Raising a child with ADHD can be an exhausting endeavor. There are challenges at every age, from early behavioral struggles to later school challenges and difficulty with everything from relationships to finding motivation for the boring or challenging parts of life. Just when you’ve made it past one frustrating stage, another pops up. Many parents of children with ADHD also struggle with executive functioning skills.
During the last few years working exclusively with families just like I’ve described, I have developed an approach to ADHD success that aims to get parents and kids on track and stay focused.
- Develop daily routines. ADHD success begins with eliminating chaos and creating daily routines. Automate as much as possible so you do not have to create something new every day. One of the first things I do with my clients is evaluate morning routines, homework routines, evening routines, chore routines and anything else that can be streamlined! Some people benefit from time blocks or chunks, and some prefer to use more defined times, like beginning homework at 4 pm daily. I recognize that many of us have days that do not look the same throughout the week. Extracurricular activities, early release, homeschool groups and activities – these account for day-to-day variability. When that is the case, you can have a routine for each day, so when the family knows it’s Tuesday, everyone is crystal clear on what happens on Tuesdays. The idea is to go through each day and set up easy to follow routines. For chaotic mornings, choose the three most important things that must happen to get out the door, and build your schedule around that. For your evening routine, you can add preparation activities to make the morning smoother (picking out clothes, filling water bottles, preparing lunch, charging laptops, setting backpacks by the door, etc). I recommend a no-drama approach to homework. Pre-decide which parent will be the helper, if needed. Have a set homework place and necessary items. Place phones, game controllers and other distractions in a bin until the work is done. Creating routines like this help decrease the anxiety and overwhelm that is so common in ADHD. They help provide an anchor of time, and assist in teaching kids how to structure, prioritize, and organize.
- Make them habits. ADHD success continues with intentional practice of the new routines. Practice them regularly for at least 30 days straight. If some things are still difficult, you can change what doesn’t work and keep what does. The most important point is that to create habits, a task or routine must be done regularly. Sometimes we are replacing bad habits with better ones. I see many teenagers who do homework in their rooms, behind closed doors with access to smart phones, gaming devices, computers, and televisions. They understand that they are struggling, but it is a challenge to break their own bad habits. Moving homework into a more central area or leaving the phone with a parent and the bedroom door open, help to change those habits. I have also worked with families whose mornings look different every day, with parents trying to prompt kids through each step. This is confusing for kids and exhausting for parents. It uses so much brainpower to have to figure out what to do and when to do it day after day. A good tool to help with habit formation is to create a visual schedule or daily calendar with space to check off the steps to the tasks that are part of the new habit.
- Set goals. Having daily, weekly, monthly, and longer goals is a sure step toward ADHD success. Write them down, talk about them, and keep them visual. For goals that are a month or more away, set benchmarks for steps toward achievement. Sometimes children with ADHD are resistant to setting goals. I’ve heard a variety of reasons: it’s boring, they can’t think of any, they don’t know how to look beyond the present, they don’t need them, etc. I can’t think of one human on the planet who wouldn’t benefit from having goals. Without goals, we are letting life happen to us, rather than being the director of our lives. To a person with an ADHD brain that is always looking for stimulation, trying to see into the future is very difficult. I begin goal setting with very short term, small goals that are easily achievable. I introduce SMART Goals – it’s a great blog about SMART goals for students. For kids and teens who are truly resistant, I ask them to tell me one small thing they would like to accomplish in the next few days that is important to them. It does not have to be school-related! Then we create a plan to meet that goal. When kids begin to get traction and success with their own ideas, they can then start to plan further into the future. I also encourage families to set family goals and individual goals. Everyone’s goals can be shared and visible and family members are great built-in accountability partners!
- Mindful practice. Being mindful simply means being aware. It is being aware of where you are, who you are with, what is happening around you, why you are where you are, and what the expectations are. I coach my clients to do the following: Check in with your physical environment regularly. Ask yourself if you are engaged in what you are supposed to be doing, or are you off task? What awareness and strategies do you need to be more engaged at this moment? Do you need any help or can you figure it out? These are empowering strategies for ADHD success that can be used in the moment of a change in emotions, a cue to get back on task when your attention wanes, or any time of the day. Further mindful practice would entail beginning a daily routine of self-evaluation. Some people like to journal or meditate. It can be much simpler even, by asking yourself a few questions. How did today go? What went well and what did not go well? How can I make changes to improve what didn’t go well?
- Meet the body’s needs for exercise, sleep, nutrition, and human connection. Our bodies need each of these to truly function in a way that keeps us able to use our logical thinking via the higher brain functions which will contribute to ADHD success. When one or more of these needs is not met, we are more likely to revert to the primitive brain taking over. I offer a few general recommendations to meet those needs.
- Make daily movement a good habit. Outside time, non-directed play, sports, and anything else that gets bodies moving is excellent!
- Eat a balance of food groups and nutrients. If you notice irritability, sluggishness or other symptoms after eating, pay attention to what the food was.
- Get enough sleep. If this is an issue, track sleep with an app or journal, documenting hours and quality. Seek professional help if necessary.
- Don’t forget about human connection! Have at least one meaningful exchange with someone every day. Our mid/post-ish Covid-19 world has left many of us with a propensity toward isolation and fewer human connections than we previously enjoyed. Renew connections and interaction, even if only with the people closest to you in your household! Connection is what sets humans apart from other species and isolation is not healthy.