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Tools for Finding Calm in the Midst of ADHD and Other Chaos

Using neuroplasticity, mindfulness, and mindsets for calm, confident connection.

Key points

  • Neuroplasticity means we can build new neural pathways that allow us to be calmer, more confident, and more connected.
  • Mindful breathing is one of the most powerful tools you have for living a calmer, less chaotic, more connected life.
  • While you’re paying attention to your breath, you’re practicing “being here now,” which is at the heart of mindfulness.
Jared Rice/Unsplash
Source: Jared Rice/Unsplash

I was recently interviewed by Lara Dawn Donnelly about the roles of neuroplasticity, mindfulness, and mindsets for parents who are coping with children with ADHD and seeking ways to move beyond the chaos that so often ensues. Here is part of that conversation:

How can parents use neuroplasticity to rewire their brains and change their behavior?

As parents, when we become mindful of our own reactions, we rewire our brains as necessary. When we understand how that works we can help our kids become calmer, more confident, and more connected. Every interaction we have, every thought we think, creates connections between brain cells (neurons). The next interactions or similar thoughts strengthen those connections, and over time, pathways are formed in the brain—neural pathways—which, with time and repeated experience, create instant automatic connections between neurons.

This brain-building and brain-changing process—called neuroplasticity—starts at birth and continues across the lifespan. This is just as true for emotional responses as for intellectual ideas, which is how trauma or difficult experiences stamp patterns in the brain, leading some people to react strongly and quickly to stimuli that other people wouldn’t react to at all.

Something similar is going on in ADHD, where (quite understandably, for lots of good reasons!) the individual comes to feel they have no control over their strong quick reactions. Thank goodness neural plasticity can also work in reverse—neural pathways can be weakened as we become more mindful of our reactions. We can build new pathways that allow us to be calmer, more confident, and more connected. Once you know how to do that for yourself, you’re in a great situation for modeling it for your child and teaching them how to do it.

How can we be more mindful and intentional with our breathing and how does this help us?

Mindful breathing is one of the simplest and most powerful tools you have for taking control of your own reactions and living a calmer, less chaotic life.

Take a deep breath. Pay attention to your breath as it enters gently through your nose, filling your lungs, filling your whole body with fresh healthy oxygen. Now breathe out that air, feeling it leave your body, having picked up any stress toxins it’s encountered along the way.

Take another breath. Enjoy its clean, fresh feeling filling up your lungs, cleaning out your body of all the worries, reminding you to be here now. Breathe it out, slowly, through your nose.

While you’re paying attention to your breath, you’re forgetting your reasons to be worried. You’re practicing the “being here now” that is at the heart of mindfulness.

Next step: Try this when you notice yourself getting agitated or irritated or impatient with your child. When your kid does something annoying, before you say a word, take a deep breath. If you can safely make time for it, take another one.

You will almost certainly find yourself slowing down, responding to your child rather than reacting to their latest unreasonable demand or disobedience. You will be kinder in your response, more patient, and your child will feel it.

You calming yourself in this way helps turn down the temperature for your child, allowing you to address what needs to be addressed, and giving them a model for mindfulness. The next step in this process is teaching your child this same breathing technique. I’ve seen it work with children as young as age 2 and a half.

How can parents help their children learn to welcome obstacles and problems as opportunities, in turn learning what they can do better?

Learning to welcome setbacks as learning opportunities is one of the foundations of a growth mindset, which is proven to improve quality in every dimension of life—school, learning, relationships, friendships, career, happiness, self-confidence, everything.

Once again, as with mindfulness, it starts with you. Think about how you react to problems. In some areas, you likely say, “Oh boy. That was a mistake. I’ll do better next time!” In other areas, you probably criticize yourself and think you are an idiot or a failure, or you look for someone to blame.

If you want to help your child toward a growth mindset, identify one of the areas where you come down hard on yourself or blame others for your problems. Maybe it’s impossible to get your child ready for school in the morning, and you find yourself yelling at them or your partner about what they’re doing wrong, or blaming yourself as an incompetent parent.

Next time your child is running late, try to catch yourself before you react negatively. Instead, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “What can I learn from this? What can I do differently next time that will lead to a different outcome?” Maybe it’s as simple as getting their clothes out the night before. Or waking them up half an hour earlier. Or rethinking bedtime routines.

When you welcome problems as learning opportunities, the air in your home will feel clearer, and you’ll be working to reduce the stress rather than ramping it up.

If parents want to start today, what could their first, actionable step be?

Take a long, deep breath. Fill your whole body with fresh healthy oxygen. Now breathe out that air, watching it leave your body, having picked up any stress toxins it’s encountered along the way.


Lara Dawn Donnelly is a kindergarten teacher. She and her two sons have ADHD. On top of all that, she’s the energetic founder of a support group called The ADHD Village.