Coping with Holiday Stress and ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

The holidays are the most wonderful time of the year and also one of the most stressful times of the year for parents of children with ADHD. The excitement and changes in routine make it much more difficult for children with ADHD to manage their emotions and behavior. While you cannot fully prevent behavior challenges during the holidays, there are things you can do to make them less likely to occur.

Here are five key strategies to help your child manage their ADHD symptoms this holiday season:  

  1. Focus on reducing your own stress before trying to manage your child’s emotions and behavior. The most important thing you can do to help your child this holiday season is lowering your own level of stress. The most effective way of reducing stress during the holidays is by keeping things as simple as possible. Think about what is truly essential for you and your family when it comes to family commitments, holiday events and gifts. Set firm boundaries. To protect your own emotional health and the emotional health of your family, make decisions based on what is best for your family and not based on the expectations of others. Make sure you carve out time for yourself, even if it’s just a few minutes of alone time each day and talk to supportive friends and family whenever you have the chance. Lastly, remember that things don’t need to be perfect for your children to have a wonderful and memorable holiday season. What’s most important is that they spend quality time with the people they love the most.
  2. Maintain as much of a routine as possible. Children with ADHD need routines to manage their emotions and behavior. So, during the holidays, incorporate as many elements of your typical daily routine as possible. It’s often easiest to carry routines forward when you focus on consistent wakeup and sleep times and consistent meal and snack times. Then everything else can fall into place around that schedule.
  3. Keep unstructured free time to a minimum. During the holidays it’s normal to want to relax and allow your children to have more unstructured time during the day. The challenge is that when children with ADHD have too much unstructured time, their emotions and behavior become difficult to manage. So, limit unstructured time to periods of 30 minutes or less, and provide access to fun, structured activities throughout the day.
  4. Avoid situations that consistently lead to meltdowns. If you know that certain situations always lead to meltdowns, like taking your child into a store, visiting friends or family in the evening when your child is tired, or attending a crowded holiday event, avoid those activities this holiday season. This may sound like common sense, but it’s often not as easy as it sounds. There may be things that you would really enjoy doing or feel like you need to do this holiday season, or activities that have become family traditions. But if something has consistently led to a meltdown in the past, the chances are high that it will be problematic again this year. Your best bet is to skip the outing altogether and reevaluate next year when stress levels may be lower, and your child may be more mature.
  5. Use the ‘when-then’ rule to encourage good behavior. It can be hard to use rewards to promote good behavior during the holidays when children are already receiving so many gifts and treats. Instead, use the ‘when-then’ rule to promote good behavior. When you do the thing you need to do, then you can do the thing you want to do. For example, when you clean up your toys you can play with your new video game. Using this strategy repeatedly throughout the day will help your child follow through on instructions and will keep procrastination to a minimum.  

The holidays are stressful when you have a child with ADHD, but they are also an opportunity to make wonderful memories and connect with family and friends. Keep things as simple as possible, create as much structure for your child as you can, and take the time to appreciate the special moments as they happen all season long. 


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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