Holiday season. For some families it’s a time for cookie baking, quiet evenings around a fire wearing matching elf pajamas, hot cocoa after an afternoon of sledding, and perfectly wrapped gifts complete with big ‘ol bows around each one.

Oh, wait… I think that’s just the image I have after looking through too many holiday catalogs over the weekend!

Well my family? We’re more like the National Lampoons Christmas. No joke.

To be truthful, the holidays are never a time of relaxation for me. It’s more like a perfect culmination of chaos, volatile emotions, short-tempers and threats that Santa will be bringing a lump of coal..

I know many other parents of kids with ADHD who agree with me — holidays can feel like they just suck. Those oh-so-important routines you’ve spent the past few months establishing are eviscerated. Defiant behaviors multiply. Meltdowns happen faster than you can say “deck the halls”. 

And all the while, your family is there to observe your red-hot-mess.

Some families don’t hold back their opinions about how you parent or the fact that your child appears to be unruly, defiant or in need of more discipline. Other families hold their tongues – at least until after you’ve left. 

It doesn’t matter though, does it? Having a family audience to your everyday ADHD craziness can be enough to send parents into their own mini-meltdowns.

The anticipation of what is going to go wrong can be overwhelming. Will you be able to avoid a meltdown at the dinner table? Can you keep impulsive behavior at bay at game night? How will you do sleep routines in an unfamiliar / uncomfortable setting? What if my kid acts ungrateful? 

The thought of all that is likely to go wrong is enough to make you want to stay home and cancel the rest of the year.

And yet… we all know that the holidays can be more than this worry. We know – and hope, and wish – that the holiday season has the potential to be memorable, joyful, and rich. 

So we keep coming back year after year torn between the dread of the ADHD-fueled chaos and the hope for something different and more meaningful this holiday season.

Of course, a little chaos is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we have to give into the gray-hair-inducing level of stress most of us are accustomed to weathering for the season. If you’re committed to making the next holiday less stressful than the last, here are six tips to help everyone enjoy the festivities more fully.

1. Lower your expectations. Of everybody.

Disappointment and frustration is most visceral when the expectations you have set are vastly different than what reality offers up. One of the best ways to minimize disappointment? Change your expectations.

Remember your child’s executive age and support him at that age. Do not expect him to act older than he is able. Remember, your 9-year-old may be less mature in executive function than his 7-year-old cousin. 

Those differences become very obvious when your child is in the middle of a tantrum while opening presents and his younger relatives are looking at him in confusion. Not to mention you can literally feel the silent looks of judgment coming from the adults in the room.

As for you? Stop comparing yourself to the so-called-Pinterest moms. Stop trying to pretend like there isn’t anything different about your family. Stop expecting yourself to “perform” differently  as a mother or father while under the microscope of holiday gatherings. Embrace a bit of the chaos that your family brings to the party and have grace with yourself.

Everyone has heightened expectations and emotions over the holidays. The highs are going to be higher and the lows are going to be lower. If there is tension or extra activity in the house your child will absorb it. While you don’t have to bend the rules for your child, you do need to expect that intense behaviors are going to peak and self-awareness is going to wane.

2. Keep the rules simple and top-of-mind.

With so much activity and so many people to interact with, it’s natural that your child’s “working memory” will go almost entirely out the window. The one thing you can do is remind your child consistently and make sure that everyone is aware of the expectations.

Combat impulsivity through well-defined rules and point-of-performance reminders. Make up a few “reminder-cards” with the rules at Grandma’s House or at the Holiday Gift Exchange. Keep the rules clear and simple (remember our whole lowered-expectations-deal from above…) and review them before you go in. 

If you need to take a break and review them mid-event, do it! If you need to dangle a little carrot in front of them for extra motivation, go for it. 

Keep your rules to a minimum, repeat them often – if they can be visual that’s best – and practice them if they are “forgotten”.

3. Keep your own emotions in check.

We all need a little bit of mindfulness around the holidays, especially where family is concerned. Family has a way of getting under our skin and affecting how we react.

For example, does anyone else turn into their former 16-year-old-self when they go home to see their parents? It’s not just me… is it?! I’ve become very aware of this little phenomena the past few times I’ve been home with my children. When I’m feeling 16 all over again, I know my mothering capacity is limited. I certainly lose my ability to stay centered and grounded like I can when I’m feeling my adult-self.

Whether you have a crazy sister-in-law or your father’s political banter is enough to make your blood boil, family has a way of impacting our emotional state — and as a result our own reactions — unlike anything else. And when we are feeling on-edge, we often take it out on our kids. We have shorter fuses and our own heightened emotions – about things that have absolutely NOTHING to do with our children.

Be sure your reactions to your child’s behavior – or misbehavior – are based on their needs – not some other family baggage you’re dealing with. 

Before you head to your holidays (or before you open your doors to company), create a  plan about how to personally stay aware of your emotions and to re-center yourself when you’re inevitably pulled askew.

4. Don’t neglect downtime.

Many of us are guilty of making (or agreeing to) wall-to-wall holiday plans during family visits. Whether it’s going into the city, visiting a museum, going to a movie, shopping, baking 20 pies, or simply being surrounded by family or friends 24/7, we usually feel the urge to stay entertained.

While it’s OK to ensure that your guests are having a good time, it does not always require that you or your child participate in every activity. Be sure that you and your child have built in time where you both can calm your minds, take some space, and “turn off” the activity. 

Need some ideas? Read a book take a nap, go for a walk, put together a puzzle, do a crossword, or Sudoku, or play quietly with a new toy (preferably not a screen-based one). Just unplug from the holiday hubaloo for a bit.

Honoring  the downtime your child needs  will go a long way in maintaining their behaviors – and your sanity – during the holidays. 

Of course, you may feel awkward telling family to go see the sites or do something fun without you, but honestly… start to get over it now.  Once you start to build those boundaries you won’t regret it.

5. Request ahead of time that your family  respect your routines and needs.

As much as you can, try to stick to your child’s routine – whether it’s early morning meditation, specific chores, behaviors you’re trying to encourage, or specific rules  or boundaries that you maintain.

Request that your guests and family members honor these routines and needs as well. This may mean that you explain your child’s schedule so that plans can be made around it, or it may mean sharing specific behaviors that should be encouraged (politeness, sharing, etc.). It may also mean telling your family your absolute “No Go’s” – the rules everyone must respect in your house (jumping on the furniture, running, yelling, etc.). This is especially helpful if you have younger family staying with you so that the rules remain consistent, and it helps the adults know what behaviors to prevent or stop.

The most important aspect of this step, though, is making sure that your family doesn’t directly or indirectly undermine your attempts to help your child. Whether it’s grandparents giving out excess candy or cousins encouraging a hyperactive game of tag (which you know is going to end in disaster), you need everyone on your team this holiday season.

Sometimes these conversations need to be had ahead of time so that if there is any misunderstanding or if emotions get heightened for some reason, you have time to diffuse the situation, resolve any concerns, and enjoy your holiday when it comes.

Note: In the interest of lowering our expectations, remember that this is not the time to introduce new expectations or routines. Maintaining status quo is often the key to holiday survival.

6. Let It Go… of what your family thinks, that is.

Queen Elsa had it right. Letting go of what our family thinks is often the key to our own happiness.

We all have weird relationships with our family and the vast majority of us have an emotional investment in what our family thinks of us and whether we are “good” parents… or not. But many of us who are raising kids with ADHD know that you cannot judge another’s parenting skills unless you’ve been there, done that. Our families don’t always know that.

And it doesn’t matter. Really. It doesn’t.

Of course, you may have a family member who thinks your child’s ADHD is “not a big deal” or that it’s a fake disorder. You may have family members who think your child is struggling because you “just don’t discipline enough.”

Then again, you just might be wrongly assuming what your family thinks because you’re worried about their judgment. I know that happens to me sometimes. Something my son says triggers an incredible amount of embarrassment in me and I automatically assume that my family is appalled and judging my parenting skills.

But many times I’m wrong. I think many times my family — and yours — are quietly wondering how in the world we are getting by every day with everything coming at us. They are probably quietly wondering how they can help you make your life easier. They might even be thinking that they could never do what you’re doing. Family isn’t always good at expressing our angsty, ambiguous feelings with each other. So before you assume the worst, try to stay mindful and give everyone a little grace.

But there are the unfortunate readers among us who really do live in the land of judgment with certain family members. And to you I first say, “Welcome to the Honestly ADHD community – a place where we don’t judge, we do educate, and we do support you! I’m glad you’re here!”

And then I say, if you aren’t able to get emotional support from your family regarding your child’s ADHD, then you need to stop trying to do so. Period.

So before you go shoving a pie in Uncle Ed’s face after he tells you that your kid “just needs a whipping,” take a deep breath and give up the need for his approval. Set your boundaries. Accept Uncle Ed for what he does bring to your life.

This isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen overnight. But remember, moms and dads, YOU KNOW BEST. Even when you don’t know the answers, you still know better than anyone else at the holiday party. Do not allow a family member’s ignorance to compromise your sense of worth or your child’s well-being. 

You’re doing what is best for your child and their opinions do not change what you know to be true. Oh, the irony… knowing that being the best parent your child could ever ask for sometimes means that certain family members will always think you suck at parenting.

Happy Holidays, Moms and Dads! May you all get through this holiday season with a measure of sanity and joy.