The holiday season brought up a lot of feelings for me as a mother before my own diagnosis with ADHD. I held a lot of high expectations about how the holidays should be, all I needed to do and who I needed to see. There was a battle within me to replicate traditions of the holidays for my own neurodivergent son because that’s what I kept seeing and hearing around me.
Before this year, I never considered how I felt throughout organising the holiday season for my family, which was primarily overwhelmed, stressed out and never really knowing what was happening when. I generally ignored what I felt so that I could do all the things I thought that made the holidays the right way for my family. Now that I suspect my five year old son is neurodivergent, it’s occurred to me that even though I want to make brilliant memories for him, I know that I’m not going to do it if I don’t keep his needs in mind throughout the holiday season. So this year, I know I have to do things differently because this is what I know about my son:
● Too many scheduled events in a row (even ones he knows about in advance) are too tiring for him. By the second or third event in a row, he’s moody and unpredictable (then I’ll even struggle with helping him self regulate)
● Not having his regular school schedule makes the holiday season a struggle for him. Even though he loves the idea of school holidays, he appreciates (and needs!) a predictable routine, which includes regular bedtimes, active times, relaxing and meal times as much as possible
● All the lights, sounds and people make things overwhelming. Activities that are long and are not active make him frustrated and act out.
● Some events we get invited to are not neurodivergent kid friendly (like having to sit or be quiet for ages, too loud or too many people) and too many of these kinds of activities won’t work well for my family
● Some relatives just don’t get my son and try to impose their ways of managing children on him, and it’s rarely successful but always stressful for all of us
● Other relatives try to demand that my son try different holiday foods, expect him to react a certain way when he receives a gift, or try to get him to hug and kiss them (he’s definitely not a kisser!)
● On any given day he can wake up and be an absolute nightmare, but there is an event that we have to go to… and we need a plan ready for days like these.
“Even just thinking about the holidays coming up, gives me a feeling of dread and, as a neurodivergent myself, I have a lot of the same holiday anxieties, overwhelm and struggles as my son…”
Even just thinking about the holidays coming up, gives me a feeling of dread and, as a neurodivergent myself, I have a lot of the same holiday anxieties, overwhelm and struggles as my son so it’s helped me reconsider the festive season and my expectations of it for our unique little family. Making the needs of my family a priority in deciding how we choose to celebrate this year has actually helped reduce a lot of the stress of the season. Now my holiday plans are based around my knowledge of my family and what would make it an enjoyable and memorable time for us. So things I’m keeping in mind this year include understanding that:
- Most of the members of my family are neurodivergent. We’ve never done well with too many things happening at once, loads of shopping trips, too many people to see, an Elf on a Shelf or going out past bedtime to see the lights. Christmas isn’t fun for us in a neurotypical style and for us, less is a whole lot more.
- Our holiday season means setting up systems, a calendar, and routines and traditions that work best for us. It’s overwhelming, stressful and a lot of hard work for our executive function skills. We have to define what it looks like for us and commit to doing it like that.
- The holiday season means we have to know about most of the things we do in advance. As a family we sat down together and listed some things that we wanted to do. It’s been eye opening to see that they really only had a few things that were important to them It’s helped me see that I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself too.
- I’ve limited the amount of family events that we go to and the amount of time we stay at different events. I can’t handle small talk and it just adds to the anxiety I feel on top of monitoring my son’s behaviour and I know my son can sense this.
- I need to speak up for what I need in order to make the holidays successful for me too. This is so important as it plays into helping my son feel more regulated as well. If I’m not feeling at my best, then I can’t support him as effectively.
“Christmas isn’t fun for us in a neurotypical style and for us, less is a whole lot more.”
With these ideas in mind, I start thinking about what does this look like in a practical sense. I have to create the holiday plans beforehand or else before I know it, I’m following everyone else’s plans for us! Then I’ve lost more of my ability to choose and the holidays don’t become about my family’s needs anymore.
Some ideas I have for this year include:
Have a plan
● Before the holiday season started, my family and I sat down and thought about what we wanted to do and listed some of the events that we had to do. When we all have a say and split tasks (between myself and my husband), we get a general idea of how the calendar will be.
● Have a plan that includes off days too. We all need days to relax and recover from days that have been over stimulating or overwhelming
Keep to a routine of some sort
● Keep a routine as much as possible. On days where we are going or doing something, my son will know exactly what is going on (it’s written on his calendar that we look at daily), and when we are at home, the day is also structured to avoid too much down time, because boredom can make him anxious too.
Choose events to attend very wisely
● Make sure there are times each day for my son to be active and do the things that he enjoys and when we have to go out to events, I do what I can to make sure that the majority are neurodivergent-kid friendly
● Give him fair warning and expectations for activities that aren’t as neurodivergent friendly and come up with a plan together (he’s old enough to discuss things now, but if he wasn’t or additional challenges, I would actively avoid activities that I know he wasn’t going to react well to).
Solve any problems for my son in advance
● Give my son the game plan and rules for any event that we go to. This way it lowers his anxiety and he knows exactly what to expect and what will happen if he struggles to hold things together.
“The holiday season is probably not the best time for a medication break. It’s already a demanding time for everyone, and there will definitely be some events you have to go to where you’ll need all the help you can get.”
● Stay aware of his needs when we are out. This means I do things like, make sure he’s got his favourite toy that he needs, bring his iPad to family events in case he needs some down time. I make sure that I have some food or snacks that I know he’ll like in case the food isn’t something that he’ll eat. For any parent that needs: don’t forget a little sensory kit if it’ll be helpful for your child too, here are some ideas
● Watch him to be aware of the signs he’s overwhelmed, overstimulated or needing a break. It’s helpful to have a little flexibility wherever we can in case we need to leave a bit earlier.
● Try to create more situations where it’s enjoyable for all of us rather than what I think everyone else wants of my family. That means if I have to send a message beforehand, letting family members know what my son needs, I will. That often leads to all of us enjoying the time more (including other family members, so I don’t feel guilty about letting people know ahead of time especially if I know it’ll make a difference).
● I don’t make my son kiss or hug any relatives he doesn’t want to and choose very carefully the times I need him to dress up for an activity (which I give warning about in advance and make compromises or deals if I need to), so that I can make sure he feels most comfortable and secure
● (This doesn’t pertain to my son, but it might pertain to your child) The holiday season is probably not the best time for a medication break. It’s already a demanding time for everyone, and there will definitely be some events you have to go to where you’ll need all the help you can get (even with all the things you’ve put in place before hand!), So save the medication break for another time if you can.
● If we’re going to a place that is not very active, we make sure that we plan an activity that he’ll enjoy too to make sure that need is met for him.
● Try to limit surprise for him so he knows what to expect and what is expected of him. For example, if there is a play that we are going to see, I’ll make sure that he sees a trailer of it, hears the story, or learns some of the music in advance, that way he feels prepared and it also raises his interest which is always helpful in managing him.
Make sure my needs are met
● Ask for help when I need it. Often as the executive function brain of my family, I feel I need to do everything. When I’m clear about what I need for help (and make my husband set alarms so he knows what he needs to do!), he’s more than willing to help me out. When we all have a role to play, no one feels as overwhelmed and everyone has a say. This makes it easier for all of us to work together to make any events or activity run smoother for our son.
● Try to limit the amount of shopping I do with my son and when I can order presents online, I use that option too. Being in shops that are over stimulating for either one of us can lead to many unnecessary meltdowns or arguments, especially if he doesn’t get what he wants or if something takes too long to complete.
● Be aware of my own needs when we’re out. Sometimes things can get overwhelming for any one of us in the family and it’s been helpful to say beforehand if an activity might be problematic for myself or my husband. Then we can agree on a plan if we need to leave early.
“Every year I’ve struggled with placing unrealistic and unnecessary expectations on myself about the holiday season, which actually places unrealistic and unnecessary expectations on my son too.”
Every year I’ve struggled with placing unrealistic and unnecessary expectations on myself about the holiday season, which actually places unrealistic and unnecessary expectations on my son too. When I remember that the holiday season is about making memories with my family and our enjoyment together, it helps me to prioritise activities that make this happen.
I’m also a lot more compassionate and understanding towards my son when things don’t go as planned because I know that’ll happen sometimes. I’ve accepted that possibility by taking the time to plan. This makes me a lot more kinder towards myself too because I know our life can be unpredictable, (even with the best laid plans), but without them I know we’re opening ourselves up to a lot more challenges.
And besides, I know we’ll have plenty of time for activities and easy-going days we’ll all enjoy throughout the season.
Sandra draws upon her Masters of Ed. Psych and her background in education to coach kids with ADHD and ADHD women diagnosed later in life.
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