When the Tinsel Hits the Fan: How to Prevent Holiday Meltdowns
Routines are therapeutic for children with ADHD, who benefit from clear expectations and reliable schedules. And nothing throws a routine out of whack like the holidays. Given those two truths, ADD expert Edward Hallowell, M.D., explains how to prep for the season so everyone actually enjoys it.
The holiday whirlwind is kicking up dust already. The endless parade of celebrations, parties, and concerts has begun its march. Cooking, decorating, shopping, and entertaining already dominate our weekends. And so it’s no wonder that our kids (and us, too!) are beginning to feel exhausted, disappointed, and quite frankly, put out this time of year.
We asked Edward Hallowell, M.D., an ADHD expert, best-selling author, and founder of the Hallowell Centers, for tips on managing the holiday frenzy so that it doesn’t suck the joy out of the season. Here is how he makes December work in his ADHD household.
1. Tame Your Holiday Expectations
Holidays are meant to be fun. Try to approach them with an attitude of joy and celebration, as opposed to trying to run the season like a well-managed classroom. Not only does over-planning and over-orchestrating ruin the fun for your kiddo, “it will probably fail,” Dr. Hallowell says. “The holidays are supposed to be a time to connect with our loved ones, so make that your goal — not maintaining order.”
2. Discuss Holiday Events in Advance
Concerts, celebrations, and bazaars can throw a wrench into a child’s weekly schedule flow, but if you give your family members a heads up, they have time to adjust. Just be sure to tell them that even the best-laid plans may be interrupted — and that’s OK (sometimes it’s even part of the fun). Advanced warning — and ample time to ponder — helps many children with ADHD to tame their reactions when things don’t go as planned.
3. Establish Ground Rules Where They Matter
When an issue is likely to trigger unease, confusion, or discomfort in your child — from mealtimes during winter break to who is giving gifts to whom — try setting basic ground rules in advance. This could be as simple as saying, “Instead of lunch, we’ll be having dinner at 4 p.m. because the meal is so big and Aunt Jenny has to drive all the way home after.” Explaining when something is happening, and why, can help a child make sense of a disruption in her routine. “Be sure to ask family members who don’t have ADD to help you out with the ground rules, so everyone’s on the same page,” Dr. Hallowell suggests.
4. Take a Time-Out When You Need One
No matter how much you try to plan ahead, holiday excitement always seems to unravel things. When you speak to your child in calm voices and excuse yourself — and him — from situations that intensify, it makes it easier to return for another round later. Remember that you are your child’s best role model; know when a break is in order, and take it.
5. Learn to De-Stimulate
Holiday meltdowns are practically inevitable. If you find yourself faced with a whopper, Dr. Hallowell suggests demonstrating calm, cool, and collected behavior for your child. “Sit down on the floor, lower your voice, say nothing if need be, just do the opposite of explode,” he says. Keep in mind that your body language sends messages just as powerful as does your voice (if not more so). “When you model the behavior you want, it’s easier to de-stimulate.”
6. Create a Peace Zone
The holiday blitz and bling permeate everything — from TV to school to playground conversations — so Dr. Hallowell suggests designating a music- and tech-free spot where your child can go to shut off and recharge. “With so much stimulation already around them during the holidays, it’s important to regulate it from time to time,” he says. If you’re traveling over the holidays, your car may be your peace zone. Wherever you choose, make it a place your child can retreat to easily.
7. Pace Yourself
Chopping the tree, attending the winter carnival, and baking cookies all seem like fun, but pack everything into one weekend — or even one day — and it’s a recipe for dysfunction. “Overcommitting is a common mistake during the holidays,” Dr. Hallowell says. It can leave the whole family feeling exhausted and burnt out. Take stock of how many invitations you accept, how many dishes you agree to cook, and how many nights off you have. Overstimulation of any kind is often what prompt kids with ADHD to misbehave, so pace your schedule and practice saying, “No.”
8. Make a Timetable
Sit down with a calendar and plan out the best days for shopping, wrapping presents, cooking, and cleaning. Starting each day thinking you can “squeeze in” these extra tasks will only lead to frustration and stress. “Procrastinating causes stress, which is a major trigger for meltdowns,” Dr. Hallowell says. Pacing yourself by giving activities the time and attention they deserve. Whenever possible, start early!