To Merry, Unmarried Holidays: Help for Single Parents of Children with LD and/or ADHD Over the Holiday Season

By: Kathleen Ross Kidder

"Oh, it's a model car," exclaims Jimmy. Brother Billy tears into his box. "A car for me, too," he says, "but mine is better than yours cause it is a car just like the one Daddy has," laughs Billy, a child with ADHD. Billy stands up to taunt Jimmy a bit more. Crack! "Oops," he smiles. "Looks like I stepped on your car." "Mom!" yells Jimmy, just as the relatives arrive. Jimmy hits his brother. Billy bursts into tears. It is time for another holiday dinner for Susan Jones, a single parent struggling to bring direction to life! "Oh please, let just part of the day go smoothly," she sighs as she opens the door. "Not a repeat of last year…please!"

For the single parent the holidays can bring additional stress. For single parents of children with LD and/or ADHD the stress can be even greater. In the essay "Welcome to Holland," Emily Perl Kinsley, describes what it is like to be the parent of a child with a disability. With excitement, a life-long dream of a trip to Italy is planned. The plane, however, arrives in Holland. Neither a bad place to be, but one the dreamed-for trip; the other, reality.

Single parents raising children with LD and/or ADHD have twice taken the trip. They planned for "perfect children." When they married they did not plan on divorce either. For them the arrival in Holland can be an especially devastating experience or a time to find new strengths that can offer new hope and experiences to their children.

Though many say divorce causes all of the problems a child may subsequently show, Ahrons and Rodgers (1987) in their book, Divorced Families, outline the different kinds of experiences children can have. "The sky is not falling" as Henny Penny suggested, they state. When parents work well together child do remarkably well. This takes a lot of work by very special single parents.

Holiday stress

Many single parent families experience additional stress around the time of the holidays. Parents worry about who will have the children. If one parent initiated the divorce the holidays can elicit guilt because the family setting is not "perfect." The parent who was rejected may still be angry and feel a need over the holidays to punish the other parent for the less "perfect" holiday. For them, arrival in Holland is a fate for which punishment must always be rendered.

When there is a child with a learning disability or ADHD, the picture becomes far more complex. Family stress exacerbates behavioral patterns associated with the disorder. Structure routines are altered and the child feels the stress.

Can I get mom and dad back together?

Holidays are also a time when children can recall family fun — even if the family event was less that fun! They may plan on how they can help get the family back together. Sometimes this is clear. "Mom, can Dad come over for dinner and spend the night?" Oftentimes, though, parents may get caught in a system that brings them together even in spite of plans. A child may act out in school. The school calls and both parents discuss the problem. The child learns that acting out brings mom and dad together. Unconsciously, then, a child who has inadvertently been reinforced for acting out may respond over the holidays with poor behavior. Poor behavior gets mom and dad talking. This can be heightened if parents get into competition for the "best present." Children do not learn the value of giving. They learn that with manipulation between parents it is possible to "get" more things.

Add to this teachers who say the problems lie in the "broken home", grandparents who do not understand the divorce or the concept of a learning disability, and sister, Sue, whose children are absolutely "perfect" and the holidays can create a very rough ride for many parents!

Holiday exhaustion!

And, as if all of this were not enough, holidays bring heightened expectations and preparation that vanish in haste once presents are opened. Preparation brings exhaustion. Exhaustion only fuels fires of stress and tension, which can disturb the delicate balance of the routine of a home with children with LD and/or ADHD. Preparations and holiday gifts also add the ingredient of commercialization and the lure of high priced items for the possibility of gift giving success.


In Family Matters: The Impact of Learning Disabilities Family Relationships, Dr. Judy Grossman, writes that "Reactions to a child's personal and academic struggles and differences in child-rearing practices may create conflict or tension in a marriage. In addition, problems in marital relationships may spill over and impact feelings of adequacy and competence in the parental role. When there are unresolved marital issues, a child may become the scapegoat for family problems." Holidays can bring so many ideas of what parents expected for family holidays, past holidays and feelings of sadness that can elicit statements designed to hide true feelings. Since children with ADHD/LD can have difficulty with impulse control and reading social cues they can often be closer to the center of frustration.

Holiday worries

Single parents can worry about so many things.

  • Where will I be? I do not want to be alone over the holidays.
  • Can I match the gift? Their father has so much money. The kids will like his presents better.
  • Will they be with the new "partner"? Will that be disaster? Will that person try to take my place over the holidays?
  • When the kids misbehave I will be blamed..no one understands the impact of ADHD.
  • S/he is just like his father/her mother.
  • The other parent is just like the child. He can't sit still either. He will never remember to bring them home on time and he will have them all excited when they return.
  • When they come home the kids will hate me again. Dad will tell them it is all my fault that their holidays were ruined by the lack of a family.

Single parents need to focus on what they can control. Children need all of the love they can get. Kids respond to time and love. An extended family with new "step parents, grandparents, siblings" adds more love. This is not love that replaces the parents' love. It is more support that can help a child know s/he is valued. There will be worries. Parents who can focus on what they can control - spending a good holiday with their children will be special. Gifts may seem to make the holiday but all research shows that all children really need love and value that love above any material gift a parent can give.

Tips for single parents during the holiday season — and the rest of the year.

  • Make time for yourself during the holidays. Do at least one activity you love.
  • Knit a sweater, play the piano, or go jogging.
  • Take advantage of offers that others give you to sit for your children.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Find creative ways to be with the kids in a fun way.
  • Don't sweat the small stuff.
  • Get along.
  • Respect the other parent.
  • Limit the number of items that must go back and forth between houses.
  • Plan to share and volunteer.
  • Give up guilt.
  • If you will be alone make plans - a movie, dinner with friends, volunteer or a trip to somewhere you have never been.
  • Trust your child's strengths.
  • Respect each other's time schedules.

Gift lists for sharing single parents

  • Help your children make their gift lists. They can write the list or even draw the pictures. Share this list with the other parent and plan for the holiday.
  • Take pictures and make photo albums or disks of photos to share with the other parent. The children will love the attention and each parent has a wonderful memory. Share these with the grandparents too.
  • Make a calendar that has copies of all the great work your child has done during the first months of school.
  • Give your child the present of a tutor rather than the expensive toy that will be set aside soon after the holidays. Let your child discover the joy of success and evenings at home without all of the fights about homework.
  • Give your child an bonding experience. A trip to a museum or the beach will be remembered long after the toy is broken.

An important holiday gift

Give yourself the gift of enjoying "Holland." Enjoy the holiday season.

Kathleen Ross Kidder (2001)