Simplifying the Holiday Season with Your Neurodiverse Family: How to prevent stress and foster joy

Family of four warming up by the outside fireAs the holiday season unfolds, my clients and friends express feeling very stressed. Some people have a long list of gifts to buy and wait until the last minute to do their shopping. Some schedule back-to-back social plans and celebrate with gusto. Other folks dislike the holidays altogether and would prefer to hide in bed under the covers until January. In general, everyone seems to be in a state of perpetual motion, running from one thing to the next, trying to get things done and seeing family and friends. This pace is not only challenging to maintain, but it’s also especially hard for kids and adults with ADHD who get easily overwhelmed, even without the holiday fervor. How can you create experience that is fun, rewarding and calmer for you, your neurodiverse family? Get ready for simplifying this holiday season.

1. Simplifying the holiday lists, errands and tasks

Start with a mindset of “SIMPLIFY, not COMPLEX-IFY.” Usually the holiday overwhelm comes from one or both of two main sources: (1) leaving things until the last minute and (2) trying to do too much.

Let’s face it—EVERYTHING takes longer than we think it will. If you start planning your tasks with that mentality, and give yourself more time to do things, the process will go much more smoothly.

Strategies for simplifying holiday tasks:

1. Shorten lists and outings

Neurodiverse family shopping at the mallMake a master list, and then break it down into shorter ones. Ideally, your family might stop at 1 or 2 places in one trip, but plan for no more than 3-4 different places in one outing. Strategize by mapping out where you need to go beforehand, and group places together that are near each other.

2. Teach while you lead

Teach your kids with ADHD to practice simplifying, too. Help your kids learn shopping strategies by explaining what, why and how you are doing things when you go out together to run errands.

3. Take breaks to rest and re-connect

Schedule in a break for hot chocolate or tea to break up the trip. It will encourage you and your family to reset between one stimulating environment and the next. Check-in with yourself and each other to see how you’re feeling and if you’re ready for the next stop.

4. Acknowledge your accomplishments

Sometimes we’re so overwhelmed with what we know we still have to do, we forget about how much we’ve already accomplished. Be sure to cross things off your (shortened) lists when they are completed. You can do this yourself, or ask your kids to assist you. It’s easier to see and remember your accomplishments this way.

2. Reducing the number of social engagements

Teen at a holiday party closing her eyes and holding her hands up to her face like she's stressed out

The holiday season is usually jammed packed with things to do, people to see, and places to go. As parents, we have to take into consideration how much our ADHD children and teens can actually tolerate, process and enjoy. Sometimes you have to curb your own desire and capacity to do several things in a day in order to help regulate what your kids can really manage.

Part of the holiday stress for ADHD kids and families comes from having too many of these activities in a row and not enough ‘down time’ to process them. When your ADHD daughter has a meltdown at 6 p.m. because she doesn’t like the mac and cheese, it probably has nothing to do with the food and everything to do with unloading steam from holding it together for so long throughout the day. Simplifying the holiday tasks will help, but you also have to consider how many gatherings and social engagements are truly necessary for a happy holiday season.

How to cut down on the ‘squeeze it all in’ mentality–together:

1. Sit down with your family, and decide how many activities in a day you each can really handle this holiday season.

2. Talk about what constitutes ”down time’ for each person, and make sure it includes something that is settling rather than stimulating. Limit individual technology use, and encourage quiet activities, such as playing games, reading or listening to music. Maybe watch your favorite family holiday movie. Write down these ideas and post them on the refrigerator so people can refer to them when they are most needed.

Good luck, and Happy Holidays to you and your family!

Family laughing and playing dominos at the coffee table

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