The holidays are hectic. And if your child has ADHD, it can create extra challenges. Here are some tips to make the season easier to manage.
1. Pick and choose holiday events.
You don’t have to accept every invitation you get. If your child gets antsy or overexcited, just go to the most important events. The family gathering at Grandma’s house might be a must. But maybe you (or your child) can skip the party at your neighbor’s house. You could also stick with smaller or more active events, like building a snowman with a few friends.
2. Give your child a heads-up.
Kids with ADHD can get overwhelmed by changes to routines or new situations. Talking through what to expect can help. Explain timelines (“We’ll be there for about an hour”) and outfits (“You don’t need to dress up, but please no gym clothes”). Be clear about your expectations, too (“Please no headphones once we get out of the car”).
3. Explain the “house rules” of wherever you go.
Maybe it’s OK for your child to roughhouse in your basement at home. But the family hosting a holiday party might not want the cushions pulled off their rec room couches.
Likewise, your house of worship may be OK with kids chatting in the community room during services. But that might not fly at the one you’re visiting with extended family. Learn the rules of wherever you’re headed, and prepare your child.
4. Check in with your child at events.
Before you go to an event together, agree on a hand signal (like touching your earlobe). Your child can use it to show you if things aren’t going well.
If your child has trouble with hand signals, try something else. That could be a light pat on the shoulder and asking, "Are you OK?" Small gestures like these give kids a way to let you know when they’ve had enough or need a break. And that helps cut back on behavior problems.
5. Find an escape space.
Whether you’re headed to holiday worship services or a tree-lighting ceremony, it helps to have an “escape space” in case your child feels antsy. Once you get there, find a spot where your child has permission to retreat to. That could be a quiet chair in the corner or the church playground.
6. Keep entertainment handy.
Some kids with ADHD get bored easily. Pack games and activities to keep your child busy. Include quiet items like books and crayons, devices with headphones, or simple card games kids can play with another child. If your child needs to move, bring a ball to kick around outside. Or plan a group activity for during the party. (Just get the host’s buy-in first.)
7. Give your child a job.
Kids with ADHD often do better at events when they have a job. Ask what your child wants to do to contribute. You could “assign” your child to take pictures of the family with your phone. Or to entertain younger cousins. (Just make sure your child knows it’s OK to peel away and spend time alone if need be.)
8. Shop wisely — or online.
Lots of kids with ADHD have trouble with self-control. A trip to the mall this time of year could be a lot to handle. All the hype around new toys and clothes might lead to your child pestering you to buy things you don’t need or can’t afford. If your child tends to be overwhelmed by stores, consider shopping online instead.
9. Make a “comfort kit.”
For some families, the holiday season is also peak tantrum and meltdown season. Lots of kids with ADHD have trouble managing emotions. And if you can’t head home when you notice your child getting upset, you’ll need some backup. You might be able to avoid or delay meltdowns by packing a small bag with comfort items. That might be healthy snacks, a bottle of water, and even comfy clothes that can double as pajamas in a pinch.
10. Give small, immediate rewards.
In the weeks leading up to the holidays, it’s tempting to use presents as a bargaining chip. Try to avoid saying things like “Be good or Santa will find out!” It’s more helpful to offer your child small short-term rewards. For example, you can say, “If we can work together to clean up this morning, we’ll watch a show this afternoon.”
11. Praise good behavior.
When your child is behaving well during a holiday event, show that you notice. Lean over and whisper, “You’re doing great at listening to other people without interrupting. I’m proud of you.” Recognition and praise mean a lot to kids who learn and think differently.
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About the author
About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Bob Cunningham, EdM serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.