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Parents' top tips: Surviving family gatherings with kids with ADHD

Parents of kids with ADHD and learning disabilities share how planning ahead can make holiday get-togethers fun, not frantic.

By Linda Broatch, M.A.

As the parent of a child with learning or attention problems, you've likely spent many hours preparing your child and yourself for family holiday gatherings. Whether your child loves or dreads these events, chances are you keep pretty close track of her during such get-togethers — and step in when necessary to coach, redirect, and run interference for her.

We recently surveyed 139 parents of children with learning or attention problems to get their best tips on how to make family gatherings enjoyable for their kids, relatives, and themselves. Here's a sampler of their responses — perhaps you'll find several new strategies to add to your repertoire.

What stresses out parents

When asked to select from a list of their greatest concerns during family gatherings, here's how parents responded:

  • 39% of parents said they worry about how their families judge them and their child.
  • More than one-third (35%) of parents said that "how my family interacts with my child" is a concern.

In addition to concerns that hit close to the heart, parents also worried about their kids having too much unstructured time, not having a normal daily routine, and being tired and cranky from over-scheduling social events. Interestingly, while parents reported worrying about many things during holiday gatherings, 80% of them said that their kids were "excited" about holiday events.

Prepping your child

Asked for their top tips for managing — and enjoying! — family gatherings during the holidays, these parents offered creative, practical, and often wise strategies. Not surprisingly, many tips involve planning ahead to avoid problem situations.

Several parents advised setting aside some time before the event to "preview" the occasion for the child, so she knows what to expect — and what's expected of her.

"Explain clearly what you want him to do, and what not to do. My child dominates the conversation, and I remind him to be careful about that." — Wendy M., Pacifica, CA

"I focus on lots of positive reinforcement prior to the event, look for anything that will bolster his self-esteem, and give him positive news to chat about with relatives." — Terry F., New York, NY

"One of the things I found to be most helpful is to role play potential situations [with my child]. For instance, [what if] my daughter hates the sweater her grandmother gives her? We role play how to handle this, and reinforce that we can discuss [these] issues privately, after the family gathering." — Jennifer, Rumson, NJ

"I make sure my child understands that it's OK to find a place [during the event] to be quiet and calm. She needs this in order to keep anxiety down and relax." — Sheilah H., Sulphur Springs, TX

"Our child has a tough time recalling which name goes with which face. On the way to the party, we try to have casual conversations about who will be there, and how they are related. For example: 'It will be great to see Uncle Bill. His children, Marie and Jennifer, are so big now.'" — Ann, Phoenix, AZ

However, one parent found that preparing her child only made things worse:

"I've found it better not to mention what is expected from my daughter…. It's almost like a jinx. It seems like she can't live up to expectations when we talk about her behavior beforehand. I've learned to downplay [discussions about] special gatherings and holidays." — Sybil K., Moline, IL

Mentally preparing for gatherings

Several parents offered tips on effective ways they've found to prepare themselves for holiday gatherings. Many felt that, when they were relaxed enough to enjoy the event, it helped their kids relax, too. Others noted that, while enjoyment is their goal, it's often easier said than done.

"Having a talk with themselves" before a social event helped several respondents:

"Family members who don't understand that holidays can be a time of anxiety for kids just haven't lived in your shoes.... Don't feel like you have to apologize for your child; [the child] is most likely doing their best, even if it doesn't seem like that to others." — Cheryl, Maynard, MA

"Remember your child needs you most of all as his/her advocate and source of unconditional love. What others say and think doesn't mean as much." — Patricia, Gilford, NH

"I remind myself that, first, my child is not 'broken;' he is who he is. Second, … I am always tolerant and understanding of [other people's] children's choices and behavior. Third, if they don't get it, it's their problem. Fourth, I always (even though it's exhausting sometimes) remain pleasant and positive." — Terry F., New York, NY

"Don't look at your child's behavior as a reflection of your parenting skills. Don't sweat the small stuff." — Julie, Northbrook, IL

"If you host a family gathering, relax! Everything doesn't have to be perfect." — Kathryn, Cleburn, TX

"I've lived through 'blended family' gatherings by always having some noncontroversial topics to share. Also, I try to share in sports interests, even though sports are not that important to me. Lastly, [I try to] listen for twice as much [time] as I talk!" — Henry B., Conyers, GA

"Just go! Everyone's got 'stuff.'" — Anonymous

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.