How to Help Anxious Kids with ADHD

Q: “When the holidays roll around, my kids’ ADHD symptoms get worse. They stay up late, sleep in, and have no daily structure. When family comes over, my younger one retreats and my older one wants to escape to see friends. My family is visiting for a week in December and staying with us. How can I keep my kids from becoming more anxious and stressed than they already are?” — HolidayMom

Dear HolidayMom:
The holidays can be a time of joy, happiness, and family togetherness — or not. For some children with ADHD, this time of the year brings on stress and anxiety. After all, even parents get stressed during the holiday season (and there are quite a few reasons to feel anxious these days).

Here are my top 10 strategies for easing your kids’ holiday stress so everyone can enjoy the festivities.

Holiday Stress Relief: 10 Strategies for ADHD Families

1. Prep Kids for Changes
Head off stress and potential meltdowns by preparing your children for changes in their routines and telling them what to expect when the relatives arrive (or what you expect from them). Role-playing different scenarios can give children the peace of mind and the tools they need to handle unanticipated or stressful situations.

2. Stick to Routines
Children are easily overstimulated during the holidays. The hustle and bustle, extra sweets and treats, and stressed-out parents can quickly lead to an overly anxious child. Children — especially those with ADHD — thrive with consistency and predictability. Stick to your normal routines as much as possible. I find that a predictable morning can lead to a smoother day.

3. Sweat it Out. Outside!
One of the best ways to relieve stress and anxiety is to exercise — especially outside. Make sure your children get plenty of physical activity during the holidays — and join them! Get the endorphins flowing by going for a walk, sledding, having a snowball fight, taking a bike ride, or playing a game of catch. The change of scenery, coupled with the fresh air, will do a world of good.

[Free Download: Sample Schedules for Reliable Family Routines]

4. Play Family Connection Games
Even if the weather is not cooperating, you will still want to get your family moving. Pick games that the whole family can play and enjoy. Try an indoor dodgeball game like Throw, Throw Burrito
(An Order Out of Chaos favorite!), enjoy a family dance-off, or a game of charades.

5. Schedule Downtime
Downtime is also critical to reduce holiday stress and overwhelm during the fast-paced winter season. Even a short break from the action can help children relax and recharge. Make sure there is a quiet place in your home away from all the holiday noise and busyness where they can go to decompress. Spending some quiet time in their rooms or listening to music on their headphones can be the perfect anecdote.

6. Don’t Do Perfect
I’ve said it many times, but it bears repeating: Don’t do perfect, do enough. It’s easy to get caught up in making the holidays perfect with the ideal spread of food and decor, but kids will remember how you made them feel more than anything else. So slow down, enjoy the moments, and don’t focus on perfection!

7. Leave Time for Friends and Fun
Older children will want to have their own plans, too! Even though you might want them around all the time, be sure that they have plenty of time to unwind and have fun with their friends. I suggest having a family meeting before the holidays with calendars in hand. Then clearly state what activities, festivities, and meals your children must attend. This way, they can make plans with friends without any unanticipated changes.

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have ADHD? Symptom Test for Kids]

8. Volunteer
It’s easy to get tied up in fun and the stress of the holidays, but don’t lose sight of what matters most — family, kindness, and gratitude. Giving back is a great way to manage stress while spending time together. Whether it’s helping an older neighbor carry groceries or shovel snow, or volunteering at a local soup kitchen, giving back and helping others always feels good.

9. Prioritize sleep
I can’t stress this enough. Sleep is essential for all children (adults, too!), but it’s especially important for a child who is feeling stressed and unsettled. Try to keep bedtime reasonable and consistent throughout the holiday season. For teens, encourage them to use “dark mode” or a blue light filter on electronics in the early evening and to turn off electronic devices a couple of hours before bed. White noise machines help drown out the noise from a house full of visitors and make for better sleep. If there is a late night, plan for downtime the next day.

10. Create Holiday Traditions
Whether it’s driving around as a family to look at holiday lights (my family’s favorite), baking cookies together, or attending a favorite holiday concert or performance, plan to engage in some fun and meaningful traditions. Anxious children love the predictability that comes with favorite activities that repeat every year. As a bonus, these traditions are the foundation for fond childhood memories. They are often passed on from generation to generation!

Enjoy the holidays!

Holiday Stress & ADHD: Next Steps

ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to the ADHD Family Coach here!

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