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“Summer Survival Guide for Parents of Extreme Children”

Five strategies for really, truly enjoying your summer break with your child who has ADHD.

I write a lot about raising a child with extreme behavior disorders. For other special needs parents like myself, the idea of spending two hot months trapped at home with our children and their behaviors incites household-wide panic.

The heat, the lack of schedule, the food, the break from school — it is the stuff of nightmares, my friends. Our supremely awesome kiddos — you know, those with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), ASD, GAD, ODD, SPD, and other diagnoses that affect mood, behavior, and sensory needs — thrive on schedules, predictability, and monitored diet and screen time.

By day three, many of us have succumbed to the normality of giving ourselves 15 minutes of peace and quiet, courtesy of kids’ YouTube and the iPad. I mean, for the love of meltdowns, there is no amount of coffee and boxed wine that could get me through this time of year without a few major meltdowns from my son (and myself).

Special needs parents know that there is no foolproof, magic solution for chilling out our kiddo, but here are five strategies that have been tested and approved in our own home  to preserve what little is left of your sanity bustle (see: completely insane freak-out zone) of the summer season.

Set a Schedule, Even if It’s Vague

We know our kids need the predictability that comes with a schedule. So even if all you do is tell them in the morning three things they will be doing (some kids need times, others need references like, “after lunch we will…”), this will be helpful to prep them for returning to the more strict schedules provided by the public school system and, hopefully, weed out some of their anxiety that comes with their return in August. For our son, schedule is key. So, I used to be super prepared and had a Melissa and Doug Calendar that had special pockets for our activities and clocks with the time.

[Free Sample Schedules for Reliable Family Routines]

Then I had another kid. So, yes, there’s that. Now, we do a simple Dollar Store dry erase board with the day’s activities. Sometimes he can pick; other times the board makes for an easy way for him to lose a privilege should the need arise.

Decrease the Screen Time (Like, Yesterday)

Several of the beautiful mamas in my “tribe” (see: the women responsible for my sanity who also have children like mine, so they get me) have kiddos who thrive on screen time so they are rewarded with this privilege much more often than our son. For our boy, screen time almost always equals a meltdown. This may come in the form of him losing a game and ending up punching or throwing the iPad, or his losing it when his screen time is up. Regardless, there are few times when it ends well for us.

However, if you believe that screen time is a normal part of your kid’s day, summer break may mean more time on the computer/video game/tablet. It may prove best for you to begin to decrease the extra time online about a week before returning to school. This will them to adjust more slowly and (fingers crossed) without much of an aggressive transition back to the real world when that first school bell rings.

Focus on Meals and Snacks

Think regularly scheduled eating times and meals that have  a representative from each section of the food pyramid, not the food groups recommended by Will Farrell in Elf. I am as guilty as the next mom of counting a couple of popsicles by the pool as breakfast and a handful of M&M’s lunch because he ate a cheese stick too, and, well, it is summer vacation. So there!

[Special ADDitude Collection: Summer Learning Ideas for Kids with ADHD]

However, as much as science confuses me, I am a huge nerd and the research doesn’t lie. Many ingredients found in these types of foods are either full-out triggers or additional irritants to our children’s already destructive behavior, such as aggression, outbursts, hyperactivity, and inattention. The quicker we can wean them off the summer-flavored Oreo’s and back onto something that, at least at one time, could be found growing from the ground, the better for our kiddos.

Rely on Your Sensory Strategies

Whether your kiddo is sensitive to specific clothing, needs a weighted blanket, or relies on a sensory body sock for calming, use it! Our son has Sensory Processing Disorder, so these have become part of our day-to-day as we research and learn more about his needs.

Vacations are a nightmare of sensory overloaded proportions. Consider an average day: sugar-filled cookies, singing in the car, dancing boardwalk lights, the feeling of sand in their toes, the barrage of forced hugs from distant relatives come to visit, and the pictures with strangers dressed up in costumes. It is terrifying, especially for our kids who are easily overwhelmed by just one thing from this list.

When All Else Fails, Remember the 3 P’s: Pacing, Privacy, Peace

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how many things we try, how many strategies we put into place, or how much we pray or cry, it is just a bad day. So, at our house, we rely on pacing and breathing to calm ourselves (that includes this mama, too). If that doesn’t work, we go somewhere alone. This may just be to another room in the house, outside, on a walk, or (in the case of myself or my husband) a drive. Sometimes we just need some distance to have our emotions and move forward. The last thing we need to do is intentionally choose peace.

On more days than not, our house is a war zone. Vacations and summer break are no exceptions; in fact, they are usually worse. So, sometimes we deal with whatever it is and choose to move forward as a family, regardless of the name calling, the things that were thrown, or the public meltdown that made my stomach hurt. At the end of the day, we will still be a family. No one at Target comes home with me after shopping (even though I am pretty sure, Karen, at the customer service desk, is my secret BFF). So let’s just take a tip from that snow witch, Elsa, and let it go.

Parenting is a messy gig. Parenting our kiddos is next-level CIA-operative-style adulting. Know that your brand of crazy might look different from ours, but we are in this together!

[Self-Test: Sensory Processing Disorder in Children]

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