Homework, chores, getting out the door in the morning: These basic tasks can present big challenges for kids with ADHD — and their parents. Parents may feel like their child is purposefully not listening to them, ignoring their instructions and trying to cause difficulty.
But kids with ADHD often can’t help the way they act. Their brains are “wired” differently; they don’t experience time or approach tasks in the same way that non-ADHD brains do.
“The most important thing that a non-ADHD parent needs to know about their ADHD kid is that their brain does not work in the same way as their child’s,” A. Jordan Wright, psychologist and chief clinical officer for Parallel Learning, told HuffPost.
Expecting a kid with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) to sit still and sustain focus is like asking your left-handed child to handwrite an essay using their right hand: It won’t come naturally, will require intense effort and they’ll likely give up out of frustration.
For parents, seeing a child struggle like this can cause feelings of guilt or make them wonder if they’re done something wrong.
But “this isn’t the result of the way you raise your kids,” Scott Kollins, psychologist and chief medical officer of Akili Inc., told HuffPost.
“It’s something that’s biologically driven, and we’ve got lots and lots of evidence and years of studies — brain-imaging studies, genetic studies — that show that this is something that is ... neurologically based.”
However, Kollins emphasized that this doesn’t mean kids (and parents) are helpless.
“It doesn’t mean that you can’t modify, you can’t change and improve what you see in the world of how ADHD then presents itself,” he said.
Understanding the way the ADHD brain tends to function, as well as how your particular child’s brain works, can help you empathize with their struggles and come up with solutions to challenges they may face.
People with ADHD perceive time differently.
You’ve probably noticed that kids don’t experience time the same way that adults do. This difference is amplified for kids with ADHD.
“ADHD essentially gives you a clockless mind, so you need to use external tools to track when time is moving,” Jesse Anderson, author of the ADHD newsletter Extra Focus, told HuffPost.
Dani Donovan, creator of ADHD comics and the organizational tool The Anti-Planner, refers to this phenomenon as “time blindness.”
Let’s say you’ve sent your child upstairs to grab their backpack. When they don’t return quickly, you holler for them, then wait a while, until finally you make your own way up to their room to see what could possibly be taking them so long. You might find your child sitting on the floor, deeply absorbed in the task of building something with the pile of Legos they stumbled across — and no backpack in sight.
You might be tempted to shout, “Is this what you’ve been doing this whole time!”
But your child didn’t sense the seconds ticking away like you did and doesn’t share your urgency.
“Children with ADHD don’t really feel time the way most people do, and it’s difficult for them to know when time is passing,” Anderson said.
When it comes to managing tasks and transitions, kids can use timers to keep track of time independently, but you may also need to check in with them fairly frequently. Try to remember that your child isn’t trying to make your day harder. Their brain just feels time differently.
If lateness is an issue, Donovan suggests adding “buffer time” to help with any last-minute preparations or distractions. For example, if you need to leave the house at 7:10 a.m. to get to school on time, tell your child they need to be ready to go at 7 a.m.
People with ADHD don’t lack the ability to pay attention, but they do lack the ability to regulate it.
The word “deficit” in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder implies a deficiency in attention. But this is a bit of a misnomer, Kollins said.
“It’s a challenge with attentional regulation,” he explained. Your child is paying attention to all sorts of things. What they lack is the ability to always direct that attention to a priority: zoning in their focus on the teacher’s voice, your voice, the voice of the person on the other end of the phone. Other, superfluous things, like a noise outside or a bug flying around, might capture their attention in equal measure.
“That filter or that ability to focus that attention on the right thing is what’s the challenge,” he said.
Kollins illustrates this using a flashlight analogy. The area that the flashlight illuminates is like attention. If you’re trying to walk through a dark cave, you probably keep your flashlight’s glare on the path in front of you so you can see where you’re going. But a person with ADHD doesn’t have that same instinct. They may be shining their flashlight all over the place — and this is where their inability to focus sometimes becomes a kind of superpower. They think creatively, paying attention to things that the rest of us fail to notice. Sometimes they find treasure.
The idea of an attention deficit also runs counter to hyperfocus, which many people with ADHD experience.
Anderson describes it this way: “It’s like my brain is finally happy and shuts everything else out. All my attention is so focused on that one thing that no other signals get through to me. I don’t hear someone calling my name, I don’t realize that my body is trying to tell me I need to eat, drink or go to the bathroom. I definitely don’t feel the passing of time.”
When parents see their child so thoroughly absorbed in an activity they enjoy, such as video games or Lego-building, they may wonder how that squares with an ADHD diagnosis. But hyperfocus is its own symptom of ADHD, as well as another facet of the superpowers people with ADHD can employ.
A kid won’t be able to transfer this hyperfocus on command to a task that they find dull, like math equations.
“Hyperfocus isn’t a switch,” Donovan said. But it may help your kid pursue their passions with genuine gusto.
Your directions are probably too vague.
When it comes to asking your kid to do things, it can be helpful to remember that “what would likely work for you may not work the same for your kid,” Wright said.
Telling a neurotypical child simply “Go get ready for bed” might be sufficient. For better results with an ADHD child, however, you might break this down into “Go put on your pajamas, then brush your teeth.”
Directions should be as concrete and concise as possible. Repetition is helpful, as are routines that you practice daily.
Donovan recommends that you check to make sure you have your child’s attention before you begin. Ask them “to pause any distractions (like putting down their phone or hitting pause on the video game) and make eye contact.”
After giving the “short and sweet” version of your instructions, Donovan suggests having them “repeat key info.”
“If they forgot to mention something important, say it again and repeat the process,” she said.
Donovan and other experts also recommend tools such as visual aids, checklists or charts. This way, kids can get themselves back on track by looking at what’s next on the list (“put on pjs, brush teeth”). For kids who aren’t reading yet, the chart or checklist might be mostly pictures: photos of the child accomplishing each step, for example, or clip art of their choosing.
Don’t forget to celebrate any victories, even partial ones. “Pajamas are on? Hooray! Now, where is your toothbrush?”
“A little positive reinforcement goes a long way,” Donovan said. We’re often tempted to focus on what didn’t get done, but that can backfire.
“It can be tempting to step in and point out what they didn’t complete — it feels like you’re helping them. This usually just demotivates them from even trying,” Anderson said.
Something as simple as a checklist can also take some of the pressure off of you to constantly redirect. Instead of telling them a hundred times to brush their teeth, you can defer your authority to the checklist by asking them what’s next.
The right tools and strategies can help make homework less miserable.
Homework is a challenge for most kids in general, and it can be particularly difficult for kids with ADHD. “It requires that sustained focus and attention on something that is often boring,” Anderson explained.
“Finding strategies for homework can be very trial-and-error,” he said.
Set up a dedicated study spot, free from distractions, and stick to the same routine every day. Maybe that means that your child comes home from school, washes their hands, eats a snack and then sits in their regular place at the kitchen table.
Figure out if your child works best in silence or with a certain kind of music. Donovan said she has found instrumental music and lo-fi beats to be helpful.
Some kids with ADHD find chewing gum, busying their hands with a fidget, standing at a tall desk or bouncing on a Pilates ball (instead of sitting in a chair) works for them.
Many are helped by some variation of the “pomodoro technique,” which consists of cycles of 25 minutes of dedicated work time followed by 5-minute breaks. While 25 minutes of uninterrupted work is probably too long for a child with ADHD, you can use the same strategy with “5 minutes or 10 minutes of work, followed by 5 or 10 minutes of rest/drawing etc.” (Avoid having your child spend break time on something they will have a hard time coming back from, such as video games.)
“Visual timers help a lot with this, so that they can see time passing and feel a bit of that urgency,” Anderson said.
Donovan suggested “body-doubling,” or doing your own work alongside your child. ”This approach gives them companionship and support, creates a focused vibe and shows them good work habits by example.” It’s the same reason some adults head for coffee shops when we need to be productive.
Yes, this all means more work for you.
Being a kid with ADHD isn’t easy. Neither is being their parent. Checklists and timers and other strategies require time and effort — and you may still feel like you’re swimming upstream.
“The way school is currently organized is not a good fit for the ADHD brain,” Wright said. “So parents need to be ready to ‘step up’ and function as the part of the ADHD brain that doesn’t fit the way education has been organized.”
A school project might require you to plan, break down tasks, check in and provide soothing or relief.
Admittedly, this “takes more patience than most of us parents have at any given moment,” Wright said.
Just as you grant your child grace when they forget things or seemingly ignore your instructions, try to be forgiving with yourself when you have a moment of frustration. Acknowledge what you’re feeling and take a breath. You may even need to tell your child that you have to step away for a moment.
You can’t possibly keep your cool at all times, and neither can your child. By modeling good emotional regulation, you are teaching them strategies to deal with their own frustration.
Anything you do to help your child with ADHD will work for other children, too.
One piece of good news about these efforts is that by implementing any of these strategies in order to help your child with ADHD, you will also help other kids and family members.
A child without ADHD might not forget to brush their teeth very often, but they will surely enjoy using a personalized bedtime checklist. Anywhere you can implement a checklist or chart usually means less nagging on your part, so it’s a win for you, too.
Adding that “buffer time” when you’re trying to get somewhere can ease everyone’s stress about arriving late.
And celebrating even the small victories can boost overall morale in the household. Focusing on each family member’s unique strengths and gifts can help all children develop confidence in themselves and empathy for others.
Every kid is different, and “finding what works best might take some time,” Donovan said.
“Approach this process as a journey of discovery. Don’t view things that don’t work out as ‘failures’ but rather as opportunities to learn from what did work and discard what didn’t.”