10 Tips for Happy Holidays

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D

The holidays are always exciting, but for some children with learning challenges, the excitement can be overwhelming. Following are a handful of hints, tips, and strategies to ensure that your family’s holidays are merry and bright.

  1. Stick to the schedule. Many children with ADHD and LD rely on daily routines to self-regulate, but during the holidays—just when the need for self-control is highest—routines often go out the window. The better you can maintain a regular schedule, especially around meal times and bedtimes, the better off your child will be.
  2. Incorporate breaks. Children with ADHD are often expected to sit through long holiday meals or parties that are boring to them. Have exit strategies or ways to take breaks before the situation deteriorates. Let any rigid relatives know the plan so there isn’t conflict over being excused.
  3. Prepare for social situations. Holidays often include heavy socializing. Getting together with family and friends, attending parties, and having houseguests all can take their toll on children. If your child has trouble with large groups, create small groups within the bigger ones (e.g., pull two cousins or Grandma and Grandpa aside). Give him time to check out the scene and warm up. Devise strategies for managing problem situations ahead of time (e.g., how he might avoid getting cornered by an annoying cousin).
  4. Focus on talents. Children with LD that struggle with self esteem may have a hard time at family gatherings when faced with extravagant praise for cousins on the honor roll, starring in the school play, being accepted to colleges, etc. Make sure your child’s strengths are represented too. Highlight his interests and achievements, or give him a special role, such as family photographer—that will remind him that we’re all special in different ways.
  5. Monitor moods. Excitement is great, but it can be over-stimulating for some. Parents tell me that they don’t get it when their child acts up or withdraws at a much- anticipated party. Be aware of the clues that say “it’s enough” and have break times planned, or find some way that’s graceful to take time out. It might be important to take a walk or do something quiet to prepare for the excitement later.
  6. Provide structure. Don’t underestimate the importance of structure during the day. Children sometimes struggle when there isn’t the structure that helps them anticipate what’s happening. Preview the day’s activities. For young children, you can even draw pictures to show the day ahead.
  7. Be aware of your child’s sensory needs. If he’s sensitive to touch, being hugged repeatedly doesn’t feel good and will provoke him. Many children are sensitive to loud noise, so think about the decibel level of activities and how to avoid the loudest situations. Some theaters have special showings for sensitive children.
  8. Invite participation in planning. If your holidays include travel or even a day trip, include your child in planning for it. Let her choose what to bring, whether a favorite toy, game, or snack. It teaches good executive functions and makes her feel involved.
  9. Take care of yourself! Holidays are often a hard time of year for parents. Too many of us “survive” the holidays and are running on empty by the end. Make choices that make your lives easier, and take some time for enjoyment.
  10. Have realistic expectations, even if it means scaling back your plans. Too long a day, too much time between meals, too many activities or too big a crowd—all of these make us less than our best. Holidays are not the time to expect magical character change! Plan to enjoy, not overdo, and everyone will have a good time.

Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders.