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

Planning for an enjoyable time

Most of the parents did a fair amount of advance planning to make sure that they and their kids would enjoy the event.

“We learned that holiday parties were much more fun if we fed the children a complete, nutritionally balanced meal before we left the house….Once we arrive, my husband and I can socialize and enjoy our relatives and friends…without worrying that our child will not eat…and later break down from hunger.” — Ann, Phoenix, AZ

“I try to make sure that my children are not overtired starting out, and that they have had lots of fresh air and exercise before the gathering.” — Anonymous

“Keep it short and sweet. My husband and I agree on a specific time we are leaving the event – before we even leave our house. It’s much easier on the kids, and I don’t resent the events [with my husband’s family] so much.” — Rachel, West Dundee, IL

“[Do a] cognitive rehearsal with the child prior to the event. Talk with family members that are supportive and ask them to help run interference if they see something askew.” — Debbie, Delmont, PA

“If possible, try to avoid scheduling big events two days in a row, so that your child has time to recuperate and rest.” — B. Frenzer, IL

One very popular strategy among respondents was planning how to carve out a personal space for their child at the event, either to prevent problems, to help the child avoid social pressure, or just to “turn down” the stimulation for awhile.

“If the visit involves an overnight stay, ensure that you have enough private time and private space to deal with meltdowns.” — Polly K., Rockford, IL

“Make sure you bring familiar items and allow your child down time to do their favorite thing… even if your family doesn’t ‘get it.'” — Liz A., Chesapeake, VA

During the event

While a few parents offered the advice to relax or just enjoy family gatherings, more parents said that they keep tabs on their child’s activities and behavior — and the behavior of well-meaning but insensitive or uniformed relatives.

“My child is visibly uncomfortable when people are talking about getting straight A’s, etc. So we (her parents) emphasize her accomplishments outside and inside the classroom. If there are overly ambitious relatives [who] are pressuring your child, pull the child away and/or talk to the relative directly about their behavior.” — Lannie M., Windsor, CA

“I let my child be. I stop hovering and allow him to enjoy being with his extended family. He feels accepted and he relaxes.” — Jill, Brooklyn, NY

“Smile, pause, and say something wonderful about your child when someone says something negative. The subject will be immediately changed. It works like a charm.” — Michele B., Broomfield, CO

“Have your child bring activities [to the gathering] that he is familiar with and that can be shared with other family members easily. For a child with problems socializing, this can be the icebreaker, allowing him to explain and share his knowledge and expertise. This [also] makes it easier for other children to have an initial focus on things other than ‘that kid.'” — Valerie L., Baldwin, NY

“Be realistic in your expectations. Don’t let your kids be unsupervised in a large gathering of family, assuming that someone else will keep an eye on them. Set boundaries as to how much time you’ll spend away from your home, and what is customary and normal for your family.” — Cathy, Fort Worth, TX

“Do what you feel is best for your child! Don’t worry about what others will think or say. If someone criticizes your child, you or your parenting/discipline style, stand up for yourself!!” — Andrea, New Hampshire

Many parents have agreements about spending only as much time at family gatherings as everyone in their immediate family can comfortably manage.

“If you see things starting to fall apart, try to change the dynamic, or excuse yourself and get your child out of there.” — Anonymous

“Do not overstay; leave before your child wears you or the family out.” — Chris, Stongsville, OH

“[Do] something without visiting family.” — Mary W., Houston, TX

“Don’t be afraid to say no to family members. If you have a difficult child, your job is to spend time with him/her and give them the best possible holiday experiences. The stress sometimes associated with traveling to family and trying to keep your child ‘in line’ is not worth it around the holidays…Give yourself a break.” — Nancy P., West Hartford, CT

Remember why holidays are important

Several parents spoke thoughtfully about how — and why — it’s worth our time and energy to create holidays and family gatherings that work. The thoughts of two parents focused on family gatherings as a place where interactions with family can create fond and lasting memories:

“Go with a positive attitude that we should enjoy our families since they will not always be around. These times become a large part of the memories for children.” — Melissa A., Winston-Salem, NC

“Set aside time with your children to read to/with them, play a game, or take a walk. Remember that our children, in most cases, will only be with us for a season, before they are grown and gone and we’ll wish they were around!” — Cathy, Fort Worth, TX

“Over the years, I have made a point of helping my children anticipate our family gatherings in a positive way by focusing on family traditions and rituals. I may share an anecdote… pull out some photos, …or mention a funny story. I remind them that life is short and the opportunity to create precious and long-lasting memories today is what matters most.” — Brigitte, New Liskeard, Ontario

Five tips for surviving family gatherings

  1. Set realistic expectations for you and your child — don’t go for perfection.
  2. Remember that your child’s behavior is not a reflection of your parenting skills.
  3. If someone says something negative about your child, smile, pause, and then say something positive about him or her.
  4. Don’t be afraid to leave if the gathering is too stressful.
  5. Relax and enjoy it as much as you can!