Helping My Son With Disabilities Navigate the Holidays

The holidays are meant to be fun and carefree: no schedules, no routines, time to relax. But what is it like when you are parenting a child who needs routine? What do you do when your child does not function well outside of his or her “normal” day?

As the mother to a child with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety, the holidays can mean either relaxation or disaster.

My son is 9 years old and thrives on regularity. He feels off when his days are not as they usually are. Coupled with anxiety, these “out of the ordinary” days can be unbearable.

My son has been talking about Christmas and the winter break since about June. What will we do? What gifts can he expect? Which family members will we see? Where are we going? To ease his mind, he likes to know what lies ahead. Sometimes this can seem like pestering, but when you know your child’s struggles, you tend to see his questioning in a new light.

To ease into the holidays, we begin by introducing a daily routine around December first. We read a book each day about Christmas. With each day there is an activity to do. One of the first activities was a paper chain that has 25 rings, one for each day before Christmas. The paper chain has allowed my son to have a concrete reminder of how many days he must wait until Christmas. Having an object to concentrate his attention on helps to alleviate his anxiety and questions about how many days till Christmas.

To lessen anxiety about gifts, we allowed him to create his own “wish list” on a website so he would have an idea of what gifts he may get. It may seem silly that gifts would cause anxiety, but when your mind runs all the time, thoughts about what you may get can turn to obsession. The list has allowed his mind to settle a bit and for him to have some control over what he may receive.

In addition to the paper chain and wish list, we also have explained our schedule for the holiday week. He knows the day we are leaving to travel, how long it will take to get there, and where we will be staying. We have given him a general idea of the schedule we will keep and that bedtime will remain within an hour of his normal bedtime. For some children with ADHD, a regular sleep routine is crucial to ensuring the next day will go well.

For those without ADHD or anxiety, the holiday’s endless bustle and surprises can be great. For children who do not navigate change well, it can be overwhelming. Making a few changes can help your child get through the holidays and enjoy time with family and friends.

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