Four Tips for Navigating Tricky Family Relationships This Holiday Season

family outdoors at a candy stallWhile being with our family and extended relatives can be rewarding, fun and loving, very few people actually live the Hollywood depictions of holidays and family gatherings. Instead, many of us spend our time together carefully navigating a field littered with unexpected potholes, tripping up and stumbling around. Old wounds, frequent misunderstandings and difficult conversations can make special events challenging.

For people living with ADHD, there is the added layer of dealing with relatives who don’t understand or believe in neurodivergence. Whether it’s unwanted advice about being more organized, unhelpful tips for disciplining kids and embarrassing tales about your history of lateness, the holidays may not be everything you wish they were. What can you do differently this year to survive and enjoy the family gatherings?

Set Limits

cookiesMany people with ADHD are triggered when they see relatives because these folks may have hurt you previously with criticism, judgments and lectures about the exact things that make you  neurodivergent. Yet, you can’t change the past. Since you’ve arrived at this holiday event, it’s safe to assume that some part of you wants to be there. Regardless of how anyone acts or speaks, you don’t have to lower yourself to their level. Reflect on and set limits in advance of the gathering what you will and will not tolerate. Maybe write these down on your phone or in your journal. The more that you feel empowered, the better you will feel about your own responses. 

Make Choices Which Work For You

feet in front of the fireHigher levels of stress lower our capacities to think clearly and increase our tendencies for becoming dysregulated. It can be beyond frustrating when your extended family lets you know that you (or your child) are acting ‘inappropriately’, that you lack persistence and that you have unfulfilled potential. Disapproval never feels good and fuels the shame and blame game over and over. Despite being mightily triggered, you can make alternative choices to keep yourself in check and protected. 

Choose not to buy into whatever toxic patterns are around you. Instead, remember that you are a smart, creative and worthwhile individual, regardless of whatever misguided or unkind things anybody says. If you are wrestling with this, consider how your favorite superhero, caring friend, coach, educator or any respected public figure (e.g. Superwoman, Batman, your first grade teacher, LeBron James or Michelle Obama) would act in this situation and what they might tell you to do. 

4 Tips for A Pleasant Holiday Season

woman playing in snowSince we can’t expect ourselves to be perfect in these intense get-togethers, we need a set of tools to assist us in getting through. Think about your ultimate goal for this holiday season and what it means in your family to get along. Then follow these four steps for creating more holiday calm and cheer: 


1. Do not import what other people are exporting: The first thing to do is to put on your Teflon suit. Whatever someone says to you, no matter how ignorant it is about ADHD or mental health issues, shows you more about who they are and less about who you are. Holidays are probably not the ideal time for education but if you have a few key facts at your fingertips, you may be able to teach instead of react. For example, Here are three good ones: 

    1. About 9-10% of all children and teens in the United States have a diagnosis of ADHD and approximately 5-6% of adults do too. 
    2. ADHD is a biologically-based, often inherited condition that affects attention, learning and behavior. 
    3. ADHD has nothing to do with laziness or willpower and is a condition that affects emotional regulation too.

Acknowledge any frustration they may be expressing about a trait or behavior related to ADHD without trying to convince them otherwise. Use these (or other) and direct them to a website or two for more information. Then, arm yourself with one or two practiced responses to maintain your self-control. Possibilities include: “Thanks for your feedback. I will consider that.” Or, “I would prefer not to discuss ADHD right now. Let’s just enjoy our meal.” 

2. Line up your support team: If you were a world class cross country runner, there are several things you would do to prepare for the race. First, you would train to gain strength and stamina. Secondly, you would eat well and make sure to get enough sleep. Thirdly, you would surround yourself with people who believe in you, who encourage you and who help you in times of need (a bandage for your knee when you trip or water along the route).

When visiting your family, you will also need a support system. In advance of the visit, talk with caring friends or other close relatives who understand ADHD about the challenges you may face at holiday gatherings. Brainstorm a few responses to any troubling situations. Then, plan to eat, rest and get some exercise when you are there. Taking care of yourself allows you to be present and respond instead of react. Lastly, use your support system as your lifeline: text or call folks when you are overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated or sad. You don’t have to handle things alone so don’t.

3. Avoid controversial topics of conversation: Stick to neutral areas of communication. It’s perfectly acceptable to let people know you don’t want to discuss something, excuse yourself from the table or go to the bathroom to regroup. There is no need to suffer through a discussion that is upsetting you or your children. Pick your moments to play this card carefully and do it calmly without blame. You are allowed to take breaks. Ignore whatever feedback you may receive and text one of your lifelines for virtual advice or a hug. Be clear and clean in your communication too. If you happen to get worked up or even lose your temper, be accountable, apologize and move on. Everybody trips up sometimes and this was your moment. That’s okay. Just stay off the shame spiral so you don’t over apologize or take on humiliation that isn’t yours. 

4. Focus on what is going well: It’s easy to look at what isn’t working, what could go better and what you wish others would say or do rather than their actual words or actions. But this will only increase your frustration and the likelihood that you will lose your cool. Instead, focus on what is going right. Small or big moments when people expressed kindness, humor, warmth and consideration. If those moments haven’t occurred, that is not your fault. It’s nobody’s fault. People who are related may care about each other but may not get along very well. That’s the honest truth which can be sad and disappointing about families.

But you can shift your perspective to make this holiday gathering different. This is why it’s crucial to notice whatever goes well or well enough. Practice gratitude and appreciation and model this for others. If you need a break during a tough moment, go to the bathroom. Wash your hands and your face and say to yourself, “I’ve got this. I am strong and resilient. I live every day with ADHD and I know how to pivot and move forwards.”