“No one really understands what we go through with our child,” the mother of a recently diagnosed boy with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) lamented, as we discussed the kinds of encounters, like childish outbursts and aggressive impulses, that sour family gatherings. I knew what she meant.
Trips to see grandparents, aunts and uncles, who live far away can be a great learning experience and give children a sense of the larger family network. But when relatives don’t understand the thought and planning that goes into raising a “high-maintenance,” developmentally different youngster, they may believe that your child’s behavior is the result of poor parenting — namely yours.
This belief may be couched in comments like, “You really let her get away with a lot” or “If I had him for a week, he’d learn to obey.”
Do family members frequently give you parenting tips on disciplining your child? If so, you may be feeling anxious about upcoming get-togethers. “I always feel that my sister’s judging my parenting, and then I overreact when Jake starts acting up,” one mom confided.
Keeping Family Visits Fun
If you teach the friends or relatives a few of the strategies you use at home, you and your child can avoid negative experiences and judgments. Try some of the following to ensure a smooth visit:
“Re-introduce” your child before you travel. Children with ADHD can get overwhelmed by too many new experiences and new faces — and cousins you see only once or twice a year can count as “new.” Update your child with news from relatives, and send photos back and forth before visits.
“Here’s your cousin, Ann, with her new kitten, and here’s a picture she drew.” Keeping extended family familiar will make a visit feel more safe and comfortable for your child even before you start the trip.
Offer advice in advance. You’ve figured out what works for your child; let the relatives know, and you can avoid most meltdowns. “Sue has a hard time sitting at the table, but letting her stand near her chair gives her some wiggle room.” Or, “If Max begins to get too excited, it helps to allow him to settle down with a game or favorite book away from the rest of the children.”
Prepare your child. ADHD children do best when they know exactly what to expect before entering a situation. Before you hit the road, tell her why you’re visiting (holidays, birthday, a wedding), who will be present, and how long the visit will last. Together, brainstorm solutions to expected problems. “You know your cousin likes to feel like the leader when you visit. What can you say if he tries to play a game you don’t like?”
Give special thought to special events. Weddings, family reunions, and graduations can provide experiences for your child to remember and enjoy, but crowded events can over stimulate any child. Set limits with family members. “I know you want John to be a ring bearer for your wedding, but I don’t think he can handle that job at this point. Instead, why don’t he and I hand out programs as people arrive?”
Plan engaging activities. Bring plenty of familiar distractions (a few favorite DVDs, toys, and books). Let your child know it’s okay to go off on his own for a while, if he needs to regroup.
Take turns monitoring. If you’re surrounded by family you haven’t seen in a long time, it’s easy to get distracted. If your child benefits from close monitoring, you and your spouse should work out a plan to take turns watching her.
Or maybe a relative who has a special bond with your child would love to provide some one-on-one care. You can simply say to a friend or relative, “Joey looks forward to being with you at the party. I’m sure some special quiet time with you would be great for him.”
Have an “escape plan.” Decide on “cues” your child can give you when she’s too tired, hungry, or excited to stay in control. An “escape plan” to shorten lengthy goodbyes may be in order—let relatives know this is a possibility. “We may need to take off early, but we can plan another visit soon.”
Carve out some down time. Faraway visits may work out better if you stay at a hotel instead of a relative’s home. Some family members may feel hurt or even insulted when you present this idea, but explain that a place of less intensity and excitement can result in a better night’s sleep for all. You may also welcome some down time at a hotel, so you won’t have to feel constantly “on display.”
In the end, your efforts will be worth it. As the worried mom said after returning from her family’s visit, “I didn’t give my family enough credit at first, but they came to see past the differences and got to know the wonderful, caring child we love so much.”
This article comes from the October/November issue of ADDitude.