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Holiday Gatherings and ADHD

You may recall the TV commercial where a young couple is seated in front of their laptop computer viewing possible vacation scenarios. At first glance the vacation possibilities seem wonderful, but as they think it through they have (funny) visions of what might go wrong—clearly not the vacation of a lifetime.

For many of us, family holidays fall short of the “Hallmark” moment. As a parent you may be looking forward to adult conversation, catching up with family you haven’t seen in a while, good food, relaxing and maybe watching football on TV. If you have a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it’s a good idea to think realistically about what to expect at the family Thanksgiving gathering.

Your child will be excited and there will be lots of sensory stimulation. Normal routines are out the window. There may be other children (perhaps cousins) your child infrequently interacts with of various ages and temperaments. Sharing and taking turns, not to mention sitting at a table with others for the big meal, is fertile ground for problems. And perhaps there is Aunt Debbie, who has been fortunate enough to have children with easy, cooperative temperaments, who is ready with unsolicited parenting advice!

If you have a child with ADHD, and currently the National Institutes of Health calls ADHD the most common behavioral disorder among children, you will have special considerations to take into account. Thanksgiving with your ADHD child will require extra effort and planning.

ADHD (also called ADD) is a disability of self-regulation. Impulsivity, inattention and hyperactivity are the behavioral hallmarks of children with ADHD. Your child will not behave differently just because there is a family celebration going on. In fact, you can expect more difficulty than usual. Anticipate and plan ahead.

If your child takes medication, now is not the time to take a “drug holiday.” For many children with ADHD, medication is a front-line defense and helpful tool. At home you may have days where your child does not take his medication, but Thanksgiving day is not your typical circumstance. Do what you can to keep the odds in your favor.

Lack of supervision and unstructured time are your enemies. Work in shifts. If you have a spouse or partner, plan ahead and take turns supervising your child. You might switch off every hour or designate who is supervising different activities throughout the day. If you’re a single parent, enlist a relative who is willing to give you some time off.

Transitions will take a lot of time. If your child has been running feral out in the yard with his pack of cousins, he will need a lot of help changing activities and calming down way before even “thinking” about sitting at a table to eat. An ADHD child will have trouble knowing when it’s time to “back it down.” Physical activity is a good thing, but it will need to be a supervised game of kickball or a family walk.

Rowdy behavior is contagious for most kids, but kids with ADHD are especially drawn to it and will have a harder time stopping when it gets out of hand (problem with self-regulation). Nip rowdy behavior in the bud quickly, before it spreads, and guide kids to a new activity! If your child needs a “time out,” have a plan about which parent will see it through and how to manage it. You may have to sit with your child in a quiet room or the car until things cool off. Help your child save face when reentering the family group.

Video games are a very popular source of entertainment. Sounds like a good idea to let the kids play video games in the basement or family room. However, you may not want your 8-year-old playing a round of Call of Duty with his older cousins, so supervision is, again, required. You can also anticipate issues about who is playing what, whose turn is it, how long they have been playing and on and on. A board game, craft or outside activity you are directly participating in might be a better choice and save you working as referee. Most parents have experienced the “You have 10 more minutes” before dinner and, at the 15-minute mark, your child has made no movement toward ending the game. For children with ADHD, time-management skills are notoriously poor, and again this can be a tricky transition.

Never turn your back on the kiddie table! Unless you’re willing to have the “kids’ table” turn into a mosh pit, you need to provide supervision. Physically sitting next to your child or having him sandwiched between both parents can go a long way toward keeping the dinner experience under control without the need for a lot of verbal correction. We suggest one parent be in charge of helping get your child through the big meal. Now is not the time to demand manners your child has not practiced. Model good manners and help your child practice up for the next holiday gathering.

Try to maintain some semblance of your child’s usual routines. A tired and hungry child is always less cooperative. You may have to plan to leave early in order to keep your child’s bedtime. If the meal is running late, keep in mind your child may need a snack, and try to keep sugar and soda to a minimum.

Realistic expectations, and planning and taking turns with your spouse on supervision will help you and your child have a more pleasant family holiday experience.                    

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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