Safely Home for the Holidays

This is a busy time of year, complicated even more by navigating family needs during a pandemic. ADHD can complicate seasonal planning in the best of times. So, how can you manage this year’s holiday season, with its traditions and obligations, while managing ADHD symptoms and your family’s health?

We asked ADHD experts and writers for suggestions. Most of them offer a similar piece of advice: Let go of expectations (especially ones that come from family, friends, social media, or ads) and focus on the few things you need to create a happy experience for your family.

Letting go of expectations includes the tradition of large family gatherings. Many states are asking families to limit indoor get-togethers to 10 or fewer people and to keep celebrations to just those in your household or closed “bubble.”

“The truth is that we’ll likely need to be more careful with each passing day this winter, not less,” says James Hamblin, MD, a lecturer at Yale School of Public Health. “The virus knows no difference between holidays and workdays. Our default should be to treat Thanksgiving as a day when the health guidelines are no different from any other day.”

“There’s a lot of cultural pressure during the holidays,” adds Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We tend to compare ourselves with these idealized notions of perfect families and perfect holidays.”

This year will be different. Dr. Duckworth says to ask yourself what things make you and your family happy. It’s okay to let go of old traditions or ones that we can’t have this year and to create new traditions.

Managing the holidays

The upcoming holidays often bring an all-too-familiar stress of trying to manage celebration, family life, work life, and the keeping of traditions. When you have ADHD, the executive function skills of organization, time management, memory, and impulse management are already stretched. Adding the holiday responsibilities and traditions can result in frustration and disappointment rather than a merry season.

What can you do to manage this holiday season in a way that works for you?

Eileen Bailey of HealthCentral recommends starting with a master list. Include everything that needs to be done, all of the holidays you celebrate, and all of the special family times you hope to create. Then begin to sort the to-do items by priority and date. Then be critical. Ask yourself, for each event and action item, whether the world will come to an end if it isn’t done or isn’t done “just so.”

“Make sure to include self-care on your list of priorities,” she says. “Eat right, get enough sleep, and exercise each day. Take a few minutes each day as down time—sit quietly, listen to music, or take a walk. Caring for yourself will help you stay focused and give you the energy to accomplish more.”

Use your master list along with your calendar to stay on track. Need ideas on how to create your master list and calendar? Marla Cilley, known as the FlyLady, created a Holiday Control Journal that can help you get started.

Strategies to manage the holidays

Now that you have your master list and a calendar, how can you approach holiday management? The experts shared several tips:

Accept that not everything will go as planned and the pandemic means things will be different this year. We are not perfect people and our families are affected by ADHD. There will be a few bumps in the road, traditions have changed, and there will be things that we need to accept as “good enough.” By accepting things as they are, and practicing mindfulness in the process, we can enjoy things as they are.

Be practical in your plans. Celebrations don’t need to be Instagram-worthy events, with elaborate decorations or recipes. Simple, practical outings that bring together your family and friends are more memorable than ones that cause stress and frustration. Going to a park or visiting outdoor holiday displays can provide memorable get-togethers and still allow for social distancing.

Keep family rules simple and maintain routines as much as possible. Review them with your children when necessary; you might consider posting a colorful sign that lists your family’s rules and routines to help keep them in mind. It can also help you stay on track if you keep your daily routine handy, either posted at home or in your daily notebook.

Don’t compare yourself to others. This is a trap that many adults with ADHD fall into—comparing themselves to friends, family members, or even the neighbors, and judging themselves as being less than. When you see brightly decorated houses and social media posts highlighting other people’s plans, it’s easy to be drawn into this trap.

“It is easy to think, ‘they have it all together, why can’t I? What is wrong with me?’” Ms. Bailey says. “No two families celebrate the holidays exactly alike. Each family has different traditions. How your friends or neighbors celebrate should not dictate how you celebrate yours. Instead of trying to live up to what you think others expect, work on creating your own traditions, ones that fit in with your lifestyle and values.”

Involve your family. Ask your immediate family what’s most important to them—what traditions, foods, decorations, etc. You may be surprised to hear that some things you assumed were absolutely necessary aren’t very high on their list. Then enlist their help with prioritizing, deciding what can realistically be done, and accomplishing specific things on the final list.

Looking forward to a merry and bright season

What will your holiday season look like? The answer is up to you. By taking a few steps now—prioritizing your list, filling out your calendar, and keeping plans practical—you can craft a holiday season that brings joy to you and your family.

Resources to help create a happy holiday:

How do you hope make holidays enjoyable for your family?