The holiday season can feel more hectic than happy for parents. They’re juggling busy schedules, school vacations, holiday get-togethers — and trying to make it fun for the whole family. Parents of children with ADHD and learning differences, such as dyslexia, have added layers of stress.
Hosting out-of-town relatives, attending holiday parties, or baking cookies with friends may feel festive to some family members but may cause stress and overwhelm for those who struggle with patience and attention. Many parents feel guilty if they don’t keep holiday traditions alive.
There are ways to balance the desire for tradition with the reality of what your family will enjoy — not just survive. Here are some tips and simple swaps:
Include Children in New Holiday Traditions
Tweak old traditions or create new ones that your entire family can enjoy. Ask your child how they want to celebrate the holidays. What do they find hardest about your usual traditions? Think about how you can change a few details to make the holiday season a better fit for everyone.
For example, when reading a classic holiday story, ask your child if they’d like to retell (or act out) the story — as it went or as your child wishes it went. Or maybe they’d like to listen to an audiobook version or watch a movie of the story while sipping hot chocolate.
Say “No” to an Invitation
It’s easy to feel obligated to say “yes” to every party invitation. But an invitation is merely that: an invitation. You don’t have to say “yes” to all of them. Feel comfortable with the power of saying “no.” Also, it’s OK if the whole family doesn’t attend an event that will likely cause anxiety. For example, a big party might not be a good fit for children with ADHD or social anxiety. A smaller group setting may be less overwhelming and help children have a good time socializing.
Prepare and Manage Expectations Before an Event
Exchanging gifts may lead to frustration or worse for some kids with learning and thinking differences. Waiting their turn to open a gift can be challenging and tantrum-inducing for some children. For other children, opening a gift they weren’t expecting or didn’t want could lead to sensory overload and a meltdown. To avoid this reaction, discuss with your child what might happen at an event and how they can cope with it. Role play how to receive, open, and accept gifts and practice saying polite “thank-yous.” This prepares kids to navigate awkward moments — like opening a gift they don’t like.
Remember, the holidays aren’t always full of cheer for kids with thinking and learning differences. Tweaking traditions with simple swaps and pre-planning will bring joy to the season’s festivities for the entire family.
Holiday Traditions: Next Steps
Andrew Kahn, Psy.D., is associate director of behavior change and expertise at Understood.org.
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