Children, teens, and adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder have to learn to work around a lot of frustrations that their brains create. And if you are a parent or partner of someone with this disorder, you too are likely frustrated.
Here are 11 tips to help you both:
1. Get the topic on the table
The topic here is ADHD itself. Even young children need to and can understand that their brains are wired a little bit differently from other folks. Understanding the symptoms and skills needed to work around this disability not only helps them get on board with learning skills and/or taking medication but more importantly understanding why they have trouble focusing or sitting still — all countering their seeing themselves as a loser or someone who can’t learn.
2. Routines, routines
A lot of kids with ADHD struggle at home but do better at school – why? Often, it’s because the structure of the school day helps them stay on track. Folks with ADHD, like those with anxiety, tend to be emotionally driven – they do what they do based on how they feel — and the structure helps push them to act despite how they feel. You can do the same at home: create that structure, those routines.
3. Procrastination, part 1: Map out the week/map out the day
As you are undoubtedly well aware, ADHD folks tend to procrastinate — science project Sunday night, anyone? Income taxes on April 15th? Why? Partly because they are often emotionally driven and don't want to do what seems difficult, but also because under the deadline, their brains kick into gear and they become more focused. I’ve worked with a lot of university students who did well in high school because generally assignments were close together – due the next day so they couldn't put them off – but collapsed in college when assignments are due in three weeks. Five-page papers invariably were getting written at 3 a.m. the night before.
This means that they need help to plot things out, breaking big, seemingly difficult tasks into smaller ones. Here you sit down with your child, teen, partner and help them map out and break up into small, doable chunks the several things they need to get done that week.
Next, you want to help your child do the same on the weekday evening before. On Monday night, you help them figure out the three things they need to get done the next day. Why the night before? To prime their brain to hit the ground running that next day. Why three things? So, they don’t get overwhelmed and scattered by too much – and picking three helps them learn how to sort out priorities. Here prompts help, for example, a whiteboard on the fridge that lists the three things to accomplish the next day.
4. Procrastination, part 2: Do hard before easy
The planning and breaking tasks into smaller chunks is part 1 of preventing procrastination, but part 2 is learning to do hard before easy. Again, hard stuff is put off because it is difficult – reading that long Spanish text or tackling the math problems — because it’s boring, or too difficult, or too hard to focus on. Learning to do hard before easy is a basic skill they need to master to be productive throughout their lives.
The starting point is finding what times are better than others: If they are taking meds, doing the hard right after taking them or before they start to wear off is best; for those with hyperactivity, tackle the homework after playing outside and burning off some of that energy. But once they get their butts in the chair, start with the hard stuff.
5. Procrastination, part 3: Work, break, work
Before we understood much about ADHD, it was thought that because these folks had a hard time staying focused, what they needed was more time — they would have additional time, for example, to do their SAT exam. But that actually didn't help much. What they needed instead is the ability to take a break in the middle of it, get up and walk around for a few minutes to get re-centered. The same holds for everyday things like homework. Do the hard before easy, but then I suggest to clients to work for 30-45 minutes, take a 15-minute break, then come back and do another round if there is still more to do. After that, you're done with the hard work and now you move onto the easier stuff. (Obviously, for young children, the time chunks would be shorter).
But what's essential here is timing breaks. If you/they don’t, it’s easy to get absorbed into something else and never come back: Let me just check my email, let me play a videogame for a few minutes, let me go outside and pull a couple of weeds. They get hyperfocused and the 15 minutes turn into five hours.
6. Run around
For young children, running around is a good way to get re-centered, but this is especially important if the child has hyperactivity — play outside after school before doing the homework. Long Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s? Go hit the playground before. For teens or adults, the equivalent may be banging on the drums in the basement or pulling those weeds.
7. No-distraction space
Skip doing homework (or paying bills) at the family-central kitchen table. These folks need a place with low distraction (this is why some teachers have the student turn his desk toward the wall). But that said, lots of ADHD folks need some stimulation in their environment, like music running in the background, to keep them energized and focused. Find out what works.
8. Regulate computer time
Of course, as a parent, you worry that if pull your child out of the kitchen and plop them in their room, the computer time will wind up being game time. A real handicapping distraction for folks with ADHD is the computer itself. It’s all too easy to click a button and get lost, whether it is emails, shopping, or videogames. The videogame environment is ideally designed for the ADHD brain — lots of instant rewards.
Here you may want to put blockers or time-out settings on gaming sites and ideally have your child or teen use gaming as a reward for getting other things done. And as an adult, you may want to learn to do the same.
9. Coordinate with others
If your child or teen is on medication, it’s good to check in frequently to let the doctor know how the medication is working — whether your child is losing weight, crashing at the end of the day, still hyper at 10 o'clock at night. This is about brands, timing, and dosages that often need to be fine-tuned.
You want to do the same with teachers. Here you may want the teacher to send you the homework assignments because your child didn’t understand them, forgot them, didn't write them down. Some parents get a second set of books to compensate for their child leaving the books at school or seeming to lose them.
10. Negotiate how to be the sideline coach
All this help is you taking on the role of being a sideline coach: Honey, just a reminder that your science project needs to be done by Friday; Sweetie, today is the trash-pickup day; the timer went off, break time is over. The key here is to not slip into nagging parent mode, but have an upfront conversation with your child, teen, partner on how you can best help them stay on track. If it comes from them, not you, they are more likely to appreciate it rather than become resentful. It's about you both working as a team.
11. Help them create self-esteem
Again, it is easy for those with ADHD to quickly get a distorted view of themselves. Many adults who have untreated or undiagnosed ADHD come to therapy not because of the disorder, but because they are anxious or depressed – they see themselves as losers, are always feeling that they are failing in some ways compared to their peers.
You can help your child or teen not only learn to work around their disorder but also see its benefits – and if you are a partner, you want to adopt this mindset as well. Such folks are energetic, creative, multi-talented. Help them see this not as a lifelong handicap but an asset to appreciate and build upon.