Techniques to Help Kids With ADHD (and Their Parents) Thrive
When my daughter was a toddler, I noticed that she never sat still for long. Or, really at all. Even though I watched other kids in her preschool class sit at the big, circular table in the middle of the room long enough to draw pictures, I figured her distractibility was still age appropriate.
And it was. That is, until it wasn’t.
Now, at the age of 8, my daughter still has difficulty sitting still for longer than a few minutes at a time or focusing long enough to complete most tasks she begins. Rarely can she stay in her chair long enough to eat a meal, which often turns meal times into stressful event in our home. In fact, any time when even a small amount of focus is necessary, tensions can quickly run high. My daughter also has low frustration tolerance and difficulty adjusting when it’s time to switch gears or clean up a mess.
I gradually came to realize that these were signs of her battling with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and I had to take steps to help her.
Assessing the Challenges
I’ve tried to be more compassionate than angry when trying to cope with some of the behavioral differences my child displays. But as any parent to a child with ADHD knows, sometimes the challenges feel immense. And it can be hard to control my own frustrations or know how to parent my child effectively at times.
Recently, after a particularly rough day with my daughter, I lost my temper. Then, like parents do after losing their tempers, I stayed up most of the night fretting and thinking. I realized, I had to come up with a new approach for how to help her modify her behavior so we could survive the next decade in the same household without constantly butting heads.
Experts agree that parents need tools and coaching to do just that.
Changing the Mindset
Erin Koerselman, a parenting coach and educator, said, “One of the most important ways to help kids with ADHD is to empower their parents,” which can mean changing their mindset, their perspective about their child, as well as their role as a parent.
So, I came up with a plan of my own, then I sought out some expert advice to help me help my daughter, and in turn, help our whole family to thrive.
The following are a few techniques I’m using to help my daughter cope with her ADHD, as well as some other tips families and experts suggest for more peaceful and cooperative living.
Using Verbal Cues
I’ve found that using verbal cues, or reminders, can be a helpful way to bring my daughter’s attention back into focus.
Instead of getting angry, I began using three reminders that I thought would be most advantageous.
Verbal Cue #1 — "Pause"
A common characteristic of ADHD is having difficulty with impulse control.
My daughter often exemplifies this trait. I see it all the time whether it’s a craft project that’s turned into a gigantic mess that will take hours to clean up, or destructive behavior, like coloring on or breaking a toy, then quickly regretting it.
Instead of getting angry, now when I see these behaviors taking place, I use the word “pause” to remind to her to think about what she’s doing, to remember that her actions will have a consequence, and usually a very lengthy clean-up process.
This cue helps her to take a moment to look at the scene and reevaluate her choices she’s making.
Verbal Cue #2 — "Reaction"
Often times, my daughter’s low frustration tolerance can lead to inappropriate reactions triggered by relatively small events. A stubbed toe or scraped knee, a parent say “no” to something, a seemingly small situation that quickly escalates by a big, foot-stomping, yelling, hollering response.
In these moments, instead of getting angry right back, I cue my daughter with the word “reaction” to remind her to ask herself if the way she’s responding is appropriate for whatever just transpired.
Usually, she will breathe, take a few moments to think, and calm herself down.
Verbal Cue #3 — "Transition”
This word is helpful when it’s time to shift gears. It could mean sitting down to eat a meal, or snuggling up to get ready for bed.
Typically, those transitions don’t go smoothly and I find myself getting aggravated that my daughter isn’t listening.
When I say “transition” it gently reminds my daughter that now is one of those times when we have to actively think about how to calm down and change directions, otherwise, we’re going to be struggling with one another.
The very first time I used this cue, I was shocked when she sat up in bed, took three deep breaths, they stopped climbing all over the place, laid in bed, and allowed me to read her a story without any further flailing about.
Koerselman says that one way to empower parents is to rethink their go-to discipline tactics. Traditional approaches to discipline simply don’t work for kids with ADHD, so parents need to think outside the box.
“Parents need to be more creative, more positive, and more focused on building executive function skills like impulse control, emotional regulation, time management, etc," she said. "Kids with ADHD are going to make a lot of behavioral mistakes and parents need to be focused on helping their children grow from those mistakes and emerge from negative experiences a stronger, better child."
One way to do this, she adds, is to start by discussing what the child did right in a situation, rather than coming from a critical place right off the bat.
Helping Kids Find a Sense of Calm
Laura Richards, a mom of four who lives in Framingham, Mass., found that using certain props helped her son.
“When he was younger, a weighted blanket was very helpful," she said, recalling when he was in preschool and his ADHD diagnosis was new. "His physical therapist would roll him into a weighted blanket to help soothe and calm him.”
Richards also used the same techniques without the blanket, doing physical compression along his arms and legs to calm him.
Another tool that helped her son? A hanging teardrop swing in her basement that she says helps him to decompress.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that your child should be doing X, Y and Z. We all have expectations, whether it’s based on age, or what we’re taught our children and expect them to act as a result.
But kids who have ADHD sometimes operate differently and so we have to adjust our expectations accordingly.
Keeping the same expectations while watching your child struggle to meet them over and over can feel like banging your head against a brick wall. While it’s good to have positive goals, keeping your expectations reasonable for your unique child is so important.
Remembering to Breathe
Telling myself to slow down, take a breath, and pay attention to how I’m responding is every bit as important as my daughter’s actions, I’ve found. Usually, when I slow down or step back, I can speak from a place of calm assertiveness, rather than anger, the results are much better.
Richards agrees that for her, taking short breaks, and removing herself from the situation has been crucial. Things like running an errand or going on a drive has often helped her to regain her own sense of calm, especially when her son was younger. “By the end of the day, my nerves were frayed and I was often in tears due to his ADHD," she said.
Instead of getting upset and losing it, Richards would go into her room and occupy herself by painting her nails or watching TV once her husband was home. The break helped her refocus.
Her son is now 16, but having time to herself is still important, and it’s equally important to her son, who often calms himself by listening to music and swinging in the backyard.
Realizing that my daughter is struggling with something that sometimes feels bigger than her was a turning point for me in how I parent her.
One day she broke down and said she simply didn’t know why she had the problems she did and admitted that it makes her feel terrible.
When I saw that it wasn't a matter of her trying to behave badly, or test my limits, I was able to embrace her with more compassion and act accordingly.
Koerselman agrees that when parents are able to understand their child’s ADHD more fully, they can parent from a place of empathy, rather than anger.
Creating Helpful Routines
While I’ve never been a stickler for hard-set routines, having a go-to plan to fall into can be so helpful for kids with ADHD. Their habits become so ingrained that they need to work hard to replace the old habits with new habits.
Simple things like having my daughter put her brush away in the same spot each night, reminding her to hang up her backpack so it doesn’t get lost, and put her shoes away in the show basket shaves crucial time off the morning rush routine.
Setting Reasonable Boundaries
While it’s good to have certain expectations, setting certain boundaries is also important.
It took about 15 dumped out tubes of paint before I made the rule, “No painting without asking me and putting down some newspaper first.”
Because my daughter has trouble with impulse control, sometimes the messes become enormous. So, I have to give her boundaries that don’t stunt her, but also keep her actions in check, as well.
Letting Go of the Small Things
For me, it’s important to look at the big picture. If I get hung up on every tiny thing that happens in a day, I’ll drive myself crazy.
I often try to encourage my daughter to clean up the messes she makes, to stay in control of her emotions and generally cooperate. But we have plenty of downfalls. It’s part of our journey together. I’ve learned that I have to move through the difficult things and do a lot of letting go.
There are things I won’t budge on, but I have to let the small stuff roll off my back or I’ll find myself in one conflict after another.
Valuing the Good in her Differences
Having a kid who struggles with attention is undoubtedly a challenge. But it’s also a beautiful thing, as well.
As much as my daughter struggles to complete certain tasks, make transitions or keep her focus, she’s also highly creative and energetic. She always has a plan of action. Her interests compel her forward, which means when she likes something, she pursues it and wants to learn everything there is to know about it.
While she has difficulty focusing on seemingly simple tasks, she’s also able to hyper-focus and absorb so much and grow in unique and beautiful ways as an individual.