Family Travel & Holidays

House Rules for the Holidays

Traveling or expecting house guests this holiday season? Here’s why — and how — parents should define house rules for children with ADHD…and visitors.

Holiday rules for your ADHD angels
Holiday rules for your ADHD angels

For the Norman Rockwell family, the holidays are a quiet time of peace, love and togetherness. However, several weeks of school-free kids, cooped up in cold weather along with visiting relatives and in-laws never seem to paint the same pretty picture!

This is not to say that each family has exactly the same dynamic at holiday times, but rather, often we become paralyzed by our own expectations of the ‘ideal’ family get-together.

That’s why I’m never surprised that as the season approaches, apprehensive attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) families ask how they’ll ever “get through it”. While parents often hope for the best, it is wise to revisit problem areas from holidays past.

Children with ADHD can find holiday and family occasions over-stimulating beyond their tolerance level. Knowing this, you can better understand your family’s difficulties and begin employing a few simple strategies that will help make the holidays a happier time for everyone.

Prepping For Specific Problems

Set aside time before visiting with family to review with your child what your expectations of their behavior include. Depending on the children’s developmental level, some reminders of polite behavior that are specific to your family can help.

For example, “Aunt Sue loves to give you big kisses, but you did not like that last time. Instead, ask her for a big hug.” Or “Grandma really likes your please and thank you words. Maybe I could give you a wink to remind you.”

Sometimes this strategy is difficult with older kids and teenagers because they have the added resentment of being away from friends during family gatherings. After you define your expectations of behavior, try promising a special activity with their friends after the company leaves as a reward. Not only will it improve their cooperation, but also help clarify your expectations in their mind.

Making a “Plan B”

Before the holiday begins you may want to work out a back up plan. If you know your child cannot make it though a long meal, make arrangements for a cousin or relative to excuse themselves and the child to another room for a book or game.

To prevent potential meltdowns, develop some cues for your child to tell you when they are feeling overwhelmed or impulsive. When they give the signal, remove them from the party or gathering to help talk to them or calm them down.

[Free Download: Your Holiday Survival Kit]

If they are unable to recognize or communicate their over-stimulation, and their behavior becomes painfully difficult to witness or control, you and your spouse may work out a plan for an early departure. At best, if you plan for the worse case scenario, you may end up pleasantly surprised; or at worst, you won’t be caught “off guard” by the meltdown.

When Relatives Just Don’t Understand

The most difficult part of orchestrating a peaceful holiday may be your relatives. It is difficult even for parents who are well acquainted with ADHD to really understand what degree of self-control a child may have. This is complicated by the fact that many children may have more than one area of difficulty.

For example, Tourettes children may not be able to suppress tics for a long time. A child with some OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) characteristics may not be able to put down the Gameboy during prayer time. A child with verbal blurting may not be easily corrected when inappropriate language occurs. In addition, depending on medication levels or on how tired, hungry, or worried you or your child may be, the situation may spin out of control.

Considering all of this, imagine how hard it is for grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or friends to understand exactly why your child does not “behave.” Some relatives may be well versed in ADHD information, but others may simply not understand.

Depending on their receptiveness, some comments and instructions before visiting can help. For example, you may say, “John has some trouble calming down at times so if we leave the table, please go on and we will return when able.” If necessary, you may want to use the doctor as the one responsible for the intervention. It may be acceptable if you say, “the doctor said to talk to him in private, if he/she has a problem.”

Take Time for Yourself

There are really no hard and fast rules that will guarantee “perfection,” but making plans ahead of time has given parents a better sense of control over the unexpected holiday stressors.

It is also important to know your own limits, and take care of yourself so that the kindness and patience of the season will not be spread thin. Remember the simple rules of structure, clarity, and positive incentives can go a long way in helping you to make your holiday season calm and bright!

[Minimize Holiday Havoc with These ADHD-Friendly Strategies]