Samantha adores her family. But the intricate planning necessary to pull off such gatherings made her anxious. She worried that her ADD or ADHD would make it hard to hold her own in conversations with far-flung family members, many of whom she didn't know well. Inevitably, one of her relatives would make an insensitive or cutting remark to which she didn't know how to respond. She wound up deflated, resentful and angry.
No longer. Now, if a relative uncorks a zinger, Samantha smiles and says "peanut butter." It stops people every time. What can one say to a non sequitur like that? If the prospect of family get-togethers fills you or your ADHD child with dread, follow these steps to make the most of your next family outing:
- Don't assume you're the only one in your family who has ADD/ADHD. The disorder has a hereditary basis. If you have it, odds are one of your relatives does too. If someone behaves inappropriately or says something offensive, consider the possibility that the person might mean no harm. Comments that seem harsh or cruel may simply be unfiltered.
- Watch for medication lapses. If you or someone else at the gathering takes medication, see to it that everybody's symptoms are covered throughout. Nothing makes for a more "interesting" family get-together than having several folks come off their medication at the same time. If possible, schedule the gathering for a time of day when a lack of coverage is unlikely.
- Get help with child care. Even in situations where plenty of adults are around to watch the kids, it's often a good idea to hire a babysitter or two. The extra help will allow you to interact with other adults without any of you having to keep an eye on the kids.
- Keep background noise to a minimum. People with ADD/ADHD often have trouble communicating in noisy environments. When conversing with others, don't stand close to a band, loudspeaker or other source of sound. If you're particularly sensitive to noise, invest in noise-canceling headphones, such as the ones made by Bose. If anyone gives you a funny look, just tell the truth.
- Take breaks as needed. Talking and listening take a lot of energy. If you grow tired of chatting, take a break and join a game of catch. Many people with inattentive ADD/ADHD find high-energy social events too much to handle for very long. If you find yourself overwhelmed, find a quiet place where you can regroup. Take a walk, run an errand or lie down for a nap.
- Burn off excess energy, particularly if your ADD/ADHD is the hyperactive type. Lend a hand in the kitchen, play with the kids or serve drinks. One patient used to feel trapped in the family room as relatives went on and on with their stories. But once he gave himself permission to take short exercise breaks, he found he actually enjoyed his relatives' tales.
Prepare in advance to handle odd remarks from insensitive family members. Imagine that someone says "You look like you've gained weight" or "You need to do a better job of disciplining your child." How will you respond? You might simply smile and say "Thanks for caring about me." If all else fails, you can always utter your own version of "peanut butter."
Michele Novotni, PhD, is a psychologist and a coach in private practice in Wayne, Pennsylvania.