By Mary Fetzer
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” we’re told, and “Christmas is for children.” The holidays do tend to be extra special for kids, thanks to family gatherings, school parties, gift exchanges, music concerts and a host of Christmas-related activities. For many youngsters, this break from the usual routine is thrilling. But for children with ADHD, it can be too much to handle.
But parents and experts have tips for making it through the busy holiday season.
Corrie Goldberg, licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Shore Therapy Center for Wellness in Chicago, helps parents understand how their children with ADHD perceive, receive and interact with the world. Armed with this knowledge, parents and caregivers can more effectively provide support for their child and reduce stress for the entire household.
“The holidays are filled with novelty and stimulus, including gifts, changes in schedules and gatherings filled with people and food,” Goldberg says. “This can be really exciting for some kids with ADHD. But it can also be overwhelming.”
Look for Signs of Stress and Make Adjustments
Hong says parents should be on the lookout for signs that their child may be struggling to cope with the holiday season, even if the child seems enthusiastic about it. Being aware of changes in your child’s behavior — difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity, impulsivity, irritability and tearfulness — is the first step toward helping them navigate this hectic time of the year.
“Intensified ADHD symptoms indicate that the child is having a difficult time regulating their emotions and should be taken as a cue to slow down, do less or find ways to create moments of quiet and rest,” Goldberg says. “It is often better for everyone to do fewer activities and enjoy what you do than to take on too much and feel stressed and burned out.”
Christine Brown is the founder of Bella Luna Family, a consulting company that helps parents with some of the most challenging aspects of parenting, including child sleep, behavior and potty training. She is also a mother of twin 8-year-old boys, one of whom has ADHD. She has seen first-hand how ADHD can amplify the excitement and challenges of the holidays.
Brown wants to give her twins the opportunity to experience the holiday magic and festivities but is cautious about doing too much. She carefully chooses what her family commits to and says “no, thank you” to things that will affect their ability to get the rest they need.
“When we overdo it, we all find ourselves overtired,” she says. “Doing ‘fun’ things with an overtired child doesn’t usually turn out to be fun. Meltdowns and fighting are more common.”
Parents may need to make adjustments to their child’s schedule to provide structure and help reduce the chances of their child acting impulsively, according to Hong.
“If a child is having difficulty concentrating, for example, more structure and supervision during activities can help,” he says. “If a child is exhibiting signs of hyperactivity, parents may need to limit their activity level and provide opportunities for them to burn off excess energy.”
Even bedtime routines — for the entire family — should be re-evaluated during the holidays.
“Sleep and rest are so important for the ADHD brain and also for parents of children with ADHD,” Brown says. “When my son gets overtired, he has even more difficulty with attention, focus, impulsivity and emotional regulation. As a parent, when I am overtired, it makes it more difficult for me to have the patience that my son so desperately needs.”
Lay the Groundwork for Gift Giving and Receiving
Preparing kids who have ADHD for holiday traditions like giving and receiving gifts can help them participate in these events with joy rather than stress.
“In the months leading up to the holidays, help your child as they think about gifts that they, or others, might enjoy,” Goldberg says. “This may help reduce the stress of feeling put on the spot to make gifts choices while shopping for others or ‘wasting’ opportunities — like sitting on Santa’s lap — to ask for what they really want because they feel unprepared and pressured as the holidays draw near.”
Parents should also keep in mind that ADHD gratitude may look different. Rejection sensitive dysphoria, a heightened sensitivity to criticism that can lead to feelings of significant emotional pain when perceiving rejection or failure, is more common in people with ADHD, according to Goldberg.
“Kids with ADHD may be especially sensitive to feedback about gifts, behavior or even invitations to be included, or not, in holiday events,” Goldberg says. “Try to notice and make space for disappointment, sadness or other big feelings that your child may have about these things. It can be helpful to remind yourself and others that what looks like a lack of gratitude or a sense of entitlement may be hurt feelings. They may need a little extra time, understanding and support to process these emotions.”
Brown was deflated by her son’s reaction to Christmas when he was 5 years old He was so excited leading up to the big day, but on Christmas morning preferred screen time over his new toys.
“I had to step back to realize that he wasn’t ungrateful,” she says. “He was really overwhelmed and overstimulated and needed a little downtime to regulate himself. I’m all for a little screen time if that’s what he needs to regulate and enjoy the holiday.”
Be Prepared and Available to Provide Support
The holiday season can be a time of increased stress and activity for parents, too, making it difficult to keep an eye on their child’s symptoms and behaviors, according to Hong. It’s a good idea to develop a plan for dealing with difficult behaviors, such as tantrums or meltdowns, that might occur both at home and at holiday events.
“Parents should also be prepared to deal with their own stress levels,” Hong says. “This may include taking breaks from caring for their child, seeking support from friends and family or participating in relaxation activities.”
Asking a family member or babysitter to step in for a few hours can help everyone reduce their stress levels. Seeking help from doctors or therapists during the holidays can help as well.
“These professionals can provide additional support and guidance on how to best manage the child’s ADHD,” Hong says.
Make a List and Check It Twice
Author Gael Gilliland, from Butler, Pa., is the parent of kids with ADHD. Over the years, she has developed techniques that support her children and the entire family throughout the holidays. Those techniques include:
- Don’t force interactions with holiday visitors or others.
- Give the child a chance for downtime before, during and after family dinners and events.
- Come up with a word or phrase the child can say to take a no-questions-asked break.
- Make sure the child has a dedicated place to take that needed break.
- Agree on an age-appropriate time for the child to relax with their fidget and tech devices.
- Don’t drag out the gift opening.
- Maintain their medication routine if it’s part of their care plan.