Survive the Holidays
A chat with Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW
“REMEMBER TO PUT YOURSELF IN YOUR CHILD'S SHOES,”
says Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and consultant
specializing in ADHD in adults, with a special focus on women. “No
one likes to feel out-of-control and dismissed.” Matlen advises
parents of children with ADHD to prepare for the season emotionally and
to work with not against the ADHD, “even if your plans have to be
A past coordinator of Eastern Oakland County CHADD in Michigan and a
nationally recognized speaker on ADHD, Matlen is the author of
Survival Tips for Women with ADHD (Specialty Press, 2005). She
created two websites, momswithadd.com and addconsults.com. She
is certified as a Senior Certified Coach (SCAC) through the Institute
for the Advancement of ADHD Coaching. Matlen runs online coaching groups
with Tara McGillicuddy at addactionclub.com, and she is also a community
leader of the ADHD Allies community on Facebook. As a woman diagnosed
with ADHD and the mother two young adults, one of whom also has ADHD,
Matlen has a very personal perspective on the disorder and how to manage
How do you keep children focused on projects
assigned over the holidays, but still allow time for a "break" from
That's a great and difficult question. I would start off with a powwow
with your child to discuss a plan and come up with a schedule that works
for both you and your child. Kids need to feel like they have some
control and therefore are more apt to go along with the program.
I would come up with a plan so that your child has time off to enjoy the
holidays yet doesn't neglect his school projects. Perhaps working
forty-five minutes per day works for him or maybe he does best chunking
with, say, fifteen-minute sessions three to four times per day.
The best solution, though, is to work WITH him on a plan instead of
enforcing what YOU think is best, then revisit how this approach is
working and tweak as necessary. I would also suggest that if he is on
meds, he stay on them during break if he needs to focus on such things
as school work (among other things).
Each Christmas my son gets stuck on a toy and becomes totally
absorbed by it. He will not notice anyone, any other toy, or any other
activity for days and days. If we ask him to participate in anything
that requires him to move his focus off the toy to something else or
someone else he greatly resists. It is a source of holiday angst. We
want to spend time with him and help him to have a life engaged with the
family, but the toy becomes the center of it all. Any guidance on what
we can do to help decrease the power of "the toy" and increase his
social competence and enjoyment?
It's hard not knowing how old your son is, and I'm also wondering about
a few things. Is ADHD his only diagnosis? Is he on the correct
medication dosage? In general, again, a plan needs to be made AHEAD of
time instead of dealing with this in the moment.
You can make up a schedule of time when he can play and when he needs to
socialize. Now for many kids with ADHD, especially if there are
co-existing conditions, being in the middle of a lot of chaos and
commotion can be overstimulating. A normal reaction to that might be to
retreat and play with toys.
You need to gauge if he is having a sensory overload due to the company
and excitement of the holiday, and if that's the case, maybe reconsider
his need to "chill" with his toys. There may need to be some compromise
here if that's the case, where you ease up on your expectations a bit.
If he's able to move away from his toys, even for a short while,
compliment him for doing that.
During the holidays our family—with both Jewish and
Christian sides—has a lot of activities. Sometimes they even tire
me out! How can we help our pre-teen daughter, who has ADHD, appreciate
them for what they are and stop "hating" (her word!) going these family
That is a tough one because many kids her age dislike these kinds of
activities. Add ADHD to the mix and it's just more difficult. I would
have a discussion with her and perhaps allow her to not attend every
single event. If it's hard on you, it is much harder on her, given the
So if there are a few events that are not mandatory for her, consider
letting her stay home from those. If not, then ask her what she thinks
will help her "get through" them better. Again, it could be something
you aren't aware of—such as sensory overload—in which case
you can help her come up with some solutions for that.
I have ADHD and this year's holiday gathering will be at my
house. I feel unprepared; especially to deal with all the holiday tasks
(meal prep, gift buying, travel arrangements for other family members).
How can I best prepare myself ahead of time?
I have written extensively about just this! Those of us with
ADHD must, must, must figure out ways to make holidays work for us. It's
important to find ways to simplify all of these tasks, and also to learn
to ask for help. My main message for all of you dealing with the stress
of the holidays is figuring out what works for YOU. Not what is EXPECTED
For example, if putting a large (or small!) meal together just puts you
over the top, think of ways that work for you. For example: Ask others
to pitch in by bringing in side dishes or order some, or even all of the
meal, from a catering company. Or even go to a restaurant and pick up
In my case, for example, I had a gang in from out of town for
Thanksgiving. I knew I couldn't manage cooking for everyone (we've had a
number of family crises lately), so I talked to my family and we all
agreed that the importance of the holiday was not the food, not the
decorations; it was about being together as a family. So I went out an
hour before dinner and picked up all the food at a local restaurant!
As far as making traveling arrangements for family and so
forth—you need to let others pitch in to help you with all these
details. We tend to want to put on a tough front, that we are capable
and able to do things like everyone else, but in reality, we often NEED
more help than others.
Think of all the things you need to do. None are ADHD-friendly. So I
suggest allowing ourselves to reach out, to make changes in how we "do"
holidays so that they work for us.
My son is on medication for ADHD to help with getting school
work and homework done. Since school is out for a week and a half, do I
still have to worry about giving him his pills? Or can we skip it for a
while and see how he does?
The first thing I would suggest is to discuss this with his doctor, as I
am not a physician and cannot give medical advice. That said, kids (and
adults) with ADHD have symptoms when they are at school, home, and
anywhere else. My vote has always been to continue taking meds—if
the doctor suggests it—because ADHD is with us 24/7.
We know that the meds help with more than just focusing at school; it
helps kids maintain themselves behavior-wise, which makes them happier.
No one likes to feel out of control or less capable of doing things due
to hyperactivity or distractions.
How can I deal with other family members who don't understand
ADHD? Family can sometimes be so critical of my child's behavior. I feel
like everyone is on edge this time of year as it is. Factor in my son's
behavior (he is seven years old) at holiday gatherings and it can be
I always advocate for education—getting people to read
about ADHD. Sitting down and explaining it to them—what it means,
how the symptoms express themselves and how it's not a character flaw,
but a REAL medical disorder—can help.
Criticism of the child should not be allowed. You might want to pose it
in a different way. For example, you could say to the critic, If a child
had a visible disability, like a visual impairment, would you expect him
to do certain things that are too challenging, if not impossible?
If it is so awful that your child is reacting to the negative comments,
I might consider not being part of such gatherings. Your child's
self-esteem is more important than that. You need to be firm with the
family members who are unable to understand the behaviors.
To help your son, find out what works for him during the holiday
gatherings. Perhaps he does better eating in a quiet room, away from all
the people, but can then join in for dessert. It's a difficult situation
when people don't understand and then criticize.
We want to try visiting friends during the holidays, and
Thanksgiving visits with friends didn’t go too well for my
twelve-year-old son who has ADHD. He stayed outside because he was too
overwhelmed with even small groups of people. How can we prepare him for
the next visit? We want him to socialize. Should we bribe him with a
We sometimes forget how difficult this is for our kids. Noise,
changes in routine, and so forth can be overwhelming! So we need to come
up with alternative plans. We need to change our expectations; yet kids
also need to learn coping skills.
One idea that works well is to have your child wear earphones or use an
iPod to help filter out noise. That alone can help a lot. Of course, you
want him to socialize, too, so come up with a plan where he takes them
off on a regular basis, but that he knows that when he gets overwhelmed,
he can put them back on.
Find areas in the home where he can retreat for downtime, and explain to
him ahead of time that he can go there as needed, but needs to also come
out to be with people.
Rewards: You can try that, but DO keep in mind that what you are
describing—the noise, the excitement—is painful for many
kids with ADHD. Bring a bag of quiet activities he can engage with to
help settle him down. Applaud any efforts of his socializing. Always
have a plan ahead of time so that he doesn't fail.
How can I best prepare my six-year-old daughter for a
cross-country flight? With her ADHD, she can't sit still for ten minutes
let alone four hours.
I had a similar problem when my daughter was that age, though our flight
wasn't quite as long. I purchased a (large) bag of inexpensive
toys—anything to keep her busy!
What I found, which really surprised me, was that when she was buckled
into her seat, she was able to remain fairly calm. The restriction of
the belt helped her. If she's calm in the car, belted up, it might be a
clue. If not, and you don't think anything will help, you might need to
talk to her doctor about medication interventions. Good luck!
I've always found the holidays a bit depressing (partly the
season, partly because it marks the anniversary of the death of one of
my grandparents). My partner is just the opposite—including
hosting a holiday open house with a hundred of our closest friends.
(I’m kidding on the size, but still a big party!) All this frenzy
isn't good for our nine-year-old, who is pretty hyperactive to begin
with. Do you have any thoughts on how to find the balance here?
Compromise is the key. Perhaps your partner can invite fewer
people, for one thing. Holidays often make lots of people depressed. You
need to think about your needs and your child's needs.
Ask yourself: what would work for me and my child? If he can't handle
it, allow him to retreat at times to his room. We have to stop forcing
ourselves to go with the status quo during holidays. They are supposed
to be fun, happy times, not grueling, stressful ones.
My eleven-year-old stepson will be spending time over the winter
break with his mother's family and with our family. Whenever he comes
back from her house he is out of sorts, presumably because his routine
is disrupted. How can I help keeps things consistent?
Good question and a difficult situation for all. As you know,
consistency is key. Whoever is in contact with his "other" family, needs
to coordinate things. Find out what time he goes to bed, gets up, types
of foods, activities he's used to, and try and keep as much of the
routine as possible the same.
By out of sorts, is it also possible that there's emotional "stuff"
going on? Perhaps he's stressed or anxious or depressed. These things
need to be figured out. Talk to him and get some clues. Also, make sure
his meds are the same at your house as they are at his mother’s
In a large-group setting comprising family and other people, how
can we handle the interaction between the children? Our eight-year-old
son, who is impatient, looks very rude to other kids. We feel as if we
have to reprimand him; but how?
I'd think more about educating versus reprimanding him.
Reprimanding doesn't offer life lessons. Practicing beforehand is
helpful. Set up situations you think will come up and ask him how he
will deal with them.
Teach him how to share, how to listen, and how to play by role-modeling
with him. Teach him that when he feels he's getting out of control or
impatient, to come up with a "scripted" explanation or statement and
then have him remove himself from the group as necessary.
My elderly mother-in-law is arriving on Saturday for the
holidays. She can only stand my two kids, who have ADHD, in small doses.
I've hired babysitters for two afternoons, but I'm not sure how to
handle this situation. It is my house, after all! My kids are very
lovable—but they were definitely not raised according to the
"children-should-be-seen-but-not-heard" idea. Help!
Good plan getting sitters in! That is a great solution, though obviously
not enough of a solution. It IS your house and you'll need to talk to
both your mother-in-law and your kids to come up with a plan.
For example, give your MIL ways to get away from the chaos if she can't
handle it—suggest she find places to retreat to when she gets
overwhelmed, because it's not possible to control two young kids who
have ADHD over a period of a week or so.
Also, find activities for your kids that can keep them quiet at times
(though I know that is also not very practical in the scheme of a whole
week). Your MIL needs to understand that the kids cannot help their
behaviors all the time, and so she'll either need to adjust her
expectations or consider staying for a shorter period of time—or
finding a different place to stay.
It IS a difficult situation for all. Again, open communication as to
what everyone thinks can work (not sure your kids are old enough), but
it's worth a try. You may also need to educate your MIL about ADHD.
Do you have tips for a single parent around this time of the
year? It is all so much to have to worry about.
Yes, it IS a lot to worry about. By using the word
"worry,” is it possible that you have expectations of yourself
that are not fair, given your situation? If so, what DOES work for you?
MUST you do all that you THINK is expected of you?
Adults with ADHD often have a very hard time saying "no,” but it's
something we all need to learn how to do. We tend to say YES because
we're people pleasers, which may stem from childhood experiences of
feeling bad for not being able to keep up with others' expectations. So
think about what you CAN and WANT to do and make the holidays work for
During holiday get-togethers with family, my child's worst ADHD
symptoms seem to come out, especially when he is around other children
that he doesn't see very often. What is the best way to prepare him in
advance for these family gatherings?
Often times, these behaviors are exhibited more when a child is feeling
stressed, nervous, worried and overwhelmed. He may be feeling inadequate
around other kids he doesn't know.
Role playing ahead of time can help; giving him cues and "scripts" to
have in his toolbox, so to say, for when the time comes to connect with
these other children. I also feel children with ADHD become
over-stimulated easily and need ways to get away to calm themselves
I'd discuss with him a plan for calming himself as well: going into a
quiet room to settle down, bringing a toy that he likes, iPod, etc.
Whatever he does at home that is calming to him.
It is so hard for children who are trained to receive rewards to
learn discretion when it comes to gifts. They are always expecting
gifts, no matter how many discussions we have explaining NOT to ask. How
do I help my child develop better present-receiving manners?
This is a problem for many kids, let alone kids with ADHD. Our
society has promoted this via advertising, etc. Again, planning ahead is
the key. Role-play and practice with your child how to be appropriate
with gifts. This could also be part of his impulsivity. So lots of
practicing will be needed.
Do you have any recommendations for ADHD-friendly gifts, either
for a child or an adult?
In general, for kids, if they are hyperactive, give them toys that make
them MOVE! There are loads of toys that are fun but also teach skills;
for example, small trampolines for small children with motor deficits
are great. Also good are beading, crafts, mazes, and so forth, for
improving fine motor skills.
I actually think that some video games are good. I think there's too
much criticism about that. For adults, some women hate jewelry but love
computer games. Go with what they want, not what you think they should
Disclosure: My husband bought me an electronic paper organizer! I could
care less about jewelry; I loved the idea of organizing my home office!
There are also great purses with tons of pockets to keep women
organized. Men might appreciate electronic gadgets that are fun but also
helpful in keeping organized.
My boyfriend and I are thinking of moving in together, but he is
awful with finances and goes really overboard with gifts. I'm trying to
learn and be understanding about his ADHD, but it's hard. Is bad money
management just part of the territory here, and I should accept it, or
can he get better? Beside my mortgage, I've never bought anything
without being able to pay for it in cash. He already has a huge Visa
bill. What should I do?
Yes, difficulty with money management is a very common part of adult
ADHD. Accepting that it's a problem is important, but that doesn't mean
accepting his behaviors in dealing with it.
He may need help in curbing his impulsive spending. I would suggest a
therapist or counselor who specializes in ADHD. There are also support
groups for compulsive spending. And there's ADD and Your Money by
My partner also has ADHD and really, really enjoys giving
holiday gifts—and not just to family, but coworkers, neighbors,
the mailman, the paperboy. Giving gifts is great, but it's not cheap and
I dread the credit card bills every January! How do help him to tone
down the money side of giving gifts without being Ms. Scrooge?
Is it possible that he's a people pleaser and uses gifts so that people
will like him? Maybe it's time to have a talk with him about why he
feels the need to give so many gifts to people. If he feels he is unable
to stop that behavior, then ask him to compromise and come up with
things that either don't cost anything (cards) or are inexpensive. Give
him positive feedback for his wanting to give so much, but kindly point
out the damage it does to him. There are workarounds that you two can
What would you say are the three most important things I should
do for my child who has ADHD to make the upcoming holiday as enjoyable
and memorable as possible?
First, prepare him! Does he have strategies that help him to stay calm
and not to get over-stimulated? Work on scripts/strategies he can put in
Second, change his/your expectations. Don't expect him to be a hundred
percent appropriate during all the excitement. Accept that this is
actually a difficult time for him and other kids with ADHD.
Relax. Chill. Have fun. If you truly begin to accept ADHD in you and
your loved ones, lots of these things will be less important and you'll
roll with the punches much better. If you go IN expecting disaster, it
Instead, make accommodations for you and your child, like the time-out
room for settling down, not for punishing. Give your child the tools he
needs to stay calm and happy. Lastly, make the holidays work for YOU! If
your child does better eating away from a large group of people—in
front of a TV even—let him!
We need to make rules that work FOR ADHD not against it. Accommodations,
too. Work with not against the ADHD, even if your plans have to be
nontraditional and different. The idea is to celebrate the holiday and
be with those you love.
Remember to put yourself in your child's shoes. No one likes to feel out
of control and dismissed or punished. I hope you all use some of these
tips and make it a great holiday for you and yours.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of
Attention magazine. Copyright © 2011 by Children and Adults
with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). All rights
reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without written
permission from CHADD.