Keeping the Peace: ADHD & Family Gathering Dynamics
The holidays can be a special time of joy, closeness, family traditions, and creating wonderful memories. However, when you and/or some of your family members have ADHD, family dynamics may also be complicated and stressful. Nonetheless, with some planning and a hefty dose of realism, you and your family can still enjoy a happy holiday.
Keep the basics of ADHD self-care in mind. We can’t control other people – their thoughts, comments, or actions. We do have control, however, over ourselves, how we approach a situation and our response. As I always stress with my clients, the foundation of great ADHD emotional management begins with optimizing diet, exercise, and sleep. For yourself and/or your child, even during holiday season, ensuring a relatively balanced healthy diet, regular physical activity, and good quality sleep will have a huge impact on minimizing ADHD symptoms and our ability to regulate our emotions in potentially challenging scenarios.
Educate your Family about ADHD. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about ADHD on the internet. Direct your relatives to reliable sources of ADHD knowledge such as Chadd.org, Add.org and additudemag.com. If you have a strong ADHD knowledge base, explain ADHD to your relatives in user friendly terminology or show them the video “What is ADHD? From How to ADHD YouTube channel. Education about ADHD can transform blame, shame, and criticism to compassion and understanding.
Find your Champions. Surround yourself, as much as possible with those family members that support and understand you and will even defend you in the face of criticism. Let them know how grateful you are and how much you rely on their support and understanding.
Pick and choose your holiday events with care. You can limit your time at events that may challenge you or your child’s capacity for emotional regulation. If Jenny gets bored at Grandma’s after an hour, either limit the visit to an hour or bring along an activity to keep her occupied. If it’s difficult to discuss politics with your brother-in-law without losing your temper, create a plan to remain calm and ground yourself before your emotions escalate.
Anticipate potential challenges and plan proactively. If cousin Jane, predictably criticizes your late arrival or distraction during conversations, plan and rehearse your responses in advance. "Jane, I know you're only saying that because you care and want everyone to be together." Responding with humor or a changing the subject by complementing Jane's scrumptious chocolate torte can also be an effective strategy.
Have and escape plan. If the conversation becomes too distressful, politely excuse yourself to regroup and calm down. Visit the restroom, get outside for some fresh air and a walk, or get yourself a (non-alcoholic) drink. A few deep breathes will do miracles for an agitated nervous system,
There may be events you decide to forgo entirely. Difficult family members can sometimes take a tremendous toll on your own mental health and peace of mind. When despite setting healthy boundaries, certain family members behavior causes you mental anguish, anxiety, or depression – sometimes the only solution is completely avoiding a particular family gathering.
You’re probably not the only one in your family with ADHD. If you or you child are the victim of hurtful comments or unsolicited advice, remember that ADHD is hereditary, perhaps Uncle Marvin or Cousin Emma also has ADHD and struggles with emotional management. So, try not to take their comments personally. (Easier said than done with ADHD rejection sensitivity, I realize.)
Let go of expectations of yourself and your children. It’s hard to banish the fairy tale images of a harmonious family around the beautifully adorned holiday table. However, these scenes exist only in fictional stories or in a single moment captured and posted on social media, but do not exist in real families. Another important reminder, children with ADHD have a 30% lag in developmental maturity. That means your 12-year-old child with ADHD may only be capable of behavior of a typical 8 year old. The best way to avoid frustration and disappointment is to adjust your expectations.
Let go of what your family and friends think. No one can understand you and your family’s unique challenges and therefore they have no right to judge. I realize that the uninvited opinions and comments are very hard to relinquish, but if we can let go, even a little, the emotional freedom is well worth it.
Wishing you all a joyful and calm holiday season!