The holidays can be the most wonderful time of the year. But they can also be the most stressful for families with kids who learn differently. So how can families do more than just make it through the holidays?
In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra bring holiday questions from the Understood community to Dr. Ellen Braaten, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Understood expert. Listen in to hear Ellen’s practical tips for dealing with holiday challenges — as well as advice for how to bring joy to the holidays. Plus, Amanda shares her family’s simple gift-giving strategy.
Amanda: Hi, I'm Amanda Morin. I'm the director of thought leadership for Understood.org and a parent to kids who learn differently.
Gretchen: I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. And this is "In It."
Amanda: "In It" is a podcast from the Understood Podcast Network. We talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids, so we can offer perspective and stories, and sometimes even advice, from people who have challenges with reading and other types of learning differences.
Gretchen: Today, we're talking about the holidays.
Amanda: For some, this is the most joyous time of the year. But for families with kids like mine who learn a little bit differently, it can be a total minefield.
Gretchen: Yep. Whether it's that incessant jingle of bells, the loss of the routine, the demands of being or hosting guests, or something else, this time of year is a lot.
Amanda: A lot. And so, with us to figure out smart strategies for navigating all of this is Dr. Ellen Braaten.
Gretchen: Ellen is the director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Mass General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
Amanda: She's written lots of books, including most recently a book for parents called "Finding the Right Mental Health Care for Your Child." And she's also an Understood expert.
Gretchen: We're delighted to be talking with her today. Ellen, welcome to "In it."
Ellen: Thanks for having me. I'm really happy to be here.
Amanda: We're really happy you're here, and, full disclosure, I told Gretchen that I want to do an episode on navigating the holidays because I maybe find myself getting a little bit anxious at this time of year.
Historically, things have not always gone smoothly, but the holidays in our house — as you know, and our listeners know, I have two kids who are autistic, one who has ADHD, and there have been a couple of meltdowns here and there over the years. And I don't think I'm alone in worrying about the holidays, as a parent to neurodiverse kids. Please tell me I'm not alone. Am I
Ellen: Oh, heavens no, you're not alone. I also have a son with ADHD who's now a young adult, and I remember holidays not always being exactly what I wanted them to be.
Gretchen: All right. We're going to dig into the specifics in a minute, but before we do that, could you just briefly lay out what are some of the most common sources of friction or difficulty that families might have at this time of year?
Ellen: It can go so many different ways, which is why it's so hard to plan for this. If you've got a child who has trouble with language processing and they can't express what it is they need, and everyone else is pretty stressed and they're doing other things and can't attend to their children the way they typically do, that might be an issue.
Some kids have trouble inhibiting their behaviors. And at a time when everybody seems sort of disinhibited, they can be picking up on the wrong kind of cues in the environment that say, "Oh, this is a free-for-all time," when really it's not. For other kids, it's probably, um, even things like working memory, remembering what it is they're supposed to be doing at any one time, because their parents are thinking, "Well, you remember from last year we did this," but they don't really remember that's what they did last year. And then other kids have just trouble processing things quickly, and the holidays move very quickly in some ways, and in other ways they're really interminably long. So kids have difficulty on both sides of those, you know. It's like everything seems to be a whirlwind, but then it's also "sit there and behave right now" for a long period of time because we have relatives here or we're in some sort of holiday celebration. So it can be the worst of the best for lots of us.
Amanda: I like that. The worst of the best. It's interesting because when you're talking about inhibiting, right? That ability to hold it together. Sometimes we think about that as like, I want my gift now. I want my gift now. I want to be opening gifts. I remember in our house, it used to be, "I want you to open the gift I got you right now,” right?
Ellen: Right. And that's the best part of the holiday.
Gretchen: You mentioned that it's, you know, it can feel so long, but that it's also so quick. For me, I feel like sometimes kids don't have time to adjust, right? By the time they've adjusted to what's going on and settled in, it's over.
Ellen: Yeah, and a lot of kids with ADHD have trouble with just sort of that perception of time. Like, I'm already drinking out of cups from the coffee shop that have Christmas trees on them. It's, it's quite a long ways before Christmas, and yet Christmas itself lasts a good, you know, few hours. So for kids, this can just seem really out of whack in some ways. It can be hard for them to just sort of organize that time frame, which can make you feel sort of out of sorts when you're, like, "This seemed to last forever to get here. And now it's over in a blink of an eye."
Amanda: And sometimes not soon enough for some people, actually, so —
Amanda: So, Ellen, we've gathered a ton of questions from the Understood community that we'd like to get your take on. And we want to start with this one:
Community Member 1: Hello. My name is Kamden Hainsworth. My question is, how can I support my daughter who has ADHD and social anxiety? With the gift-giving holidays coming up, how can I help her feel satisfied with the gifts that she is given when her little sweet ADHD brain is always looking for more dopamine or, you know, more excitement with new gifts, that feeling of constantly feeling unsatisfied with what she has been given? We practice a lot of thanks and gratitude, but I think this goes beyond that. And I'd love to hear your insight. Thank you so much.
Ellen: I think that one of the things you have to do is just accept her for who she is when you know that it's not, like, I know this isn't who my child is; this has nothing to do with gratitude.
So just sort of let it go. I mean, that's one way to handle this, is to just say whatever I get her is probably not going to satisfy her in the moment because it's not enough of a hit, and kind of let it go. And one of the things you don't want to do, and I know this person asks for what should I do, and the thing is that there's not a whole lot you can do to make someone feel grateful in the moment, especially when you know that's not, you know, what she's feeling inside. One of the things you don't want to do is sort of set the stage for "I'm an ungrateful person," because we hear that a lot as adults from people who were fed that kind of line, that "No matter what we gave you, it wasn't enough."
Give your child some idea of the empathy that you put into this gift. Help them learn to sort of empathically connect with you. And in some ways, let it go.
Amanda: So one of the things our family started doing years ago is this idea of doing four gifts only: something they want, something they need, something they can wear, and something that they read. And it has been an amazing game-changer for our family.
Ellen: I love that idea. And the thing is that the want is something driven by them. And the read doesn't mean, did you always do books or can you do, can you do audiobooks, or...?
Amanda: Oh, audiobooks for sure.
Ellen: And, also, who doesn't love socks, in terms of the need?
Amanda: I'm laughing because that's what everybody always gives me is fuzzy socks. Fuzzy socks are the best.
Ellen: Yeah, no, I love that idea. What is great about it is it prepares kids for that, you know, that surprise that can make them so anxious, like, "What's in that box? And how am I supposed to look?" You know, even the drama of opening a package for kids who don't like attention on them, how they're supposed to be, like, excited or, you know, some are just, like, "Don't look at me." So knowing that it's going to be one of these four things is so calming for lots of kids.
Gretchen: OK. Here's another question we got from a parent in our community:
Community Member 2: With so much stimulation during the holidays, from family members to presents to lack of routine, what are some tips to help my son with ADHD regulate his mood?
Ellen: So one of the things that I think is important for parents to know is, where in this ADHD umbrella does your child particularly struggle? For most parents, they have some indication because they've had some kind of evaluation done in school. Or they hear the same sort of things from their teachers and other people who care and love their child.
So it could be things like controlling emotion, but it could also be things like trouble going from one activity to the next. It could be something like just having trouble sort of stopping and thinking before they act. Know what of those things — and there are many that we could look at within the executive function umbrella — know specifically what those areas are for your child, because we try to look for "What are the things that we should do?" You know, like, give them advance warning, give them time to process information. All of those might be good, but if you have a child who just has difficulty being able to understand language, for example, and they have trouble picking up on social cues, the way you're going to respond is a little bit different. So I would say, look really carefully at "Where are my child's triggers? Where are their areas of vulnerability, and where can I intervene? What has worked in the past for them?" And don't think of the holidays as being something completely different that you need to come up with a whole different set of solutions. What you need to do is really use the solutions that have worked the best and know where you might find that.
So, regulating emotions, if you know your child has trouble regulating emotions because there's a lot of sensory information, bring down the sensory information. If you know they have trouble regulating emotion because they don't like surprises or because they have trouble expressing what it is inside or labeling their emotions, you're going to respond in different ways.
So think about that. And I'm positive that there are other ways that have probably worked in the past and apply those things again.
Amanda: That's really good, too, right, to remember that it's not like you're going into this without having any strategies already. Something has already worked.
Ellen: Exactly. And I would say most of us are kind of disregulated at the holidays. So don't be afraid to say and to model good self-regulation for your child and just say, "You know, I feel like I can just scream right now because it took me 20 minutes to find a parking spot at the mall," or whatever it is, to let them know that it's kind of normal to feel overwhelmed. For them, it might be particularly difficult. Let them know that it's OK to talk about it. And give them opportunities, too, to be able to do that.
Amanda: That's so interesting because one of the questions we had is around boundaries in particular. So I think that this is a really good move into that question. The question was, Do you have suggestions about how to communicate with children about the boundaries I set up with my extended family? So for example, if I say my family is going to leave if you keep telling me that my ADHD'er needs to sit still for the two-hour holiday dinner, and we do need to follow through on that, how do I prepare my kids for that possibility?
Ellen: Oh boy, that's a great question. First of all, you want to protect your child from this. They shouldn't have to be a witness to this because, no matter how well you do it, they'll probably feel some sense of shame around this, that — you don't want them to at all feel like they are the cause that the holiday didn't go as planned.
I would front-load this by saying "Here's the way it's going to go. My child might have trouble," whatever it is. "If you don't like that, if that doesn't make you feel comfortable, let's plan to do something different for the holiday." You know, I can give you an example of my own child who was a very picky eater, who, at the holidays, when everybody else was having a salad before dinner, he had a plate of goldfish as his appetizer.
And so, you know, I would have to say to my mother, like, "Mom, he doesn't like salad, but I want him to feel included that he's also going to have an appetizer just like everyone else, so he had a plate of goldfish." It's still sort of a, something we laugh about in our family. But I would say, "If you can't be quiet about that, Mom, don't come to dinner, because that makes him feel bad."
Get them to see it from their point of view. Parents and relatives who can't do that, they might need some help with that, but front-load it and say, "Here's what to expect. Here's what I am expecting of my child. I'm not expecting them to sit for a half an hour. I'm not expecting them to eat lettuce this particular day. This is what we're doing. Can you handle this, Mom?" as opposed to "Can my child handle you?"
Amanda: I love that reframe. Like, "Can you handle this?" So I'm going to just follow up a little bit. What if it's not at your house? What if you're at somebody else's house?
Ellen: Oh, if you're at someone's house and let's say the criticisms do occur, you've got to really be very conscious as to whether or not you want to jump into that situation where you are making the situation worse by trying to protect your child. So, for example, you know, if somebody's saying, "Doesn't he ever sit down?" you can say, "Well, you know, I love his sense of energy and he's really excited about the holiday."
So kind of think yourself before you go, "What are the sorts of things these people have said before?" I shouldn't call them "these people," but "the relatives who complain" have said before, and how can I look at that as a positive, and then also talk to them about, you're probably struggling with this too. So let them know, you know, "We're coming to your house for dinner. I just want to let you know, like, I'm working really hard as a parent to make sure that my child does the best he can at being able to control his impulses. Any way that you could help me, I would really appreciate it." It sort of reframes the whole thing from, "I'm afraid to bring my child in," but here, you know, in self-disclosure, I'm concerned about this too. We both love this kid; what do we do? And if you're in a situation where you're not both loving this kid, that's the sort of thing where you might want to think is this really where I want to spend these precious
Amanda: OK. Ellen, you're coming with me on every holiday trip from now on because you are my — I'm putting you in my pocket.
Gretchen: Ellen, you brought up a lot of good points, and we got a lot of questions about relatives. So here's another one that kind of breaks our heart. What can I do about kids overhearing relatives, comparing all of them? You know, it's the typical, well, so-and-so's the smart one, and this one is the sporty one, or it could be just calling out some of the challenges your child has. What do you do about that?
Ellen: That's one of those situations where I would just tell them that that kind of conversation isn't allowed. Seriously. There's no way to sort of get them to see from your point of view. Sometimes they're not even aware of it. Sometimes they, you know, if it's a grandparent, they've got seven kids, they're trying to figure out how they all compare with one another.
So sometimes this isn't a negative, but other times it's really just how people talk about kids. And to just say, "Listen, you know, I know there's differences with all of them, but today's not the day for us to be talking about this." Or, "It makes me feel uncomfortable to hear this," like, really check in with yourself as to what bothers you about that. And then convey that to them.
Gretchen: What would you say to your kids, though, if they've heard that.
Ellen: Oh yeah, I would just, one of the things I always do in cases like that is to ask the kids, first of all, what did they hear and what do they think about it? And as a parent, I wouldn't necessarily go into this thinking that my child feels the same way I do. But I think the best place to start is to ask them what they know and how do they feel. "What did you think about when Grandma was comparing so-and-so with so-and-so? What did you think?" They might say, "Oh, that's just Grandma." Or they might say, "I feel really bad." And as a parent, you can tell, even if the words don't match their expressions, how they really feel about this. You don't want to make a bigger deal of it than it is, but you want to ask them, is that something that bothers you? And if they say no, say, "Oh, it bothers me. Should it bother me? What do you think about that?" So that it opens up more of a discussion, you know, how do we feel about the things that people say? Sometimes they say it in a mean way and other times they're just saying things, and how do we sort through that?
That can be a really good activity for lots of kids to have: When should we be offended and when shouldn't we? And to sort of say, "What do you think I should say to Grandma about that? Because I don't like it, even if you're OK with it." Or vice versa.
Amanda: That makes so much sense. I love making it an activity. That's a really smart way of handling it.
We also have some questions about kids who are sensitive to things like touch, taste, sound, and so forth, which I can completely relate to because not only are my kids like that, I am too. One of the questions that came up, though, is do you have suggestions on how I can help my child speak up and set their own boundaries? So, for example, my son is really sensitive to sensory input. He doesn't like being hugged. What can I teach him to say to all the relatives who expect hugs and kisses?
Ellen: That's a very good question, because coming into somebody's house and saying "Don't hug me!" is not the right answer. Plan ahead and ask him, "How should we handle this? What should we tell people before time?" And I think now, especially post-COVID, these sorts of discussions are OK to have, more so than they were before. So what does he want to do? Does he want to shake hands? Does he just want to high-five? And then, you know, depending on your child's age, it might be him talking or it might be you talking, just saying, "You know what, this is just a really stressful time of year. We haven't seen you guys in a long time. Hugging is not his thing, our thing," whatever it is. "We're going to all high-five this year." Or, you know, "When he comes in, like, don't make him feel like how he wants to greet you is not correct." Do you think your family could handle that?
Amanda: I think so. I also think that there's something interesting in there around just consent and boundaries in particular, right? That there's a way to tie that into those other conversations and say, "And also you have the right to tell somebody you don't want them to hug you because it's your space, right? It's your body. And you make that decision."
Ellen: Yeah. It is a good way to get into some of those conversations. Like, what do I like? "What can I tolerate" is more than just "Can I tolerate, you know, the crinkling of the paper in the background, but also what can I tolerate in terms of who I want to touch me?" And all of these things can be really good conversation starters.
Gretchen: Yeah. You know, Ellen, you reminded me, all the sensory things. One thing as an adult, I started doing when people come to my house, is I ask them not to wear heavy perfumes or colognes because I get migraines from those smells. And it took a lot for me to start doing that as an adult to realize, like, after every time these people come over, I have a really bad headache and I feel really sick. I have to start saying ahead of time, "You know, when you come to my house, let's not have any smells." And it felt odd at first, but being headache-free after those events has made a world of a difference.
Amanda: Yeah. A good way to model it for your daughters that way, too, right? You're setting them up to be able to say those things too.
Gretchen: I want to change gears a little bit and talk about some positive stuff, right? We've talked a lot about, like, what we want to avoid. How as families can we help create holiday experiences that we do want, that everyone will enjoy together? Do you have any tips on how families can build that for themselves, how they can make that happen?
Ellen: So, one of the best things you can do is to instill a sense of gratefulness in kids. Gratefulness has so many positive outcomes, including feeling better about ourselves. We talked before about how it can make us more appreciate what we have by giving to others and doing that in a way that is right for your family. So people oftentimes go to the tried-and-true ones, working at the local shelter, but there are lots of ways to show gratefulness and talking to your child, like, who would you want to help? They might come up with things that you would never have thought of, from going to the pet shelter or cleaning up the neighborhood. Who knows what it could be? Or going and just spending a little bit more time with Grandma or the neighbor who doesn't have anybody there. It can really give kids a sense of empowerment as well as be associated with all sorts of things. Like the more of a sense of gratitude that we have, the better our own mental health.
The other thing that kids really love are traditions. Anything that you have done that has worked in the past, that they can look forward to and then take ownership of, is really important. That's also instilling in them that sense of, "Oh, I have some sense of self-efficacy over this holiday." That can be as simple as going to a movie together or having a certain meal or making cookies. And then also talking about, you know, what are their hopes for the holiday too?
We don't tend to make goals for the holidays. You know, the holidays come and go. We just muddle our way through the best we can, but to talk like, right now, like, "All right, so who are the people that you want to see? What do you want to do? Let's figure out how to help somebody else. It's a really tough time of the year because it's dark and lots of people can kind of feel down and lonely. What can we do?" And this way, setting goals and sort of measuring what it is that you have wanted to attain and seeing how well you come up to those measurements can be a really good experience for kids.
Amanda: I was just thinking through, like, you have to change tradition sometimes, too, right? That's something that it took me a long time as a parent to realize, like, some of the traditions that we used to have don't work anymore. And so you have to come up with new ones. But the coolest thing is the ones that we really like are the ones that the kids have come up with themselves. Those are the ones that we carry on year after year. We celebrate Hanukkah and each kid — kid, two of them are adults, young adults now, but — have their own menorah. Right? And so they have decided when we're going to light the candles, and those are the kinds of things that they do, the color scheme of the candle, they figure it all out and then bring us into it. And it's been fun.
Gretchen: Well, Ellen, we've gotten through all of the questions we had from the community, but we are wondering if there's anything we haven't touched on yet that you think is important for us to bear in mind as we head into the holiday season.
Ellen: You know, one of the things I was thinking about just in terms of my own kids, and hopefully they're not going to listen to this, and if they do, they don't feel too like I'm putting them on the spot. But one of the things when my son, who has ADHD and some learning differences, he came back the first year of college and we were making dinner one night and I said to him, "Oh, I feel so bad because you go back to school in another few days and we didn't do anything."
And he said to me, "Mom, we're doing something now. Like, this is doing something." And we've got to get our heads around the fact that just being together is doing something, like, giving someone your undivided attention is doing something. And so many of us are thinking, like, "Well, we didn't see this person, or we didn't do that," but really we've got to figure out how do we let go of all the things that we think we should be doing, whatever that meant. Probably going to, I don't know, different museums or something at that time, that I thought we should have been doing. But, yeah, like making dinner is being together, and those are the things that kids really love.
Gretchen: Amanda, that's your new mantra. PJ's that say "This is doing something."
Amanda: "This is doing something." I know, right? I also think, like, a theme that comes up on almost every episode of "In It" is that theme of letting go. Right? The theme of let it go. I'm not going to sing it. I just started thinking I was going to sing there for a minute, but letting go — like, you don't have to. It's such a great place to leave people going into the holidays.
Ellen, thank you so much for joining us and for all of your amazingly excellent advice.
Gretchen: Yes, thank you so much, Ellen.
Ellen: Thanks for having me.
Amanda: You've been listening to "In It," part of the Understood Podcast Network.
Gretchen: You can listen and subscribe to "In It" wherever you get your podcasts.
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Amanda: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks for listening, everyone. And thanks for always being in it with us.
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is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.