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Tips for Handling the Holidays with ADD

For at least the past 5 years, we have not had a Christmas tree, decorated for Christmas, or really done any Christmassey things. That may sound surprising for a minister’s family, however, I am also a person with ADD. Decorating for Christmas, participating in tons of events, and general holiday stuff is not enjoyable to me and only causes stress for our whole family.

Many people with ADD have a very hard time functioning when their environment changes, which happens a lot around the holidays. I have not enjoyed many parts of the holidays since I was a child, and I could never quite figure out why. Other kids loved the decorations, the parties, the new clothes, the daily rituals their family had throughout the month of December. Most of that caused anxiety for me. I appreciated all my family did, especially my mother. I was so proud of the love and care my mom put into our holidays. At the same time, I was anxious, scared, and I felt overwhelmed, like I was drowning. Turning the window and outdoor lights on and off every evening felt like an extra task that was just far too confusing for me and it made me panic. Everything was beautiful, but it was also crowded and new. Changing out the everyday dishes for the Christmas Spode made me feel like someone just asked me to build a house from the ground up. The parties were loud and scary, and I often had to take time out to go to my room and read or draw just to calm my brain down enough to spend more time with those I love. The multiple parties and events and changes in school schedule made me feel totally confused. I felt like I had no idea what was going on hour to hour and I was lost and untethered in a tumultuous world.

These are common experiences for many people with ADD or other brain health disorders. Last year I wrote two posts about how the holidays can be very disruptive to people with dementia, if we do not take into consideration their needs. (5 Tips for a Successful Holiday for Your Loved One With Dementia and Decorations and Dementia: A Few Things to Consider.)

I have a husband and a 12 year-old son, and years ago we all decided as a family that we did not want to decorate for holidays or participate in many holiday-like things. None of us enjoy the increased amount of work. Plus, the chaos and changes it creates in our environment makes it harder for me to function because a big change in environment is very hard for my brain to handle. We have an agreement that if any of us feels the need for decorations or other traditions, we will talk about it and see if we can find ways to make it happen.

Often, other people it this is weird, or bad parenting to not have a Christmas tree, an Elf on a Shelf, colored lights outside, or even Christmas gifts. However, we feel this helps us live our values. We value supporting each other and living each day with love first. Many of the traditions around holidays make it so much harder for me to function that we can’t live our values of being present for each other and others in our community. If I decorate the whole house and have the lights on every day, but it overwhelms me so much that we can't have friends over, then we are not living our values.

None of us should feel guilt or shame about how we celebrate the holidays. We all have different internal and external resources. Many people cannot afford lights, a tree, or gifts. Some people have physical or mental illnesses that make them unable to have a tree, or unable to participate in large volunteer opportunities.

If you are feeling guilt or shame due to limited ability around the holidays, here are a few tips. Remember to involve your whole family and any close friends in the discussion.

  1. Reflect on: What do the holiday means to you? What values or lessons do you want to focus on?

  2. Find accessible ways to live those values. For example, you may value volunteering, but participating in the huge church community meal for the homeless may be too much for you to do. Find a smaller volunteer opportunity, one that is shorter in time, or one you can do from home. For example, you could make toiletry kits for the homeless that you drop off at a local shelter.

  3. Write down what traditions you really want to have, if any. How can you make those traditions happen? If you always baked cookies with your mom for Christmas, maybe that is the tradition you want to keep, but you bake 2 types of cookies instead of 10. You can choose not to do any or all of the traditions you were raised with, and you can even create new traditions that are more accessible for you.

  4. Are decorations important to you and your family? If so, how many and what kinds? Can you handle moving furniture, hanging garlands, and changing the curtains? Or, can you keep the decorations to one box of items that are easy to put out and easy to put away?

  5. Are parties important to you? If so, what kind? Do you want to have a big party that you host with a fully set and decorated table and a menu that has matching elements? Or, do you want to have a causal party with friends and family where everyone brings one dish to share and it doesn’t matter what it is?

  6. What events are important to you? How can you make sure you get to them? I admit that all the school events and concerts and changes in work or other schedules stress me the heck out. Not because any of those things are bad or I don't like them, but because a consistent schedule is essential for me and when my schedule changes a lot, I miss appointments. I have three different alarms set to remind me of my son’s holiday concert and early dismissal because I will forget and one alarm will not be enough. I need to be reminded often enough that my brain remembers the event. Many of my nights during the holiday season are filled with nightmares, such as me missing appointments and events and then I wake up in a panic in the middle of the night thinking I forgot to pick up my child from somewhere. The more I try and keep my schedule consistent, limited to values-based events, and I set up lots of reminders, the better I do.

There will always be people in your life that will judge you and/or not understand why you can’t go to a ton of parties, why you don’t have a Christmas tree, why you missed an appointment or why you “just can’t handle the holidays like everyone else.” That is more their problem than it is yours.

I find that if you can talk to your family and friends honestly about what is going on for you and what your abilities and limitations are, that they are more compassionate. If you talk to them about how much you value them and talk about how you want to meet their needs, as well as your own, they are much more understanding.

Good luck this holiday season and take care of yourself!

Remember, the holidays are about focusing on living out your values, not how many lights you hung up, gifts you gave or received, or how pretty your house looks.


Rev. Katie

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