Summer vacation is an exciting time of year, but for kids with ADHD — and their parents — the long days, new activities and lack of structure can turn excitement into disaster. Here are some suggestions to help kids with ADHD (and mom and dad, too) have a fun, safe, relaxing break.

Don’t ditch the schedule

When school lets out and the temperature rises, it can be tempting to scratch the schedule and settle in for a lazy summer. “But keeping some structure is important,” says Dr. Mandi Silverman, a clinical and school psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Creating — and sticking to — a summer schedule will make it easier for kids to stay organized, help them manage transitions without melting down and make it less difficult to get back into a good routine when it’s time to go back to school.

  • Day or sleep-away camps are one way to keep kids busy, but summer classes and sports teams are also a great way to maintain some structure in summer days. Local libraries, community centers and parks often offer free activities.
  • Choose a bedtime — and a wake-up time — and be consistent. A regular sleep schedule will help kids wind down at the end of the day and make mornings less rushed.
  • Eat meals at regular times — even if you’re having a picnic. Consistent mealtimes (and healthy snacking) will prevent hunger meltdowns and help even the laziest of days feel more structured.
  • “Maintain a semi-structured schedule for family activities: Monday movies, Tuesday park, etc.,” says Dr. Silverman. This way, the whole family will know what’s coming up, and when it’s happening — which makes time management easier, and transitions less stressful.

Set summer goals

Make the most of vacation by helping your child set a few specific summer goals — and offering encouragement and rewards for steps towards the goal. Some ideas for great summer goals could be:

  • Working on skills he doesn’t have time for during the school year: riding a bike with no training wheels, learning to play a whole song on the guitar or reading all the Wimpy Kid books
  • Behavioral issues he’s been working on: following directions the first time he’s asked, not interrupting people when they’re talking or putting his shoes in the same place every day.

Kids with ADHD often have a hard time with delayed gratification, so a big reward at the end of summer might not be the best incentive. Instead, offer small incentives for short-term progress, like going for ice cream at the end of the week or an extra hour of screen time. Then you can plan a big end-of-summer treat, like a trip to the amusement park as a reward for sticking with it.

“Remember, no matter what goal he chooses, achievement isn’t about being perfect — it’s about working hard,” explains Dr. Silverman. “So make sure to praise your child for showing effort — and not just focus on the end result.”

No surprises

Summer is a great time for kids with ADHD to try new things — swimming class, going to camp, beach trips — you name it. But new experiences mean new stimuli and new rules without a lot of time to adapt. No matter what’s on the agenda, preparing your child beforehand will help him have a better, safer time.

  • To help kids prepare for new activities, Dr. Silverman suggests sitting down together and talking about how your child’s day will look. For example, if your child is starting swimming lessons you could say: “Tomorrow morning I’ll drop you off at the pool. When get there, you’ll go to the locker room and change into your bathing suit. After that your teacher will come get you and take you to the pool.” Helping him visualize the day will ease transitions, reduce anxiety and give him a chance to ask you any questions he might have.
  • Pay special attention to potentially difficult transitions — and make a plan for how he’ll handle them: “You won’t have much time between soccer practice and Mark’s mom picking you up for the movies. It’s important that we leave soccer practice (with all your gear!) as soon as it’s over, so you can have a snack without rushing.”
  • Go over the rules — especially ones your child might not be used to hearing, and rules that are there to keep him safe. Knowing what’s expected of him beforehand will help new rules sink in. That way, if he’s not paying attention when other parents, counselors or coaches go over them, he’ll still know what to do. For example: “It’s really important to remember that you’re not allowed to get into the boat before your counselor does. If it tipped over, you could get hurt.”
  • Let the adults in charge know what areas your child might need a little extra help in and how you handle problem behavior at home. That way they’ll be prepared, too.

Doubles and reminders

Kids with ADHD can be prone to losing things, especially items they’re not used to carrying like sunblock, bug spray or a towel. Avert disaster by packing back-ups of important items.

If he’s going to the beach with his friend, put two tubes of sunblock and a hat in his beach bag; for longer trips – like family vacations – over-pack items that can be easy to leave behind or misplace when moving from hotel to hotel like bathing suits, toothbrushes and sunglasses.

Unfortunately, when kids are on their own it won’t matter how many back-ups they have if they forget to use them. Some ways to help him remember:

  • Talk it through before he goes and tie action to experience: “Ok, so let’s agree that every time you get out of the water you’ll put sunblock on.”
  • Pre-set phone reminders. Make sure they repeat — and that the volume is loud enough to be heard over outside noises.
  • Enlist the help of adults on-site, but make sure your child doesn’t feel singled out. For example, “Sometimes my kid forgets to put bug spray on — I bet he’s not the only one. Would you remind all the kids to reapply during the hike?”

Let your child take the lead

Finally, remember that for kids with ADHD, school can be a major source of stress and pressure. Summer vacation should be active, but it should also be a time when your child can relax, and participate in activities that make him feel competent and happy. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s okay for your child to sit on the couch playing video games 24/7 — but it does mean he should be able to have real input in his summer plans.

  • For example: You sign your child up for the local pee-wee basketball team, but after the first practice he admits that he actually hates it. You could say, “I’m glad you told me. I want you to have a fun summer. If you don’t want to play basketball, can you think of an activity you’d like to do instead?”
  • If your child isn’t interested in the usual suspects, suggest some non-traditional options. There are so many great ways to get exercise: fencing, hip-hop dance classes, even live-action Quidditch!
  • If your child still prefers indoor activities, Dr. Silverman recommends trying what’s called an “If, then” strategy: “If you go outside and play with your brother for an hour, then you can come in and play video games until dinner time.”
  • Encourage kids to make suggestions for family activities and ask for input when you’re planning for vacations.

Giving your child chances to succeed — and relax — will help everyone have a better break, and help him build self-esteem and learn skills he can carry with him when it’s time to go back to school.