The holidays were approaching — and my anxiety over the prospect of spending time with my extended family was gnawing at me. I love my family, but their lack of empathy and understanding toward my son, John, often mars festive family occasions. John has ADHD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). His behavior was out of control when he was younger, but with proper help and his own determination, he’s become a wonderful (and well-behaved) teenager. Yet certain relatives continue their “tradition” of criticizing him — and me — for being less than perfect.

Who could I talk to who’d understand my stress — and help me face the holidays? I decided to invite two wonderful women I’d recently met at a conference: Anna and her second husband have a 21-year-old son, Tom, who has ADHD and dyslexia; Lynn and her husband have an adopted son, Ryan, who is 16 and has ADHD and dyslexia.

We gathered at my apartment on a crisp Saturday afternoon in late October to enjoy holiday crafts, music, food, and each other’s company. We talked openly about the challenges we and our sons face with our extended families — and how we’ve learned to deal with it. We laughed, cried, and learned together. It was like a group therapy session — but with hot apple cider! Our conversation went something like this:

I’m dreading our family gatherings during the holidays, because my relatives so often misunderstand — even — mistreat my son. Am I the only one?

Anna: I know what you mean. When my son, Tom, was young, every family visit was difficult. During grade school and middle school he was teased at school, and then he got the same treatment by his cousins. Tom had speech problems and also missed a lot of social cues; one cousin really teased him about that, which made Tom anxious and caused him to stutter. That same cousin called him names (like “retarded”) and refused to play with him.

Katy: And it isn’t just holidays that trigger this family behavior. I’ve repressed this memory for six years, but it just came back to stab me in the heart. It was when John’s father (my ex-husband) was getting remarried. At the last minute, John’s father uninvited him to his wedding. He’d taken John to the rehearsal dinner without giving him his medication (for ADHD); when John acted up (in a restaurant filled with soon-to-be relatives he’d just met), I was called to pick up my little boy (he was 9 years old) at the restaurant. No amount of negotiation with my ex as to how I would help John prepare for the wedding (even explaining which uncle he felt safest sitting with during the ceremony) made any difference. You can imagine how painful that was for my son — and me.

Has your family criticized you and your parenting skills — either openly or behind your back?

Anna: Whenever the cousin I mentioned was cruel to my son, and I wanted to correct the situation, I was accused of being overprotective. My sister (the bully’s mother) told me “Kids will be kids.” I wanted just one place where my son could feel safe and accepted. I was devastated that it couldn’t be with my family.

Lynn: My experience was a little different. When Ryan was younger, my parents and siblings used to ask me why I was so strict with him — why I managed his behavior so closely. They told me, “He’s just an active little boy.” I carefully explained that he could go from 20 to 110 miles per hour in about three seconds and that I was trying to prevent him escalating into behavior that they definitely wouldn’t just describe as active! The underlying message my husband and I got was that we were creating Ryan’s behavior by keeping him on such a tight leash.

Now that Ryan is older, a couple of my siblings are comfortable enough to manage or criticize his behavior — out loud — in front of others. To be fair, I’ve told them that in social settings he should respond to their requests as he does to ours. But usually they get frustrated by his not listening or not complying quickly with their request. They get angry and moralistic, which embarrasses him and makes me angry. But I also realize that most people — no matter how much they may care for your child, and my siblings are also very good with him at times — just don’t get what it means for a child to have ADHD and/or learning disabilities. How it affects all aspects of their functioning and behavior, and that they often can’t help it.

Katy: Yeah, ignorance is not bliss when you’re on the receiving end of it!

How do you and your child feel when family members misunderstand or mistreat him?

Anna: Tom used to shut down and pretend he didn’t care. But as the years went on, he talked more openly about the pain it had caused. He now admits that all of this hurt him so much more than he was capable of saying and that he felt terribly alone and misunderstood by everyone. He used to assume he somehow deserved to be bullied and taunted by others. That created tremendous insecurities and anger in him. It is humiliating for a child to be picked on at school, but it’s especially devastating when he’s traveled a long distance to be with family and it happens there too.

Lynn: Ryan doesn’t spend much time with my family, so he’s never reacted in the angry, aggressive way he sometimes does when my husband or I discipline him. But when things go wrong at family gatherings, he does look ashamed and a little bewildered at times, which makes me feel awful. I sometimes feel guilty about not defending Ryan more fiercely, but I know in the long run it wouldn’t help my family understand him better or deal with him more effectively.

Anna: I started to dread all our family gatherings, whether they were summer trips or holidays. I was always on edge and cried a lot. But I seldom confronted the relatives who were making things so uncomfortable.

Lynn: My first reaction is to feel irresponsible and incompetent as a parent. But what I often try to do next is to sort out the reasonable part of the family member’s request from the angry, moralistic “wrapping,” as a way to calm myself down. Then I’ll often rephrase the request in a way that I think Ryan will hear better. I think doing that models a better approach to managing Ryan’s behavior, both for him and the adult who’s criticized him.

Sometimes, if I’m tired or frustrated myself, I piggyback on the relative’s cranky message with my own angry demands. That’s when I feel the worst — when I lose it and can’t really protect him, either by deflecting the criticism or by rephrasing the request so that it’s easier for him to choose a more positive behavior.

My mother told me recently that she was glad my son’s behavior had been improving because he’d “really been hard on” a younger cousin at a recent family gathering.  I felt angry and defensive. I thought, “If it was so terrible, why didn’t someone just talk to me about it?” It can make it seem like my son’s situation is so horrible and shameful that we can’t just have a conversation about it. That really upset me.

Do and your child talk about difficult family behavior? What have you found most helpful?

Anna: I often tried to talk Tom through those situations, and I firmly believe it helped him not to assume responsibility for the behavior of others. Ultimately my son has learned that the bullies (even those in our family) are often the people with the real problems.

Lynn: My kid isn’t very reflective and tends to react to humiliation by acting even worse or plotting revenge. So discussing his feelings after the fact can just get the whole thing going again. But sometimes I’ve talked to him afterward about what an aunt or uncle said and asked how he felt about it. I might tell him that while I thought his aunt’s request was appropriate, I didn’t think she made it in a very respectful way and that I can imagine that it might have been embarrassing or hurtful to him. He can often hear that, and I think it helps.

Do you find yourself protecting your child from difficult family situations?

Katy: Not only do I avoid certain family functions that seem like potential minefields, I also protect my son from ever finding out about the criticism family members express (often behind our backs, but which I hear about through the grapevine).

Anna: After awhile, I started attending fewer family reunions. I decided it was better for Tom and me to visit my parents when I knew certain cousins were not going to be there. I wanted the old family home to be a safe haven for my son and me.

Lynn: I’ve found a strategy that protects my son from getting into trouble: I ask that my son be given a responsibility or task during a family get-together. When he has a job, he feels involved in a constructive way that keeps him occupied, which means he’s less likely to get in trouble. People appreciate that he is genuinely helpful.

Do you and your child have allies in your extended family who help you navigate the stress of family gatherings?

Lynn: Most of our family members and friends are allies at one time or another.  But because Ryan’s disabilities are invisible, we can’t ever assume that adults other than my husband and I will remember this and respond to his behavior in an effective way. And, of course, my husband and I blow it occasionally, especially in social settings where we’re more prone to feel embarrassed by or impatient with Ryan’s behavior.

Anna: My parents were more of a support to my son and me than anyone else. I was a single mother, and my folks were very much there for my son and me. My mother especially was our biggest ally. Even so, she could only do so much to protect us from other family members, because they were, after all, her children and grandchildren too.

Katy: My parents have always been supportive of John and me, through thick and thin. They view John’s problems as simply being at an extreme end of a continuum of normal behavior. My parents have always recognized and played to John’s strengths and talents. Mom also finds practical ways to help John find “space” when family functions get overwhelming. I also have one sister and a brother who will go to bat for John any day of the week, and twice on holidays.

Have you ever been surprised by the lack of understanding from relatives who really should know better?

Katy: My older sister teaches special needs kids and is supportive of my son and me. But for whatever reason, she’s never explained his behavioral and emotional problems to her adult kids — even when they criticized him openly. But I’ve never had the courage to ask her why.

Anna: I know just what you mean! One of my older sisters is a teacher too, and when her son bullied Tom, she excused his behavior and told me I was overreacting. She believed cruelty between kids was just a normal part of growing up. Unbelievable!

Having lived through these experiences, what lessons have you learned?

Katy: I try to remember the big picture. For example, even my siblings whose kids don’t have learning, attention, or behavior problems sometimes complain about relatives being unkind and insensitive toward their kids. And I think we all feel and act a little dysfunctional when we’re with our families.

Anna: I’d encourage all parents to be true to themselves — and their kids — when dealing with family members. It can be difficult to address these problems directly and calmly, but it’s better than for you and your child to keep it to yourself, letting it fester inside.

Lynn:  Although they probably won’t really get it, I think it’s important to keep reminding close friends and family in a nice way that — even though it’s not visible — your child has a real disorder, that he has a more difficult time than kids without LD and/or ADHD and/or related psychological issues managing social situations and regulating his own behavior. I explain that while we have expectations for our son’s behavior and consequences for misbehavior, he can’t always be held to the same standards as kids without these challenges. I recommend articles to them, and I tell them to feel free to ask me questions or tell me their concerns.

What positive perspectives and behaviors have you and your child developed in the face of family misunderstanding?

Lynn: Ryan has learned how to contribute to any family event by taking on a chore or task that makes him useful to others.

Katy: My son is especially sensitive and compassionate toward family members who seem to feel lonely or “left out” at family gatherings, and he reaches out to them. And as a parent, I have learned to smile and thank well-meaning relatives who compliment me for “finally getting a grip on my kid” (when I know that getting a proper diagnosis and medication are what made the difference).

Anna: You know, life has a way of working itself out. Tom is now 21 years old and is the big loving cousin to the little cousins who have joined our family. He’s a true leader, and they love him. He’s very sensitive to other people’s feelings. When children are mistreated regularly by their peers, they can, with the proper support, grow up to be very understanding and compassionate adults.

Katy: Over time, I guess we all find better ways of dealing with misunderstanding in our families. And as our kids have grown up and matured, they’ve learned how to cope better too. It does get easier, but no one says it will ever be easy.

When it was time for my friends to head home, I gave them each a hug as I handed them their coats. Our connection to each other would hold us in good stead during the holidays. We promised to call each other if we needed support. As Lynn and Anna headed out into the cool autumn air, my heart felt warmer and my spirits brighter.

Quick Tips: More Tips for Managing Family Friction by Anna, Lynn, and Katy (pdf).

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Updated: March 18, 2016