Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental health conditions in children according to Statistics Canada. It is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, although these symptoms vary. ADHD usually arises in the preschool years but is typically identified in the elementary school grades. Drop out rates for these kids are higher. Proper assessment of ADHD and dealing with the disorder are critical because approximately 75% of children will continue to have the diagnosis through adolescence and over half continue into adulthood. So how do we as parents deal with our kids who display these symptoms? Parenting is challenging enough. But parenting a child with ADHD takes even more patience, strategy, energy, and support.
Here are a few tips you’ll find helpful:
1. Stay Calm
We cannot emphasize enough the importance of staying calm as one of the best supports you can give your child. ADHD is a neurological difference, therefore reacting to your child as if they are doing these things on purpose is destructive. Dan Siegel, a pioneering UCLA psychiatrist, emphasizes the importance of attachment relationships for brain development.
He explains how the child’s brain responds to the stress of an upset parent’s response:
Children with ADHD tend to lash out more when they are frustrated. When a parent is outwardly upset, the child’s sympathetic nervous system engages, leaving them to either further escalate or retract. This is the natural fight or flight response. So, the result will likely be negative for both of you if you don’t stay calm; more arguing and/or raised voices. It’s likely you’ll find yourself in a bigger mess than when you began. So pay attention to yourself, especially if you are quick to escalate and react.
Teach children ways to express their frustration constructively by your example.
Your role in helping your child calm down is essential in supporting them to think more clearly. Staying calm is critical in helping them to develop neuropathways (“wiring their brains”) to develop effective critical thinking skills. If you or your child are too excited to engage in logical reasoning, then it’s up to you, the adult, to take a ‘time-in’ (some moment to calm), before revisiting the issue. By doing so, you can support your child’s development of more effective reasoning skills.
Active listening will also help your child calm down. You need to be calm to offer authentic active listening. You are your child’s primary attachment figure, and when they feel heard by you it helps them calm down. This isn’t always easy, but it is very important and it works.
Your child needs to know that they can trust you to help them. They need you to be consistent so that they can live their lives with some measure of predictability about what will happen and how you will react.
2. Set Limits to your over Functioning Behaviours
Again, monitoring your own behaviour is key to providing positive support for your child. If you’re inclined to be worried and in turn over function, remind yourself that the more you do for your child, the less they learn to do for themselves. This will ultimately frustrate them. Remember your role is to support their healthy functioning.
However, children with ADHD are slower to develop in the area of executive functioning, namely time management and organization. They will need you to provide greater structure and follow through to help them succeed. For example, during a homework session, it’s fine to ask “Do you need more lined paper?” But taking your child’s pencil and saying you’ll both work on their math can be problematic and disempowering for your child. It’s fine to help, but doing the work for them can undermine confidence.
If you’d still like to keep an eye on your child during homework, sit close by to help them focus but bring your own work to the table. This will help them learn about independent self-regulation.
3. Set Structure for Daily Functioning
Structure helps reduce disorganization, distractibility, and anxiety. Use strategies and tools for organization and time management, such as charts, lists, agendas, post-its, calendars, timers, reminders, and alarms. Set a consistent time to do homework, with certain privileges available when the work is complete. Reward charts for young children and calendars and planners for older ones, with clear rules and routines, effectively provide external supports for internally challenged children.
It’s best to avoid imposing pressure as much as possible. It can be stress inducing. But what does pressure-free structure look like?
Avoid using threats or unreasonable deadlines or punishments that contribute to hostility, fear or drama. Start with smaller achievable tasks. Then review and celebrate those small successes. This will build confidence and assist your child in seeing where they are winning with school, and with you!
4. You can help your child make wise Choices they feel good about
ADHD can be anxiety provoking. Predictability and a sense of control is an effective remedy. So, when dealing with an issue or decision that your child must make, provide them with just 2-3 positive options from which to choose. Again this lessens the stress but supports the development of their critical thinking. Creating some structure for them to make decisions is less anxiety provoking and more likely to result in their success and confidence. With this, you’re helping your child learn to focus on what they can control.