Updated: Feb 27, 2020
//By Dr. Kimberly Harrison//
Do your picture-perfect holiday gatherings end up with arguments, meltdowns, sulky-attitudes or tantrums? Holidays provide a welcome break from the mundane, but changes in routines and schedules often create problems, especially for children and teens with ADHD. Some people adapt – and even thrive – when schedules are changed, but many are unable to balance the social, emotional, and physical demands which ensue. That’s because routines provide a predictable framework for moving through the day. Without them, many people struggle to effectively navigate.
ADHD involves a difference in executive functioning, which means that persons with ADHD often have trouble with transitions, managing sensory input, planning and organizing new tasks, and regulating emotions. Take a moment to think about the many “new” experiences a child has to manage during the holidays. For example, they often must make choices about how and when to do unfamiliar activities, or figure out how to interact with friends and relatives they only see occasionally. Add to that changes in sleep schedules, too much sugar, lack of predictable down time, and over-stimulating environments, and you have a holiday recipe for disaster. Here are a few tips to avoid holiday emotional overload:
Talk about what to expect. Do this every day during the holidays at least once, and more often if you have several events in a day. It’s important to discuss Who, What, When, Where and What’s Expected prior to each event. For example, “Grandma and Grandpa are coming for dinner along with Aunt Keisha and Uncle Trey and your cousins, Matt and Maya. They will be arriving in about an hour and will stay to visit after dinner. I know you’d rather play video games, but this is time when you are expected to be social. Make sure to say hello to the adults, and then, even though they are younger than you, I expect you to play with your cousins. What are some fun things you can do with them?” Then discuss options for activities.
Physically Prepare. Make sure your children get enough sleep, eat healthy, and exercise throughout the holidays. If they go to bed late, try to allow them to sleep in or take a nap the next day. If your child won’t nap, require a 1-hour “quiet time” in the middle of the day to read or play independently. Take walks, ride bikes, or play on the playground in the morning and in the afternoon. Monitor the amount of sweets a child consumes. It’s fun to make this a game, and in the process, you are teaching your child how to create healthy habits. For example, you and your child can create a checklist of food groups (or specific items) and have your child mark what they consume throughout the day, making sure that nutritious options are checked before treats. Offer rewards for sticking to the plan.
Schedule Down Time. If your child loves to play on the iPad, or watch certain TV shows, or Snapchat with friends, discuss when they can and cannot do those activities. Let them know that you understand having time for these activities is important. Avoid saying things like, “You’ll just have to live without it for a day.” Then make sure to schedule specific times when they can pursue an activity of choice. Generally, the amount of time for personal activities must be modified during the holidays. Use this as an opportunity to talk about balancing demands of new situations.
Plan wisely. Parents typically know how much a child can tolerate before overload sets in. When making holiday plans, don’t be afraid to say you will be leaving shortly after dinner, or will arrive a bit late if you think it will work best for your family. Bring relaxing or non-stimulating activities (books, puzzles, etc) to offer as a respite if needed. Ask for a quiet room in which your child can lie down or relax. For teens, it’s important to remember that developmentally, they are wired to pull away from family and gravitate toward peers. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have to participate in family events, but it helps to be sensitive and acknowledge that it might be difficult for them. Help your teen create a place where they can “chill out” for brief periods of time on especially long visits, or scheduled time to talk with friends.
Manage Transitions. Give specific information about when your child needs to do something different, plan as much time for the transition as you can, and make time visible. If you will be leaving for grandma’s house in 30 minutes, for example, tell the child that in 15 minutes he needs to put on his shoes and socks. Don’t wait until the 29th minute, as that does not factor in transition time. Set a timer. Offer positive reinforcement when a task is accomplished. Also, keep in mind that no one likes to be instantly removed from a pleasurable activity. If your child is watching television or playing a video game, make sure to be clear about when that activity needs to end. If there is not enough time for them to complete watching the program or playing the game, negotiate in advance a time which might work better, and offer an alternative activity.
Have a back-up plan. When a child reaches overload, you have 2 choices: live through the meltdown or de-escalate the stress. Often, you can tweak your original plan to assist your child with calming down before meltdown occurs. It is OK to leave early, give them an electronic device, take a break to walk or listen to music, or whatever you think will help. Decide in advance what you are comfortable with, and, if necessary, have another adult clued in so they can assist if needed.
Be open to creating a “new tradition.” Traditions are simply a repetition of activities in similar places or times. The good news is that you can create new holiday activities, and they become traditions if you repeat them. For example, who says you must have your holiday pie for dessert after the big evening meal? If too many sweets create overload for your tired child, why not make it your tradition to cut the pies at lunch, or for an afternoon snack, or for breakfast the next morning? When possible, have your child participate in creating new traditions to problem-solve potential trouble spots.
Holidays are precious times, but can present challenges for children and teens with ADHD. With a little bit of planning, however, you can ensure that you and your child successfully navigate the unpredictable to create memories you’ll want to remember.