Living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Our New (Old) Christmas Tradition

Our family has had to find a new way to celebrate Christmas. My daughter suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as well as some significant developmental delays due to prematurity. After she was about two years old, Christmases became very rough. We realized after a couple of years that she did not handle the stimulation of Christmas well. Actually this is quite an understatement. She doesn't handle it at all. The year that she was five is when we realized that we had to do something different.

That year we had celebrated Christmas in much the traditional way as everyone else with small children. We had all gotten up early with her to see if Santa had come. We opened all the presents, ate breakfast and lunch and tried to find a way to play with all of our new toys at the same time. Because of the ADHD, it was very difficult for her to focus on any one toy or gift for more than a few seconds at a time. All of her other gifts were there, demanding equal attention. She spent most of the day bouncing back and forth between all of her gifts (and the wrapping paper and boxes and music and food, etc.) I realize that this is normal behavior for many children, but she reacts much differently to such stimulation than other children do.

By about 5 or 6:00 that evening, she was standing in the middle of the living room, hopping up and down and flapping her arms. Her face appeared as if she were silently screaming. Her head was thrown back and her eyes were glazed. I went to her to see what was wrong (I was afraid it was a seizure of some type). As I touched her shoulder, she erupted. That one tiny bit of stimulation from my touch is what sent her over the edge. Her system was totally overloaded and could not tolerate any new stimulation. We finally ended up swaddling her in a big blanket, laying her in the middle of our bed, turning off all of the lights and sound, closing all of the blinds, etc. We were trying to remove all outside stimulation from her world at that moment. As she lay in our bedroom, my husband and I rushed to put away all of the gifts, the tree the decorations, etc. It took her about 2 to 3 hours to calm herself down enough that she was able to function again.

After this incident, my husband and I decided that we would never put her or ourselves through this again. We spent the next several months debating how we were going to handle Christmas the next year. We considered not celebrating at all, but that seemed a little drastic. We considered limiting her to only one gift, but that seemed to be cheating her.

After several months of debate and reading about Christmas traditions in other countries, I came up with an idea that has worked for us for the past several years. It has made Christmas enjoyable for us again and has enabled her to avoid all of the overstimulation of the season.

Now, Santa comes on Christmas day and brings her one gift (the main thing she has asked him for). He fills her stocking and ours too. There is also usually one small gift from Mommy and Daddy. This way she has all day to concentrate on her one gift without being distracted by many other toys and gifts.

Then, each morning for the next 12 days, we celebrate the "Twelve Days of Christmas." Each morning she has one small gift to open. It may be a book or a puzzle. On the Sundays that occur during these twelve days, she usually gets a new Sunday dress to wear to church that morning. If her first day back at school occurs during the 12 days, she usually gets a new outfit to wear to school that day. (I often get these clothes at the Goodwill or thrift stores.)

By spreading her Christmas out in this way, we avoid the overstimulation this is so difficult for her. She always has a whole day to concentrate on just one gift. It has also made Christmas more convenient for us as well. We are often able to take advantage of after Christmas sales for some of her gifts as well as having one or two more paydays to apply to the purchase of the gifts. One other advantage that I did not anticipate is the opportunity to correct oversights or mistakes. One year there was a gift she really wanted but did not tell us about it. She only told Santa (who forgot to pass on the news to me). When that gift was not there on Christmas morning, she was very disappointed. Lo, and behold, that afternoon, we found a note from Santa that had gotten "lost" under the tree, telling her that he had left her gift at the North Pole and would deliver it in a day or two. This gave us a couple of extra days to get her one major request.

Some of our friends look at the way we celebrate Christmas and say that we're spoiling her and that she will always expect to celebrate Christmas this way. I hope she does. We have found it to be very rewarding and much more laid back. I have seen my friends collapse at the end of Christmas day because of the frantic pace of the day. We don't do that anymore. I really don't think we're spoiling her, either. By spreading it out, we are able to give her more, but many of her gifts are not things that I would have normally made a Christmas gift. They're just items that I would have been buying for her anyway, but by wrapping them and giving them to her on one of her Twelve Days of Christmas, it makes them just a little bit more special.

We also make sure that she understands the reason that we celebrate Christmas. We usually sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus and often put candles in a cake, pie or donut for the baby Jesus' birthday. We read the Christmas story from the Bible and sing Christmas carols.