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Helping kids with ADHD behave during the holidays

A two-part strategy of preparing your child and preparing the situation will make your family vacation fun for all.

By Kristin Stanberry

If your child has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you probably know how difficult it can be for him to transition from one situation to another. He feels most secure and behaves best when life follows a regular schedule. Just as he's settled into his regular routine, along comes the holidays or vacation — turning his schedule upside down! How can you prepare him for such challenges? Can you help him manage his behavior so he has a fun and successful season?

Planning makes (almost) perfect

Rick Lavoie, a nationally recognized authority on learning disabilities, often quotes the adage, "Prepare the child for the situation, and prepare the situation for the child." This two-part strategy is effective and well worth the time you'll invest. Let's break the strategy into its key components:

  • If you tell a child with ADHD what to expect in a new situation, he'll feel less anxious and better prepared for it. Once he's in the situation, he'll probably behave better because there won't be many surprises. You may want to warn him that sometimes plans change unexpectedly but that you'll help him cope with any changes that arise.
  • Preparing the situation for the child is equally important. First, anticipate situations that might trigger your child's worst behavior. Then make arrangements and backup plans to support his appropriate behavior.

While preparing ahead is key, so is giving your child gentle reminders throughout your vacation or holiday season. As always, be prepared to reward your child's patience, efforts, and flexibility - wherever you happen to be.

Holidays and vacations at home

If you plan to spend your holidays or vacation at home, be aware that your child's moods may swing from periods of boredom to bouts of over-excitement. Help him anticipate special events by marking them on a calendar and reminding him as they draw near. Even though your child will be in his own home, prepare the scenario for him.

For example, if you plan to cook a holiday dinner for your extended family, arrange for one of your child's favorite relatives to "buddy" with him while you're busy. Decide which family activities (like religious services) your child is expected to participate in. Be sure to build in "escape routes" for him, so he has a quiet place to go when situations or his feelings overwhelm him. Work with him to decide how and where he can retreat. Gently remind him of this coping strategy throughout the holiday season.

Taking trains, planes, and automobiles

If you plan to travel as a family, there are several ways to prepare your child:

  • Show him a map of the route you'll take.
  • Mention the interesting sites and scenery you'll see along the way.
  • Talk about how many miles you'll travel and how long the trip will take.

If he's never traveled by plane, bus, or train before, spend extra time telling him what to expect at the airport or station, as well as on board or in flight. And be sure to warn him about "travel transitions" such as connecting flights.

Before your trip, let your child choose toys, games, and books to take along. This ensures he'll be entertained during travel. It also gives him a sense of security and choice. For his sake (and your sanity!) be sure to include items such as:

  • Books, puzzle books, and hand-held games.
  • Audio-cassette or CD player (with individual headphones) for listening to music or books on tape.
  • A small ball or Frisbee for on-the-road exercise breaks.

Like many kids with ADHD, he may chatter non-stop about sights and scenery he sees along the way. Dictating his comments into a tape recorder will keep him busy while you concentrate on driving or navigating.

On road trips, take frequent exercise breaks. Help your child transition from "play" time to "driving" time by telling him, "You have 10 more minutes to play. Then we have to drive some more." In airports and train stations let him walk and explore as much as is safely possible.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


Comments from readers

"Please go easy on the teachers. I am in my late 20s and was only recently diagnosed with ADD, and my wife is a teacher - so I understand both sides. There is much ignorance of ADD and misconceptions abound, both which are best fought with knowledge! Work with teachers, and make sure no one comes down hard on a child with ADD. If a child hears they are lazy, crazy, or stupid enough times, they will start to believe it. My first reaction was to be mad that no one caught my ADD sooner (including teachers), but I now understand that it's merely a result of the prevalent ignorance of ADD."
"I loved this article and if it is at all possible I would like to read many more to address handling my ADD child in special situations. I do not believe that I should have to exclude my ADD child from holiday activities to please other family members that do not want to put up with the extra work and I thank you for suggesting useful options for the coming holidays."
"There are some random facts about LD in a section whose header is 'Making a Memory Book', for kids with AD/HD. Great site. Keep up the good work!"
" The information on Ad/hd very help, but i would like one that can give me ideas on how to help them to prepare for school, in their studies , homework etc. I have three children and two of them have ADD. It's very hard to see them having difficulties in school and trying to find ways to help them. Please if you have an information or ideas please E:mail them to me."
"Hello, I would like to know if biofeedback it really works for ADHD kids and is that right by taking 50 session the child will be cured?? Please give me more info about that and if it is possible to buy the device and do it at home? Thank you for your response, Fay"
"Hi everyone: I have a 10 year old with ADHD. He is in fourth grade. Are ther any support groups that I can join? I need help!! Thank you in advance. Beatriz"
"I don't know that this is feedback, but I need some support. My fiance has a 15 year old ADHD child. I do not understand the disability, but have been open minded and encouraging when my fiance is in despair as well as finding whatever information I can to help but I don't think the ADHD is totally the problem. The family is well-to-do and the child's mother hands absolutely everything to him. His father spoils him as such and they are both creating worse problems. I think it is their way of avoiding the situation. Give him a boat! Give him stocks to watch. Get him a new puppy, drum lessons, another bike (now he has 5) and the list goes on and on. His grades are failing and he gets the threat that he will lose the 17' power boat this summer. My thought is that this is all wrong but I am not welcome to express the information I have learned from these great groups and newsletters. Is this a losing battle? I want to help him learn so he'll have a wonderful life that he can b! uild for himself when is a young man. I want to sit with him for Math lessons but his desire to do something foolish is always given priority with blessings from the parents. This child during the course of a week has three or four homes in which he sleeps so there is no routine. He eats ungodly sugars all day long and when he does not behave, he is yelled at to go take his straterra. Any idea how I can handle the situation? Kay"
"I have a twelve year old with ADD whom only interested is video games. How do I help him to find interest in other activities?"
"I agree with the letter dated 03/24/08. Teachers absolutely will not acknowledge a learning disability. Teachers actually make it worse and I believe they know it. They make it look like there is some weird other problem and really create havoc for the child. I am sure this is a known problem with many people. I would truly like to know how an educator can sleep at night knowing this? If a child cannot learn, suggest other types of testing, work with the student, be a professional. These disorders such as ADHD and severe Learning Disabilities are for real and perhaps teachers should realize, they are actually causing bigger problems by their own ignorance and lack of addressinf the issues in school. I have children with ADHD and severe learning issues, so I know the outcome of improper teaching techniques. I myself sat in on group therapy for parents of children with ADHD, as to learn how to parent such a child effectively. It is challenging but one does not just give up ! on a child. Hopefully, this will change in the future and an effective learning style will become available to the learning disabled students."
"It is very important to have the cooperation of the school were your child attends, if the school is uncooperative or they keep telling you the child must take responsibility of his books and lessons etc. take him/her out of that school immediately if not sooner, because this school will be the down fall of your child and his/her education, when teachers will not accept the fact that these children have a learning disability and can't be held responsible for some of the things they can't control. We have an 18 yr old who has been told this since pre K and he has no skills, can't keep his things together, loses things, etc. its a mess. All through his schooling all we ever heard was he has to do this and he has to do that, never anything about how he was going to get help in school being a 504 student. We asked for testing, we asked for an IEP, we got 'He has to be rewsponsible for his learning'. No one to keep him on track, no one to keep him focused, no one to sign his h! omework book to make sure he had all his homework assignments, nothing, nothing, nothing."
"I agree with the comment entry dated 03/18/2008. I too have a son with ADHD. He was diagnosed in kindergarten although earlier on, I knew something wasn't quite right. Like the previous commenter, I fought the idea of medication for years. I tried years of different types of therapy to try to help my son. As he was getting older, it became clear that he required something more. The extended release medication has been a Godsend for him. He can focus much better now. Even though he is now in the 8th grade, I still have to preteach/prepare him for upcoming events. I also allow him to take a few things of his choice along with us on our road trips. The consistent daily rituals and routines have allowed him to better anticipate the upcoming tasks or events. I too don't take him to any relatives home without first medicating him. I also have to plan with him ahead of time about the details of the trips and so forth. He is a kinesthetic learning and loves working on hands-on proje! cts. This spring, he's working on car models that require him to cast the body of the vehicle then paint it. He is enjoying it! Thank you for your tips. They have reinforced the things that I have been doing for years! Aloha, Mrs.Makepa"
"My son is 10, in the 5th grade with ADHD. Diagnosed at the end of his grade 2 school year. Treatment started one month prior to the start of grade 3. His med is a once daily extended release capsule. I had a very hard time making that decision. But with the support of family and friends ( teachers included ) it was decided and he is thriving in school. On weekends and vacations he is off med. Life can be hectic but, he is managable in the home amidst the usual routine. If we go to families or friends for a visit or a holiday meal he takes his med. The overstimulation can sometimes be more than he is able to handle. He hates long road trips. Electronic equipment really helps to pass the time. It is very true to explain all plans prior to leaving the house. You can hear the excitiblity in his voice as it escalates with any surprise ( unplanned trips ) or quick decided travel. So understand that keeping them abreast of family plans and discussion of the outting can minimize the! anxiety and or excitibility that can consume them if routine and home setting is altered"