Parties with baked goods and candy. Wanting to play outside during that first snowy day. Days, if not weeks, of time off from school. Disrupted schedules.
The holiday season gives more than gifts. It also takes from a child’s routine. While a bit of change can be refreshing for all, nonetheless, for those dealing with attention difficulty, a move away from the usual grind can prove to be disruptive. Fortunately, holiday time need not be stressful family time. Narbis spoke with mental health experts to get their list of tips on how to keep your family’s holidays less naughty; more nice.
Tip #1: Keep things positive.
Whether it’s craft time in school or an impromptu performance during an afternoon of mingling with the aunts and uncles, the holidays offer plenty of opportunity to provide positive feedback on children’s behavior. The compliments stand to pay off into the new year and beyond. “Positive, meaningful feedback is integral to a child’s learning,” says Dr. Elena Villanueva, medical professional and chief health coach at Modern Holistic Health in Austin, Texas. “Frame comments in a way that conveys pride and encouragement,” she continues. The applause need not just be for making a great snowman or singing in harmony with the cousins: Positive reinforcement can extend to praising your child for staying occupied on a long car trip or sitting quietly while Great Aunt Lynda is dominating the boring conversation among the grownups.
Tip #2: Keep things healthy.
As anyone who’s weighed themselves the first week of January is aware, during the holiday season, snack food awaits at every turn. While some sweet treats are part and parcel of this time of year, the brain can’t run on sugar cookies alone. “Implementing a diet rich in vitamins and phytonutrients is necessary for optimal function,” Villanueva says. “Make their plates colorful with dark leafy greens, assorted vegetables, healthy proteins, and healthy fats—get them excited about eating the colors of the rainbow!” Hosting your family’s holiday function? Have fun with that fruit or crudité platter and arrange snacks in fun designs to pique your child’s interest! Check out Pinterest or Instagram for inspiration.
Moreover, chewy snacks can help bolster alertness and concentration. Chomping on nuts, beef jerky, or fruit leather provides an easy way to get moving and release energy while remaining seated. “Movement increases brain alertness and will make getting through mentally tough tasks easier,” says Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, an expert on pediatric mental health based in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Anything to get through being asked “how’s school?” a dozen times, right?
Tip #3: Keep things moving.
Cabin fever can be a real thing, folks: the shorter daylight hours and colder temps might make parents hesitant to let kids go outside. Regardless of the time of year, sitting around all day—whether in a classroom or in front of the gaming console—is going to leave kids itching to get active. And during the holiday break, by all means let them. “A moving body cultivates a motivated mind,” says Villanueva.
Think of the winter months as a treat: Get into the spirit of the season and get outdoors! Live in a snowy climate? Go sledding, build a snowman, or simply bundle up and go for a walk. Live in the sort of place where you could go out into your yard and decorate a palm tree? Take advantage of the cooler temps and get your kids to work up a sweat for longer than feasible during the summer. In any event, physical activity will allow them to unplug from digital devices and forge true holiday memories. When your kids look back at their childhoods, they’ll be more likely to remember building a snow fort with their relatives over the holidays than playing Fortnite for five hours. Plus, physical activity will help get the kids tired out and collapse into bed at a reasonable hour.
Tip #4: Keep to (at least somewhat) of a schedule.
Travel times, the lack of school, and the general excitement of the season can mean missed bedtimes and an abundance of unstructured time. For families facing attention difficulty, this can mean all of the concentration and focus honed during the school year can go out of the window. A bit of wiggle room to relax is okay; but it can help to sketch out rough blocks of time to make behavior and attention seem more manageable for your child. “When we feel like we have much time to get something done, we typically procrastinate and let ourselves get pulled in by distractions,” says Tania DaSilva, clinical director at Behaviour Matters, a therapeutic mental health practice in Toronto. “Think about when you have a short deadline or when the kids’ project is due the next day; everyone gets laser-focused. With this in mind, create short time frames or self-imposed deadlines to get your child to stay hyper-focused.” Make a game out of holiday chores: Challenge your child to write five thank-you notes in an hour; get a certain number of pages of winter break reading within 20 minutes; or to get suitcases packed in a half hour. Offer positive reinforcement and a reward when they meet their goal, such as a piece of chocolate from the tin or 20 minutes playing with their new toy. (Hint: you can use these same tricks to help you get through assembling that dollhouse you thought was a good idea for a gift.)
While a change of routine is often welcome, for families facing attention disorders, the schedules, sounds, and stresses of the holiday season can bring as much of a challenge as it does joy. By implementing many of the same ground rules as during the school year, your child can enjoy the winter break without losing any headway made on focus and concentration—and might get some exercise to boot.
Plus, if the stresses of the holidays are getting to you, what better excuse to escape your mother-in-law than to join your kids for a walk?