any given year is not likely to be better than the year before. It could be worse.
So, if we are going to a gathering where Auntie Meanie will be, oldest child and I discuss it ahead of time. We’ve agreed that he doesn’t have to stay in the same room with her if she is making him uncomfortable. He knows he can’t be deliberately rude or mouthy, but he is also allowed to just say “excuse me” and walk away to find me.
10. BUILD IN POSITIVE INCENTIVES.
Try to anticipate potential problem areas in advance and devise a behavior plan to address them. And, if you know that your kid responds better to immediate, tangible rewards – be sure to pack something appropriate.
Also, remember to be generous with praise. Look for opportunities to give your child recognition and praise throughout specific events and activities. Let them know that you see that they are trying and how well they are doing.
11. DON’T FORGET ABOUT SIBLINGS OF ADHD CHILDREN.
One of the key facts about ADHD is that siblings of ADHD children can often receive short shrift. And, the opportunities for resentment multiply during the holiday season. Be mindful of this, and make sure that any siblings in the family get an extra dose of attention too. And, if you are planning on doling out some extra treats or privileges as incentives or otherwise, find a way to incorporate any siblings as well.
12. IDENTIFY AND DISCUSS SPECIAL HOUSE RULES OR SITUATIONS.
If you know that you will be visiting relatives with special rules that your kids aren’t used to, review those in advance and discuss strategies for addressing them. Or, if there will be unusual elements present – like pets – discuss that in advance as well. This is also where it’s good to discuss how long the event will last.
So, for instance, climbing on the furniture. Some mild amount of crawling around on furniture is tolerated in our house. Depending on what room of the house is involved and provided that no shoes are involved. We have very few relatives where this would be okay for any child over the age of two.
13. ARRANGE FOR BACKUP ENTERTAINMENT THAT CAN ALWAYS BE AVAILABLE.
If your holidays typically consist of a group of adults sitting around talking, be sure to plan some diversions for your child. Pack a fully loaded tablet with headphones as a backup at the very least.
We have some family gatherings that are short on small children and very heavy on middle age and elderly relatives. So there’s lots of card playing, casual conversation and watching football on television. Interspersed with periods of robust eating. These are situations where packing some kid-friendly card games and a ball come in handy.
Even if your events aren’t adult-heavy or adult-focused, it’s still a good idea to plan for backup entertainment. There may be other kids to play with, but there could be a falling out or they may need some help coming up with suitable activities.
14. PLAN FOR PRIVATE BREAKS AT FAMILY GATHERINGS AND SOCIAL EVENTS.
Scope out or think about the venue you will be visiting. Identify a quiet corner where you can go for a short break if your child is overstimulated. If you don’t see anything obvious, a backup plan could be to visit an out-of-the-way bathroom.
Or, something that involves leaving the building for a few minutes. Like walking out to the car to retrieve something and staying longer for a little breather. Or, taking a short walk around the block.
15. ASSUME UNEXPECTED TRAVEL DELAYS AND PLAN ACCORDINGLY (EVEN IF YOU AREN’T TRAVELING).
It’s great when things go according to plan, but sometimes things go awry when you least expect it.
Have a backup plan and any tools needed to implement it. So, if you are at risk of encountering long travel days, think of how you could occupy that time. Keep extra snacks readily at hand in case your travel issues lead to missed meals. If you are flying, make sure you have anything really important in a carry-on.
And, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan in place even if you aren’t leaving town. Mishaps happen in town too. Just driving from your house to the mall or across town. For instance, flat tires, traffic accidents, etc. And you may face extended waiting times for anything and everything during hectic holiday days.
So think about what you would need to do to smooth things out if you get stuck somewhere for an extra 45 min to an hour you weren’t expecting.
16. HAVE A CHECK IN PLAN AND SYSTEM FOR YOUR ADHD CHILDREN.
Make a plan to check in with your child throughout the event. Something simple where you lay eyes on each other and possibly hands (with a hug, back-rub, head scratch, whatever.) It doesn’t have to be long or attention getting. 10-20 seconds of “How’s it going?” And “I’m over doing xyz if you need me.” For older kids, you can arrange for a gesture or sign to let you know if they need help.
17. DON’T FORGET THE HUGS!
Try to begin and end each day with a hug. This is a great tip for any day. Not just during the holidays. Don’t underestimate the power of a heartfelt hug. If nothing else, it reminds everyone that they are loved.
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