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Navigating Christmas with ADHD kids

During the Christmas holidays our kids’ schedules are often out of whack in regards to meals, bedtime and amount of screen time etc.
The best thing a parent can do is be understanding.

As a mom with ADD and at least one child with ADD/ADHD, the biggest challenges I have had to face as a parent involve the judgment of others, especially friends or family members.

I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard “he’s just being a brat” or “what that kid needs is a good smack” or “why don’t you control that behaviour?”

The many negative comments, criticisms, or suggestions I have heard over the years have never helped, and usually led me to feel inadequate and question my parenting abilities.  There are times that I actually followed the ill-advice of others and chose to be harsher on my children (out of embarrassment) than I would have without an audience. I always ended up full of guilt and shame for not trusting my heart and listening to my own inner voice and intuition.

Children with neurodivergent issues like ADHD often test us and put the spotlight on our parenting in very public situations like Christmas and other family gatherings. As we prepare for such occasions, we are often filled with dread and fear, anticipating criticisms and judgments.  Christmas can be particularly challenging but unless we cancel Christmas altogether or choose not to visit with anyone outside of our nuclear family, we need a plan. 

We set ourselves up for failure if we buy into the unrealistic Hallmark idea of what Christmas should look like without any drama or mess.  We hope (and demand) everyone to be on their ‘best behaviour’ so as not to elicit the negative judgments or remarks from visiting family members but we need to be realistic with our expectations.

During the Christmas holidays our kids’ schedules are often out of whack in regards to meals, bedtime and amount of screen time etc.  Expectations on them are unfair when a perfect storm is created in their environment which no longer feels safe to them. And power struggles never work. What they are eating may trigger them, the threats we use to coerce them into compliance (no present from Santa, etc.), and our own stress from the added work, expected chaos and anticipated judgment from others.  It is common for our kids to react to all of this with their own stress, anxiety, and resistant behaviour.

Please acknowledge the connection between sugary food and hyperactivity or anxiety in our kids. Most parents of children who are neurodivergent (especially ADHD) will attest to the fact that too much sugar (and other food sensitivities) can contribute to volatile situations.  Neurodivergent people who don’t have control over their emotions or impulse control can become quite agitated by food that negatively affects their bodies and minds. Unlimited access to pop, chocolate, sugary foods (and other trigger foods) can set these individuals up for huge failure. Please read How can I use diet to improve ADD and ADHD? - Prince George Citizen.

It is important for parents of children with issues like ADHD to realize that many people don’t understand what it is like to parent a neurodivergent child – especially those who have never had children or have very outdated ideas on child-rearing.

I think it is a good idea to practice beforehand what to say if/when disparaging remarks are made by people who feel compelled to share their unwarranted parenting advice and discipline strategies.  Communication beforehand may help by sending an email or having a phone call with those who are coming to visit, explaining the difficulty of the situation and expectations, asking them to have patience with your child/children and to give them some information to educate them on the condition (ADHD or other neurological disorder) that affects your child so that the symptoms and traits of the disorder not be interpreted as misbehaviour and bad manners.

Explain that kids with these disorders get overwhelmed and anxious, and often have little emotional and behavioural regulation when triggered. If communication is not possible beforehand and/or you have to intervene in the middle of a ‘situation’, it’s best to take the individual(s) to a private place to speak, rather than in front of everyone else. 

Ask for understanding, help and collaboration in a way that you know would be more effective than what is happening in the existing dynamic.  During communication that is uncomfortable, it helps to avoid blame or defensiveness. Vulnerability goes a long way even though it is scary. Saying something like “Christmas is a hard time in my family because… It doesn’t help me when people do/say… I really need your understanding and support… I know you mean well and you are trying to help but could you please do/say this… (or don’t do this or say that) when you notice…. Some great scripts can be found in an article in the ADDitude Online Magazine: ADHD Family Dynamics: Dealing with Difficult Family Members (

I have tried this tactic with my own family and it is helpful as long as I am not angry or putting them on the defensive. This is hard, as our own emotions are often charged and our impulse may be to lash out. However, blame is not received well and will most likely be met with a combative response rather than loving understanding.  And with our own partners, it is important to “turn to each other, rather than on each other” when dealing with dynamics and judgments of in-laws, friends or other family.

Sometimes the best way to diffuse a situation is to distract or remove ourselves and our child in order to have some one-on-one time if they are struggling. Children who are prone to anxiety in group settings need their time alone or one-on-one to feel safe. This is a good way to reconnect with them also, and acknowledge they are overwhelmed.

When things seem chaotic and stressful, what we can control is our own perception (how we think), our triggers (what sets us off), what we say (our communication), and how we react (our behaviours). It may be helpful to do a check-in with ourselves and try to self-manage through mindful exercises like deep breathing, prayer, affirmations or declarations. My personal practice of self-care during stressful times is to remove myself and retreat to a private spot, and declare that I am Safe, Loved, Present and Worthy, and that I Trust and Surrender my own negative attachments to the dynamic. And then I pray for Guidance to find the Loving Way and try not to take anything personally (much easier said than done).

To conclude, ideally, we want to avoid the following energies at Christmas (or any events) where our children may act out:  Judgeent, Shame, Guilt, Comparison, Criticism, Control, Power Struggles and Competition, Overwhelm, etc. And it helps to identify and name the energy so we don’t become emotionally dysregulated ourselves. It helps to practice patience and understanding, adjust our expectations, have open clear and vulnerable communication and sometimes simply remove ourselves and/or our child(ren) for a break from the group energy.

I have been in the trenches navigating this issue many times, sometimes choosing the loving way but often engaging in power struggles that don’t end in peace and resolution. I have been educating myself for years on the topic of relationship and communication and have written several articles on this topic.

Here’s hoping your holidays are full of love, connection, presence and as much peace as possible.

Claire Nielsen is a health coach, author, public speaker and founder of The information provided in the above article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health and medical advice. Please consult a doctor, health-care provider or mental health practitioner if you're seeking medical advice, diagnoses and/or treatment.