Holidays & celebrations

11 Tips to Help Kids With ADHD Manage the Holidays

By The Understood Team

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56Found this helpful

The holidays are hectic enough. But if your child has ADHD, her behavior may create extra challenges. Careful planning and adjusting your own expectations can help you both avoid trouble spots. Here are 11 strategies to try.

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Pick and choose holiday events.

You don’t have to accept every invitation you get. If your child gets antsy or overexcited, you can attend only the most important ones. The family gathering at her grandparents may be a must. But you might be able to skip the community holiday pageant or the party at your neighbor’s house. You might also want to stick with smaller or more active events, like ice-skating with a few friends.

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Give your child a holiday outing heads-up.

One trouble spot for kids with ADHD is feeling unprepared for new situations. But talking through what your child can expect during a shopping trip or a cookie exchange party can help. Discuss things like timelines (“We’ll be there for about an hour”) and outfits (“You don’t need to dress up, but please no gym clothes”). And make sure to clearly state your expectations (“Please no headphones once we get out of the car”).

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Discuss 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 may not want the cushions to be pulled off their rec room couches. Likewise, your house of worship may be OK with kids socializing 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.

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Check in with your child at events.

Before you go to an event together, agree on a hand signal (like touching her earlobe) that your child can use as a sign that things aren’t going well. If she has trouble with hand signals, try a different kind of check-in, such as a light pat on the shoulder to ask her if she’s OK. This simple reassurance gives her a way to let you know when she’s had enough or needs a break. And that can help keep behavior issues at bay.

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Find an escape space.

Whether you’re headed to holiday worship services or a tree-lighting ceremony, it can be helpful for your child to have a safe “escape space” in case she feels antsy. Once you arrive, locate a spot where she has permission to retreat to, such as a quiet chair in the corner or the church playground.

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Stash entertainment for events.

If your child gets bored easily or if there won’t be many guests who will interest her, bring some fun with you. Pack games and activities to keep her entertained. Include quiet, solitary items (books, crayons), devices with headphones, or simple card games she can play with another child. If she tends to get hyperactive when bored, bring a ball she can kick around outside. Or plan a group activity for during the party. (Just get the host’s buy-in first.)

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Give your child a job.

It can be helpful for some kids with ADHD to have a task to focus on during a holiday gathering. Ask your child what she might like to do to contribute. For example, if you’re hosting a New Year’s brunch, you can assign her to take pictures throughout the morning or entertain younger guests in a nearby room. And of course, let her know ahead of time that it’s OK to peel away and spend time by herself when she needs to.

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Shop wisely—or online.

If your child with ADHD has trouble with self-control, a trip to the mall at this time of year could lead to behavior problems. All the merchandizing and hype can lead to extra pestering for a toy or a holiday treat. When shopping with your child, create and stick to lists. And if your child tends to get distracted by all the items and people in crowded stores, think about buying gifts and even groceries online.

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Keep a stocked “comfort kit” in the car.

Does your child have trouble managing her emotions or waiting until she’s home to get the things she feels she needs? If so, pack a small bag with comfort items that might stave off a tantrum or meltdown and keep it in your trunk throughout the season. Include things like healthy snacks, a bottle of water and even comfortable clothes that can double as pajamas in a pinch.

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Give small, immediate rewards.

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, it may be tempting to use your child’s presents as a bargaining chip. Try to avoid saying things like, “Be good or Santa will find out!” It can be more effective to offer your child small short-term rewards. For example, you might say, “If we can work together to clean the house this morning, we’ll pick out a new ornament this afternoon.”

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Praise your child’s good behavior.

When your child is behaving well during a holiday event, show her you notice. You can 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 with learning and attention issues like ADHD.

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About the Author

Understood Team Graphic

The Understood Team is composed of writers, editors and community moderators, many of whom have children with learning and attention issues.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham, Ed.M., serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.

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