Spreading Holiday Cheer at Home

Parenting tips for helping children with adhd enjoy the holiday season - and pick up valuable social skills, too.

Turn holiday hassles into holiday hurrahs! ADDitude Magazine

A hands-on activity, like baking holiday cookies, is a great way to get even the shyest of kids to open up.

Carol Brady, Ph.D.

The holiday season can be a real challenge for ADHD children. The absence of familiar routines (such as attending school) can throw children with attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities off their stride, especially when you factor in all the events to attend, gifts to select, cards to write, and so on. No wonder they often become sullen or disruptive just when you want them to be happiest.

It doesn't have to be this way. With new ideas and a little planning, ADHD children will be more likely to enjoy the holidays, and so will the rest of the family. And by encouraging your children to participate fully in all the season has to offer, you can help them learn social skills that will pay benefits throughout the year.

From selfish to empathetic

Impulsive, hyperactive children are often so focused on self-control that they don't notice the feelings and needs of people around them. That was the case with one of my clients, eight-year-old "Joe" (not his real name). When I asked Joe what his 11-year-old sister might like from him this year, his shoulders slumped. "Nobody ever asked me what I thought before," he said.

Joe and I made a plan: He would interview each family member about his or her favorite things, then use the information he obtained to act as a "gift consultant" to his mother.

Coming up with his interview questions required Joe to think about others in a new way. Instead of focusing on his own thoughts and behavior, he had to think about other people - that is, to become empathetic. And when he conducted the interviews, Joe was amazed at what he learned. "I never noticed my sister loves everything about horses," he told me excitedly. His sister was so happy with the horse figurine Joe gave her that she started a collection. That made Joe happy, too.

Learning to collaborate

Is your child disorganized? Is she overwhelmed when faced with organizational tasks? If so, getting her involved in planning a party can be a terrific way to build her self-confidence - and teach her how to collaborate.

"Let's make a list of things you will need to buy, and then think about how the evening will proceed," I suggested to 10-year-old "Susie" and her family. "We'll start with all the necessary items, and then rank them by order of importance." With these simple instructions, Susie and her family listed the kinds and amount of food and beverages to be served, the number of guests expected, and made a timeline for the party (to provide structure for Susie). Susie's parents encouraged her to sing holiday songs, and they reminded her to greet each guest and to say goodbye.

The party was a great success. Susie was proud of her contribution and felt more confident of her ability to work with others.

Sharing accomplishments

When the extended family gathers, a child with AD/HD is apt to be viewed largely in terms of his shortcomings - how disruptive he is, how hard he is to talk to, how he can't be made to settle down, and so on.

That's unfair. All children have talents and accomplishments of which to be proud, and it's your responsibility as a parent to make sure your child gets a chance to share these with grandparents, aunts, cousins, and friends. Showing an art project, telling about an award received in school, displaying a scout merit badge, or playing a piece on the piano are just a few ways to do so.

You may need to do some coaching or even suggest specific words to help your child display his talents without looking like a show-off. You might suggest that your child say, "I want you to see the picture I made in art. The teacher put it in our holiday display at school. Do you like it?" In addition, be sure to tell positive stories about your youngster and allow him to chime in with more examples.

Volunteer work

Special-needs children are used to being on the receiving end of things - receiving extra help at home, special accommodations at school, and so on. Holiday time lets kids experience the giving end for a change.

I've heard great reports about AD/HD kids doing volunteer work during the holidays. They can help in hospitals, nursing homes, foster homes, and so on. Find out about opportunities in your area, and find a good fit for your child. Stocking shelves in a homeless shelter may be appropriate for a teen, for example, while a younger child might be better off singing carols to nursing home residents in need of cheer. Check out Zoom into Action's "Family Guide to Volunteering" on pbs.org.

Volunteering helps children appreciate what they have, and gives them the confidence that they can help others - rather than always being helped. And it gives them essential practice in interacting with people they might not otherwise come in contact with.


This article comes from the December 2005 – January 2006 Issue of ADDitude.

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