In Israel, with a 6 day school week, we have just one full day per week when we’re left alone to tackle the joys of parenting. For many, Shabbat represents a day to relax, play games, eat great food and catch up with family and friends. For families affected by ADHD, things are rarely that simple!
We all want our children to have a healthy circle of friends and Shabbat brings multiple opportunities for fun, relaxed peer interactions that enable friendships to form, develop and thrive. In many households, shabbat is the most looked-forward-to day of the week, but for families dealing with ADHD, it can be a day filled with dread…
Dread that their child will disrupt the synagogue service.
Dread that no one will want to play with their child.
Dread that their child will hurt another child.
Dread that their child will be paralysed by an anxiety that will cause them to alienate themselves from other children.
Dread that when they see another child crying, it’ll be because of something their child did.
Dread that their child will be rude, or break something, at somebody else’s house.
Dread that no one will ever want to invite their family back because of their child’s behaviour.
These feelings of dread are real, they hurt and they can be exhausting. As a parent of a child with ADHD myself, I decided that there had to be another way and made it my mission to develop strategies to make shabbatot more bearable for our family and others like us. What I found was that, through gaining an understanding of the working of our child’s ADHD brain, and adapting our approach accordingly, we were able to create a shabbat environment that was not only bearable but, dare I say it, enjoyable!
As you all know, this year, Rosh Hashanah runs straight into Shabbat, creating a rare 3-day triple-whammy! With the fun and festivities just a few days away, I thought there was no better time to share what I’ve learnt and see if it can be of use to anyone else.
So, here are my top 10 tips for surviving the 3-day chag (or any Shabbat) with your ADHD child…
1 Preparation, preparation, preparation!
Children with ADHD are impulsive and do not always react well to unexpected situations. Each morning, make time to go through the schedule of the day with your child so that there are no nasty surprises for them. If there is a part of the day that they are not looking forward to, help them prepare a plan for how they’ll get through it smoothly and discuss exactly what you will do if things start to go off course.
2 Motivation, motivation, motivation!
A key difference in the brains of children with ADHD, when compared with other children, is their significantly reduced capacity for self-motivation. As parents, we can compensate for our children's lack of internal motivation by introducing external motivators.
All too often, those motivators come after the child has displayed unwanted behaviours, in the form of punishments, which are not enjoyable for the child or the parent, and only serve to perpetuate a cycle of failure and disappointment.
You don’t have wait for a breakdown to occur to start introducing motivational strategies! Instead of reacting to your child's undesired behaviours, create a plan that actively motivates your child to display desired behaviours. Set them behavioural targets to achieve throughout the day and incentivise them with regular small rewards, such as smiley face tokens, that can be saved up to earn real prizes, such as a movie night with a parent or pancakes for breakfast. Keep pointing out and praising met targets, however small, and you’ll see how quickly a cycle of failures can be transformed into a cycle of successes.
3 Be clear about what you want, not what you don’t want
It’s not enough to tell children to ‘stop causing trouble’ or to ‘behave’. They may not understand what it means to ‘behave’, leaving them in an impossible situation where they want to do the right thing but don't know how and are doomed to fail. We need to be clear and specific about the behaviours we hope to see and be sure they understand what we’re requesting and have the ability to carry it out.
So, ‘stop causing trouble’ might become ‘make sure everyone takes turns, one at a time’ or ‘please play with the ball outside so that nothing in the house gets broken’.
4 Be prepared to get down and play!
There are some families where the parents get to spend Shabbat eating, schmoozing and schloofing while the children are off playing like little angels. For families dealing with ADHD, that is rarely the case. Our children’s different brain wiring necessitates a different style of parenting, so sometimes we just have to forget our schloof and start interacting with our child and their friends.
Our presence as a role model and ally can be hugely beneficial to our child’s chances of success and, you never know, you might actually enjoy it! Our involvement can literally mean the difference between our children having the confidence to express themselves fully and freely, and them being left on the sidelines, incapacitated by fear and insecurity.
5 Avoid people who just don’t ‘get it’
There are people who just don’t 'get' ADHD, and never will. You know the type I mean; The ones who share articles on social media about how ADHD is ‘a fake disorder’ and tell us that all our kids really need is some 'good old fashioned discipline’.
If spending time with these people makes you feel like bad parents or makes your child feel like they’re the ‘problem child’ then stop spending time with these people. A child’s sense of self worth is far too important to allow anyone to trample all over it. As difficult as it is, when someone like that invites your family for a meal, the answer needs to be 'no'. Make an excuse, or whatever it takes, but remember that your child’s mental health and well-being comes first. And if these people are such close friends that it’s unthinkable for you never to share a meal together, then arrange to see them without the kids, or allow your child to go and play at a friend’s house when you are with your friends.
It’s even harder when it’s a family member that isn’t 'getting it' because sometimes interaction with them can be virtually unavoidable, especially at chaggim time. And often it is their criticisms and comments that hurt the most. But as tough as it is, the principle remains the same. Your job is to protect your child from anyone who is causing them harm and if that means you need to take a rain check from this year’s family dinner or that a few stern words need to be shared with that family member, then so be it.
6 Find the people that DO ‘get it’
If there is one thing I’m sure of, it’s that you’re not the only family in your community that is dealing with the challenges of ADHD. There will also be numerous other families experiencing different challenges with their children who, for whatever reason, don’t fit into the traditional Little Miss/Mr Perfect category.
Find these people. Introduce yourself, become friends and socialise together. Suddenly, you'll be able to relax in the knowledge that you are around other members of ‘the tribe’ and that you’re all in the same boat together. Nobody will be judging anyone else’s parenting, no one will be worrying about spilt food, and nobody will be getting angry when they find out your child has painted their bathroom walls in nail varnish. Or blocked the sink with LEGO bricks. Or given the dog a haircut.
7 Be loud and proud and educate the masses
So there are those that ‘get’ ADHD and there are those that don’t and never will. That leaves one other group of people - the ones who don’t get it yet, and this is a much larger group of people than you think.
I know that when our children are having one of their meltdowns in public, it can feel like everyone is judging us and we just want the ground to swallow us up. But ask yourself this: Are you the sort of person that routinely judges others without full knowledge of their circumstances? If the answer is no, then why assume that others are judging you? In my experience, most just want to help in whatever way they can. I've also found that most people are compassionate listeners and would genuinely love to have a better understanding of ADHD.
So let’s speak up about the challenges of ADHD and create more allies in our community. When given a clearer explanation of how ADHD affects our children, most people will respond with kindness and understanding and will be much more patient and forgiving of our children’s mistakes and mishaps.
8 Always be on your guard
Hopefully, by this time, everything is going just swimmingly! But, as we all know, our ADHD children’s 'Ferrari brains' can go from zero to full-blown-pandemonium in the blink of an eye.
We need to be regularly checking in on our child, to make sure that all is going well and everyone is happy. In time, we will develop the ability to not only recognise when things have gone pear-shaped, but to also identify the tell-tale signs that appear just before things are about to go downhill. Things are so much more pleasant when we manage to intervene in time to prevent a potential flare-up from ever occurring, instead of waiting until blows have been exchanged and tears have been shed.
Our ADHD children have lower levels of awareness and sensitivity to social cues. They cannot always tell when others are getting annoyed by them, so we have to play detective and be ready to step in if necessary.
9 Never leave home without your ‘First Aid-DHD kit’
So how do we intervene? Our interventions are not supposed to be punishments and shouldn’t feel like them. Step in and tell your child how impressed you’ve been with their behaviour so far and that you think it’s time for a break. Then pull out your pre-prepared ‘First AidDHD kit’.
Whether it’s a carton of your child’s favourite drink, a special toy that you brought from home, or a card game that they love to play with you, don’t leave the house without a couple of tools that will make them want to take a time-out from what they were doing and spend a little time with you. This gives everyone a chance to calm down, take a breather and refill their ‘gas tanks of tolerance’, before they go again.
10 The key to happiness is realistic expectations
The feelings of anger and frustration that we feel when our children misbehave are the direct result of unmet expectations, and if there’s one thing that can be guaranteed to bring about unmet expectations, it’s our own unrealistically high expectations. As an adult with ADHD who is the parent of a child with ADHD, if there's one thing I've learnt, it's to always expect the unexpected.
All your child really wants is to do well and make you proud. Never forget that. But the fact is, they are going to make mistakes. Lots of them. And often, they can’t help it. Whilst we can’t control or predict what surprises they’ll present us with at this year’s Rosh Hashanah table, we can control our expectations and we can control the way we react to their mistakes. So, when the inevitable calamity strikes, and your body tenses up, and all you want to do is scream at your child, just pause, take a deep breath, and remember that they want to be ‘good’, but sometimes it’s just too difficult for them.
I’m not saying you should let your child off for what they’ve done. They need to learn that their mistakes have consequences and that they will need to put right any damage they’ve caused to anyone or anything. But when the disciplining is over, don’t forget to hug them and let them know you understand how difficult it is for them to always be ‘good’, that you still love them as much as ever before and that nothing can change that.
Whatever they’ve done, make the decision to deal with it from a position of love and compassion, instead of anger. Not only will it make you feel better, it will also do wonders for your child to know you’ve got their back, you don’t blame them and that they’re not riding alone on the roller coaster that is their childhood with ADHD.
Do you have any other top 3-day chag survival tips? I'd love to read about them in the comments section below!
I wish you all a happy and sweet new year, and a 3-day chag full of fun, inspiration and lots of hugs. One thing you can be sure of is that it won’t be boring and, if all else fails, take comfort from the knowledge that the next 3-day Rosh Hashanah is not until 2024!