A Cautionary Christmas Tale

[Editor’s Note: The following blog post was originally published on amomsviewofadhd.com December 2009, 13 months after my son was diagnosed with ADHD.]

Impulsivity is a hallmark of ADHD. We know that all too well in our household. Most mornings Ricochet is up before anyone else hunting for the cookies, chocolate, and candy and eating as much of it as he can before anyone else wakes. He has found and accessed all our hiding places. Even the top shelf of the pantry, about 8 feet up, is accessible to him (he climbs the shelves like a ladder). I am now going to have to resort to hiding “treats” outside of the kitchen. Ugh.

In light of this knowledge and experience, Daddy decided he had better sleep on the couch by the Christmas tree the night Santa leaves all the presents. But I didn’t want him sleeping on the couch the night of Christmas. I told him we have to give Ricochet the benefit of the doubt. If we set some pretty strict consequences, he will wake us before going downstairs. So we told both of our kids that anything they open without mommy and daddy will not be theirs, it will be taken away from them. What kid wants his Christmas presents taken away after he opens them? My plan was fool-proof.

Daddy and I were both upstairs in our bed having our “long winter’s nap” while St. Nick did his magic. Then right in our bedroom there “arose such a clatter.” Our daughter, Warrior Girl, was standing over me in a panic muttering about how Ricochet was downstairs right then opening his presents. I sprung from my bed. The time was 4:30 am. Down the stairs I flew, desperate to keep him from opening the “big surprise gift” for the year. That would surely ruin Christmas.

I rounded the corner into the living room and there was Ricochet, sitting on the floor, a Lego set and his R2D2 figure on the ottoman before him. The Lego box was already open and scattered. I was so thoroughly disappointed! I know it was written all over my face and oozing from my tone as I addressed him.

“What are you doing!? You know you were not supposed to open anything without getting mommy and daddy! I am so very disappointed in you! What did we say would happen if you opened presents without us?”

“You will take them away,” Ricochet said with a falling bottom lip. “I am so stupid,” he shouted.

And my heart broke into a million pieces right then and there… I was so angry with him for disobeying the rules. But it was so likely that he would do so that daddy was going to sleep on the sofa. And now my heart hurt for him because the consequences of his actions finally hit him and he was disappointed in himself, in his lack of self-control. But, at his age, he sees it as stupidity. He doesn’t understand that he has a condition that prevents him from being able to control his actions sometimes. And he hasn’t yet learned to override that flaw.

I quickly gathered up the items he opened and turned away from him as my eyes welled with tears. I didn’t want him to feel any worse by seeing that his actions made me cry. It was actually the way he felt about himself in that moment that had made me cry.

We put away the toys and turned out the lights and I climbed into Ricochet’s bed with him. It wasn’t even 5 a.m. yet, much too early to get up and start the day, Christmas or not. We laid there for about two hours. I begged him to lay still in tired desperation. Of course, I was asking for the impossible. But the more he wiggled, the more frustrated I became. Neither he nor I ever went back to sleep. By 6:45 a.m. I was tired of asking him to lay still. I was distraught that I wasn’t going to sleep more. And I knew daddy was fuming mad about what had happened. Mad at Ricochet for breaking the rules. Mad at me for not letting him sleep on the sofa to prevent it.

I went in and asked if we could go ahead and get up and do Christmas. Daddy was not having it. He did not want to get up before 7 a.m. He also wanted to teach Ricochet a lesson by postponing the festivities. He didn’t say it, but I knew it. So I began yelling about how we were all angry and Christmas was already totally ruined so why not just get up and get it over with so we can move on with the day.

Get Christmas “over with?”

I brushed my teeth and put on my slippers and sweater and prepared for presents. Daddy saw that he wasn’t going to get to sleep more so he got up too. He bumped and slammed around in the bathroom and took out his frustrations on the coffee machine.

As I listened to all the signs of his anger, I realized that he didn’t understand that Ricochet really, really couldn’t help but open those presents. The thought was in his mind and the apparatus that tells him not to do something or to wait doesn’t work so good. He didn’t know that Ricochet was feeling awful.

So I turned to daddy and yelled. “You don’t understand him at all. You don’t understand that he physically can’t stop himself. You don’t get it. You don’t get him. He actually said he was stupid and cried when I found him. If you don’t get him I don’t want you in this house!” I reached a full-blown, belly-aching cry by the end of my outburst.

I fled into the pantry to fall apart away from the kids. They were already feeling terrible (I wasn’t too happy with Warrior Girl for being up at 4:30 a.m. herself — she was going down to get her Nintendo DS to pass the time when she discovered Ricochet opening presents). And the longer I stood in there sobbing and crying, the more I realized our reaction was far out of scale for the offense. So he opened a couple presents. Big deal. He didn’t ruin the big surprise. In fact, when you think about it, it’s kind of cute that he was down there at 4:30 in the morning so excited about Christmas.

But we were so disappointed that he can’t control himself. So disappointed that we missed his reaction when he opened those presents. So disappointed that things didn’t go according to plan. So disappointed he has ADHD. Somewhere in between my uncontrollable sobbing in the pantry, Ricochet’s whimpering in the living room and Warrior Girl’s anxious expression, daddy too realized it wasn’t worth all the drama and certainly wasn’t worth ruining Christmas.

He came in and apologized to me and I was finally able to compose myself. I retrieved my camera and we all gathered around the tree. By the time we got there, we were all smiling and ready to have a wonderful, happy day together. And so we did.

We could have let Ricochet’s indiscretion ruin Christmas. We could have thrown understanding out the window and been angry all day. We could have let ADHD ruin our Christmas. But instead, we overlooked what we can’t change and made the most of the day. And it turned out wonderful.

Make sure you don’t let ADHD (or autism) ruin the joy of the holidays for your family either. 

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Penny Williams
Author. Parenting Guide. Journalist. Speaker.
Penny Williams guides and mentors parents raising kids with ADHD and/or autism. She’s the parent of a son with ADHD and autism, and the author of three award-winning books on parenting kids with ADHD. Penny is the current editor of ParentingADHDandAutism.com, Founder and Instructor for The Parenting ADHD & Autism Academy, and a frequent contributor on parenting and children with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications.