Family Celebrating Christmas While Holding Burning Sparklers

Managing Executive Function Challenges During the Holidays

The holiday season can be a time of joy and celebration, but managing executive function challenges can be difficult during this chaotic time. 

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Executive function refers to the set of mental skills that help you to manage your time, pay attention, switch focus, plan and organize, remember details, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. For neurodivergent people, such as those with ADHD, autism, or other cognitive differences, these challenges can be particularly pronounced during the holidays.

Understanding the specific executive function difficulties that may arise is crucial for creating a supportive and inclusive holiday environment.

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During the holiday season, neurodivergent people may find themselves contending with sensory overload, changes in routine, and social expectations that can be overwhelming. The emphasis on social interaction, the abundance of stimuli, and the disruption of familiar schedules can all contribute to heightened stress and anxiety. 

It's important for the neurotypical people in their lives to recognize and respect the unique needs of their neurodivergent loved ones during this time. Doing so will foster an inclusive and understanding environment.

Family Celebrating Christmas While Holding Burning Sparklers

Impact of Holiday Stress on Executive Function

The impact of holiday stress on executive function cannot be understated. The increased demands of the season can lead to heightened difficulties in managing time, staying organized, and regulating emotions

Most of us can acknowledge that as much as we may love the holidays, they do add stress to our lives. Yes, we get to spend time with loved ones and exchange gifts and go to parties. But for all of those benefits the holidays bring to our lives, they also come with the need to be planned, which hits a number of executive function challenges.

The pressure to meet social obligations, navigate crowded spaces, and engage in unfamiliar activities can exacerbate executive function challenges, leading to frustration and a sense of being overwhelmed.

On top of all that, the pervasive nature of holiday stress can have a profound impact on mental health. Anxiety and depression often intensify during this time because of the additional expectations placed on us. For people who struggle with executive dysfunction, these emotional struggles can further impede their ability to effectively navigate the demands of the season. 

Strategies for Managing Executive Function Challenges During the Holidays

In order to support those with executive function challenges during the festive season, it's important to implement strategies that mitigate the impact of holiday stress and foster a sense of empowerment.

One effective approach is to establish a comprehensive holiday planning framework that provides structure and predictability. This may involve creating visual schedules, utilizing reminders and alarms, and incorporating sensory-friendly elements into the holiday environment.

Whatever tools and strategies you use during the year will still probably work, but you need to ramp up their use. Utilizing different sounds for alarms or different colors for reminders can help you recognize and remember the different things in your schedule.

It’s also vital to acknowledge and address feelings of overwhelm and executive dysfunction that may arise. If you start to feel overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to take regular breaks, engage in calming activities, and practice self-care can help to alleviate the intensity of these experiences. 

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Building a Holiday Planning Framework

Building a holiday planning framework can ease executive dysfunction because plans will be laid out. This framework can include a detailed schedule of events, complete with specific dates, times, and locations, in order to provide a clear and structured outline of the season's activities. Visual aids, such as color-coded calendars or pictorial timelines, can be particularly beneficial for people who prefer visual cues.

This schedule should be shared or posted in multiple places. Add the events to your regular planner but also have it in a central location as an additional reminder.

In addition to scheduling, you also need to consider the sensory aspects of holiday planning. Creating a sensory-friendly environment, with attention to lighting, sound levels, and overall stimulation, can help to alleviate sensory overload and promote a more comfortable experience. 

Don’t be afraid to reach out to the host of the event and ask for specifics. Think about the triggers you have and ask about them. Will there be lights and/or loud music? How many people are they expecting? Having this information will enable you to decide how you want to participate. Maybe you want to show up early before too many people arrive. Maybe you want to have ear plugs to quiet the noise.

Overcoming Overwhelm and Executive Dysfunction

The holiday season can be a time of heightened overwhelm and executive dysfunction for many people. To overcome these challenges, it's important to implement strategies that promote self-regulation and emotional well-being

Taking breaks and downtime, finding quiet spaces for relaxation and sensory regulation can all contribute to mitigating the impact of overwhelm and executive dysfunction. Bottom line, it’s okay to step away before the overwhelm gets out of control.

You need to be honest with yourself and those around you. If you don’t have the bandwidth to handle something, don’t force it. You’ll be setting yourself up for emotional and mental drain.

Developing Executive Function Skills for the Festive Season

Developing executive function skills for the season involves a proactive approach to skill-building and empowerment. This may include the practice of time management techniques, the use of organizational tools and strategies, and the cultivation of self-awareness regarding individual strengths and challenges. 

If you’ve been working on your executive function skills, now’s not the time to stop, but it’s tempting to. There’s so much going on and often, the systems and tools you’ve been using fall by the wayside.

Instead of abandoning the progress you’re making, look for additional tools and techniques to add to your routines. By equipping yourself with the skills and resources necessary to navigate the demands of the holidays, you’ll have a sense of agency over your time and energy this holiday season.

Managing Executive Function Challenges During the Holidays

Empowering Neurodiversity During Holiday Celebrations

Empowering neurodiversity during holiday celebrations involves creating an environment that is inclusive, understanding, and supportive of diverse cognitive experiences. 

Take a moment and reread that last sentence. 

If you are neurodivergent, you know that people might not have often considered your needs during celebrations. You, however, are probably more aware of the needs of other neurodivergent people and take the time to make the celebrations you plan more inclusive.

To make the holidays enjoyable for everyone, festivities need to be inclusive. This may entail educating family members and friends about neurodivergent traits and challenges, promoting open communication, and advocating for sensory-friendly accommodations.

These people love you and care about you. I’d like to believe that their lack of consideration of your needs has not been out of malice but out of ignorance.


For some of you, it doesn’t matter what you say. Those around you will refuse to try to understand your challenges. I’m here to say that you don’t need to beat your head against a wall to try to make them understand and accept you as you are. 

I’m also going to remind you that protecting yourself and your well-being is more important than living up to the expectations others have placed on you.

The holiday season presents both opportunities for joy and challenges for those with executive function difficulties. By understanding the impact of holiday stress on executive function and implementing supportive strategies, we can participate in holiday celebrations that we can all enjoy. Through proactive support and understanding, you can conquer the holiday chaos so that the holiday season is a time of joy, connection, and celebration for everyone.

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