Hello brave parents and caregivers!
We are in the full swing of the holiday season. Are you as exhausted as I am? ‘Tis the season for giving, reflecting, and dissolving into a crying heap. Especially if you have ADHD.
There are a lot of ADHD articles out there to peruse; I’ll give you a thumbnail synopsis before exploring what I see as one of the biggest issues in kids with ADHD. There are three possible ADHD presentations: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, or combined type (both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive). To meet criteria for the diagnosis, symptoms must be present prior to the age of 12 years, occur in multiple settings, and cause distress and/or functional impairment. A consultation with your pediatrician is a good starting point if you suspect your child has ADHD.
For me, this textbook information is very important but not so blog-worthy. What I think parents need to know and often don’t hear about are: 1. the strong emotions associated with ADHD and 2. just how difficult those emotions can be to regulate. I think of ADHD as emotion fuel; it intensifies joy, anger, sadness, frustration, irritability…. you get the picture. Bottomline, kids with ADHD can be seriously intense. And boy can this emerge during the holiday season. It’s the perfect set up, really. Lack of sleep, lack of structure, medication holidays, and the distraction of excited anticipation.
It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not that children with ADHD can’t pay attention to one thing, it’s that they struggle to filter; they attend to so much extraneous stimuli in their environment that they ultimately cannot focus on the task at hand. And, because of this, they are prone to easy overstimulation, overwhelm, and, you guessed it, all those fun visits to meltdown town. Yep, bring on the crafting, visit-with-Santa, cookie-exchange parties.
So, intrepid parents and caregivers, I’d like to share some tips to surviving the holiday season with a child who is experiencing ADHD:
- Try to maintain structure and a predictable routine (is that you I hear grumbling, ‘yeah right!’?). Predictability improves the ADHD brain’s capacity for focus. Think of it this way: if less brain power is required to figure out what will happen next, more is available to process the other demands of the day.
- Maintain a sleep schedule and an adequate amount of sleep. A restored brain supports a child’s ability to regulate her/his emotions.
- If your child takes medication, in collaboration with your doctor, consider continuing it over winter break if it is safe and prudent to do so. Confer with your doctor to determine what is best for your child.
- Anticipate the possibility your child may become overstimulated in loud and busy environments, such as at shopping malls or family gatherings. Plan for short breaks in quiet, less stimulating environments during these times; a calmer brain has more capacity for focus and management of impulses.
- Mindfulness techniques can help all around. I like the 5 senses technique: in a quiet, non-stimulating environment, ask your child to describe what he/she hears, sees, smells, etc. If a child is able to access mindfulness techniques in moments of high emotional intensity, they can be really helpful to help him/her regain control.
Keep in mind that children need to move. This is especially true of children with ADHD. Admittedly, I’m terrible at this. I get so bogged down with any day’s to-do list, I lose sight of the fact that my daughter and I have hardly moved our bodies all day. Please do better than me! Make sure your child is getting enough movement each day. Running around outside is the best if possible! At least an hour a day of getting the wiggles out can improve your child’s ADHD symptoms and her/his ability to manage them. And everyone is happier!
Above all, love and cherish your child who is experiencing ADHD. If you’re feeling frustrated as a parent or caregiver, it may be helpful to reframe negative thoughts into positive, more productive thoughts: intense is passionate; high energy is full of life; emotional is being fully human. Try to give your child the benefit of the doubt (while still addressing disruptive or maladaptive behavior!) and assume they want to behave more appropriately or perform better academically, but struggle to maintain the necessary concentration or control to do so. It is true that children and adolescents with ADHD often later regret their actions or truly lament their academic challenges. This can seriously erode their self-esteem over time. And, I must add, in my many years of practicing child and adolescent psychiatry, I have gotten such joy from treating kids experiencing ADHD. They are honestly among the most creative, fun, smart, spontaneous, and interesting souls I’ve encountered and their verve for life inspires me daily. Seriously, your kid is cool—remind her/him often.
So, brave parents and caregivers, I hope this helps you navigate the holidays a bit more easily and maybe even view your child in a new light. Wishing you many silent (and meltdown-free, time-for-yourself) nights ahead this holiday season.
Until next time,