Jen, a friend of ours, pulled over in her car and stuck her head out the window. “OMG,” she said, “it’s only two days since my kids’ schools were closed and I’m going nuts! My son wants to build a foundry! How am I going to manage with three ADHD kids at home for a month?”
Good question, and one that many people are asking. Many parents honestly count on schools not just to educate their kids, but also to keep them busy. With that taken away, especially for an unclear amount of time, parents of ADHD kids need a game plan to stay sane in the era of COVID-19.
Here are some ideas:
1. ADHD kids generally do better with structure. Even though your day is a day at home, when you get up, plan what activities they are going to do (or not do) and have them write it down. Writing down a schedule is a commitment, and will help remind your kids what they decided. You might deviate from the schedule—that’s OK, it’s allowed—but at least having a schedule will give the kids some idea of when they work and when they play.
2. Give ADHD kids household tasks to do. (Too) many kids have not been assigned chores. Being at home is a wonderful opportunity to give kids tasks that contribute to the common good of the household. Cleaning their own bedrooms is, of course, a first step, but they need to realize they are part of a household community. How can they contribute to the greater good?
3. Playtime should be part of this time at home, but constant video games are not what most parents want for their children, and not what time off from school should look like. What other play can you think of? Get out a pack of cards. Find some board games.
4. Consider art projects. In the current crisis situation, we all feel somewhat powerless. Creating something is a good antidote. Some ADHD kids tend to race through artwork—just one scribble and it’s done. Consider a project with multiple different steps for that type of child (eg, building a complex structure), or an extended creative tactile activity with an endpoint (eg, finger knitting). Other types of ADHD children can stay immersed in a detailed project for hours — for them just provide some paint and get out of the way.
5. Your kids with ADHD may still have to get schoolwork done, and “distance learning” may be more challenging for them — requiring self-discipline that they do not have (yet). Employ strategies such as using a timer and working in short bursts: They work for just 10 minutes (or similar) at a time, they need to make it a great 10 minutes, but then they get to take a short break. The break should be shorter than the bursts, and should be occupied by a physical exercise but not anything that’s too entertaining — like sit-ups, push-ups, or running around the block — i.e., activities they won’t want to continue. These types of strategies are skills that are not just going to be useful during this time at home, but for other applications in the future.
6. Make rules around recreational electronics (phones, games, etc.). There are many ways to do this, but one way is to have just two rules. First rule: Have your child name an amount of time during the day they will limit themselves to. Some kids may say 8 hours, which is not what you may be hoping for. That’s where the second rule comes in: They have to do something non-electronic, such as reading, piano practice, art, etc. — in equal amounts to the recreational electronics. So they can’t do 8 hours of electronics, because there’s not enough time in the day, but they can do 4 hours if they also do 4 hours of non-electronic activities. And of course, they don’t get to play the electronics before the non-electronics. They can do a little non-electronics, then a little recreational electronics, off and on. Having them set their own timers can give them practice in regulating themselves. Depending on your work schedule, you could use some of the non-electronics time as quality family time.
7. Play with your pets. Our furry animals who love us now get more time with us, and many studies have shown that taking care of pets provides mental health benefits.
8. If you are working from home, spend some time showing your kids what you do. Some of your work may involve numbers or be hard for your kids to understand. But introduce the concept of what you do for a living, and try to tie it in with what they are learning in school. If your job is numbers-based, show them that math actually may matter as an adult. Teach them how to do a spreadsheet and see if they can apply it to a system for checking that their own homework is done. If your job involves planning, show them some steps you use to plan. If your work involves trade, they could learn some geography by learning how different countries contribute different products or services, etc.
9. Cook! The time that we save in fewer activities, and in not commuting, could possibly be turned into some quality time in the kitchen — the family hearth. Have your kids design some meals. This includes planning what ingredients are needed, maybe some budgeting (lobster may not be on the menu), and doing the actual cooking. Cooking involves math (fractions, multiplying recipes), patiently waiting for something to be ready, not getting too upset when it doesn’t work, trying new things, and cleaning up when you’re done or after you make mistakes. It also involves the life skill of not burning down the house.
10. Practice being positive. This whole situation really sucks. But try to find the silver linings in each day. Our brains have a negativity bias, meaning we focus on the bad things that are happening to us. Terrible things are happening to many people here—not just illness, but job loss and business closures. But as the old saying goes, “there is no great loss without a small gain.” Possibly you can appreciate some more family time, getting to try some different activities together, catching up on your reading, etc. Another saying, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” also may come into play. When your kids finally do get to go back to school, they may appreciate it more.
Who knows how long the current situation will last? Nobody—right now the situation is changing day by day. But think about generations before us, for example farmers and their families in the 1800s who spent the winter fairly isolated. Think about the time before the internet, or before kids were so scheduled with organized sports and hobbies and were expected to find ways to entertain themselves.
Before the current era of cars, planes, electricity, and of course the internet, people spent a lot more time at home than we do now. They were forced to spend time with their families, to be inventive, and to tolerate being bored some of the time. They thrived, and when all this is over, we will as well.