Helping Your Child Succeed In Life
Empowerment – it’s a 21st century buzzword. It may feel overused or even cliché for some of us. For occupational therapists, it has meaning dating to the beginning of our profession around WWI. To help facilitate rehabilitation and return to being a productive member of society, wounded soldiers were encouraged to engage in “occupations” such as woodworking, leatherworking, creating art and similar pastimes. They reported feeling like they had a purpose, a reason, to keep getting better. These early occupational therapists were onto something big!
To me, feeling empowered means having the skills and tools to be able to accomplish my goals large and small. It means feeling good about myself and what I am capable of. What does empowerment mean to you? How does this concept apply to children?
I’ve been working with children and young adults for half of my career, about 11 years. Many of these individuals have severe developmental disabilities and have had no real say in their path in life. Others are what we may term “high functioning” but are still often at the whim of the adults around them. Since I’ve become a specialist in ADHD, I feel stronger than ever that we need to teach children to advocate for themselves, to adopt a “growth mindset” where they are always open to learning, to ask for what they need emotionally and relationally, and to communicate effectively with peers and adults throughout the lifespan. Only then can they truly feel empowered and in charge of their life’s trajectory.
Children with ADHD are more likely to have lower self-esteem, to struggle with problem-solving and emotional resiliency, and to have less awareness of what support they need to increase their success. We can start empowering young children and continue to do so in an age-appropriate way throughout their childhood. Adopting this parenting framework will help set your child up to be able to handle the obstacles in their way for years to come.
10 Tips To Empower Kids With ADHD
- Offer choices. Young kids especially are constantly being told what to do by the adults around them. They often try to re-gain control of their lives by refusing to comply with certain demands placed up them. Parents and other adults can bridge this gap by offering more control in the form of choices. When children are given freedom to make choices, even small ones, they feel good about themselves.
- Encourage problem solving (young children). If your young elementary aged child is in a dispute over who goes first in a game, or who gets to choose what movie to watch or where to sit on the couch, encourage her to come up with her own solutions before you intervene. Offer choices if she has trouble thinking of options. Allow some frustration to occur.
(pre-teens, tweens) Older kids have bigger problems and higher stakes. They may look to peers for help in coming up with solutions, but this may not be the best option. Use the same principles as you would with younger children, and ask them to really think through different ideas, to “try them on” and imagine the consequences. Let them be a little uncomfortable and conflicted. Don’t jump in with solutions, but instead engage them in a dialogue where you can “lead” toward the best solution.
(teens) Oh, teenagers – even if they have problems, they think they have them all figured out, and they don’t want our help! However, we parents still want to make sure that they are safe and making good choices. Common teen problems could include school and future college choices, conflicts in relationships and friendships, navigating a part time job and how to spend free time. Teens should be morally conflicted when faced with clear right and wrong choices. They should be able to imagine the consequences of their actions. If they are truly “stuck” on a problem, writing pros and cons down may help clarify the choices. Again, encourage dialogue and forethought. The more they can work this out with a supportive parent, the better their choices will be “in the moment” when you are not there to help.
- Model frustration tolerance and other emotionally mature behaviors. Children and teens with ADHD typically struggle with having big emotions. Using a practice called “co-regulation” with younger children can help your child calm in the moment. This involves the parent sitting close and being calm next to the child, so he or she can also calm down. This, or simply talking out loud or modeling emotional maturity, can help older children regulate in the moment as well. Even parents tend to lose their cool on occasion. If this happens in front of your child, talk with them about it at a time when you are calm. Explain that your emotions took over and that you behaved in a way that you did not want to. Acknowledge any negative consequences. Children need to see that their parents are human, too.
- Require chores and other responsibilities. Kids with ADHD have a harder time than typical kids doing tasks that are boring. They may rush through chores and do a poor job. This may in turn make parents throw their hands up in resignation, and just decide to do it themselves, since they feel that they will end up re-doing the chore in the end. Try to avoid giving in to this notion! Teaching chores is a great life skill, and it is empowering when your child can feel a sense of pride. There is also an “end product”, like folded laundry or a de-cluttered room, which lends visual closure to the chore. In our house, we have community chores, that benefit everyone, and individual chores. The kids learn early on to pack their own lunches, suitcases for travel and to be responsible for their personal “stuff”. Helping the family is required, but also appreciated. I always say please and thank you to children to demonstrate respect and acknowledge that they truly did help. (See link at the end of this blog for a free age-appropriate chore chart!)
- Teach (and model) delayed gratification. A great way to do this with younger kids is when they want a snack. For very young children, teach the word “wait” early on. Instead of jumping up and meeting every demand immediately, say “wait a few minutes, then I’ll help you”. Set timers for impatient kids. You can also teach delayed gratification with turn-taking games. Kids with ADHD are often impulsive and impatient during games. Practice this skill early and often. Another way to practice delayed gratification is to start a change jar (or chore money bank) and save for something specific. Teach early on that avoiding impulse buying will serve them well. Kids with ADHD are more likely to act on impulse and have trouble saving money, even for things they really desire. Encourage teens to get a job, and to save for something specific. Delayed gratification, especially for material purchases, is an important skill – and leads to a sense of empowerment when that hard-earned money can finally be spent. (My teenage son, who had ADHD, contributed $2300 of money he earned himself toward his first car, a fact that we are all very proud of!)
- Help foster their interests. Whether it’s a sport, a musical instrument, Girl Scouts, or chess club, parent support of a child’s interest is critical toward improving self-esteem. As children build skills, especially in something self-chosen, they feel a sense of empowerment. What if your child doesn’t have any interests other than playing video games? Begin to expose him or her to different things. Sit down and ask him or her what they are good at, or what they would like to learn. (See download at the end of this blog for a list of interest prompts).
- Listen. We are all guilty of this one – constantly talking “to” and “at” our kids without taking time to listen. It may take time to get into a habit of this, but it will pay off. Ask your child their opinion on matters large and small. Let him explain to you in detail how his favorite game works on Xbox. Let her tell you all of her doll’s names. Ask your teen what he thinks about what is happening in the world. Do not offer your opinions unless asked! Just listen! Many families have a topic of discussion at mealtimes, and rotate who chooses the topic. Some kids prefer more one on one discussions, which are great to have while taking a walk or driving with your child. When a child’s opinion is asked for and valued, he feels more empowered to speak up.
- Praise specifically. Instead of “you’re so smart”, use, “I see how hard you studied for that test!” Praise the effort and the behavior more than the outcome. Try to avoid insincere praise – kids see through platitudes just like adults do! If your teenager rushed through cleaning the bathroom so he could go out, don’t praise the effort if it did not meet your standards! A general rule of thumb from psychologists is to praise kids with ADHD three times for every one criticism (3:1 praise to criticism ratio). But remember to keep it sincere and specific! Empowerment through specific praise also improves intrinsic motivation.
- Allow for failure. This is a hard one. You are obviously not going to willingly let your child do something dangerous or with high stakes (like cheating) – but even allowing for small failures tugs at the heartstrings of parents. We may tend to hold the hands of kids with ADHD a little tighter, to hover a little closer, and to protect their sensitive selves a little more fiercely than with other children. Re-train yourself to allow for an age-appropriate level of failure. What this looks like for each child will be different based on age and emotional maturity. Use co-regulation to help the subsequent disappointment and negative feelings that will come with failures.
- Help them self-evaluate. After a failure, help your child self-evaluate. What worked? What didn’t work? What could be changed for a different outcome next time? Many kids with ADHD tend to make the same mistakes repeatedly, simply because they couldn’t figure out what to do differently. You know that saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? We want to teach our children that to get a different result, they need to change an action or behavior. That begins with self-evaluation, even at a young age. For very young children, it may look something like this. “You grabbed the toy from your brother and he hit you. How did that feel?” Your child will respond that it physically hurt, or hurt her feelings, or made her mad. Either way, the outcome was not good. Then you can ask “What can you do differently next time?” to which she can respond wait her turn or ask nicely instead of grabbing or any number of different things. For older kids and teens, we can teach them to ask coaches, teachers and others in authority for feedback on their performance. They can then use the feedback to improve something that didn’t turn out exactly the way they wanted it to. This is a useful skill to have for life, and the earlier learned, the better. Self-awareness is a beautiful thing!
These tips are not meant to make you feel bad about your parenting. The purpose is to gain some strategies to help your child with ADHD feel more empowered. When we feel more in control of our own lives, self-esteem and self-confidence rise, and your child learns valuable skills that will stick with him or her for life. Admittedly, I have made a lot of parenting mistakes myself. The more I learn about executive functioning skills and the psychology of childhood, the more I’ve forced myself to stop holding my sons hands so tightly. I have to remind myself that I’m raising young men and the best gift I can give them is the tools to be confident, self-aware, and emotionally mature.