March 13, 2020 was when the email came from my children’s school about a two-week closure to “flatten the curve” of this mystery coronavirus - COVID-19. After my initial shock wore off, I calmly said to myself, “OK. We can do this. Two weeks isn’t so bad.” Here we are, almost one year later. I can honestly say, “Two weeks isn’t so bad.” One year? That’s a loaded question!
Since last March, we have been tested. We’ve now spent more working hours with our children, guiding them, supporting them and learning more about their strengths and their needs for support. What can we, as parents, do? How can we help our children progress when we are faced with obstacles that we have never been privy to before in our lifetime? What do we now know about our children with regards to how they learn? How can we ensure that our children are getting what they need?
Set Realistic Expectations
When dealing with a child with ADHD, it is important to understand that their executive functions are not as developed as some of their peers. This in no way implies a lack of intelligence or the inability to complete a task. However, it is important to note that there can be about a three-year age gap between a student’s chronological age and their executive functioning “age,” meaning that a teen with ADHD might need more guidance and support with organizing, breaking down tasks into manageable parts, regulating emotions, planning ahead etc. than their neurotypical peers.
As we set expectations with our children, we need to take their “executive functioning age” into consideration, while also holding them accountable. I often say to my own children and my clients, “ADHD is an explanation, not an excuse.” I strongly believe that students should learn about the diagnosis and what it entails in order to better understand themselves and how they function.
Communication is key to building successful relationships. Individuals with ADHD, though often people pleasers, respond much better when they actively participate in decisions. There are still “non-negotiables” that parents can and should implement. However, inviting your child to the table to discuss expectations and set reasonable limits will not only create buy-in, but it will also deepen family connections.
When communicating with your child, be proactive rather than reactive and focus on the positives. Individuals with ADHD tend to remember the negatives in situations and will often associate constructive criticism with rejection. Some families set up a regular check-in time so that it doesn’t seem like everything is a confrontation. When checking in, whether to discuss the upcoming week or to talk about how to manage technology or emotions, asking questions can be helpful. For example, “What’s your plan for getting your work done before basketball practice this afternoon?” or “How much time do you think is reasonable for you to be on the x-box (or whatever device) during the school week?” These types of questions empower the student to do the thinking and to plan ahead, which can be very challenging for the ADHD brain.
Completing tasks can be difficult for students (and adults) with ADHD. Dr. Russel Barkley discusses that for the ADHD individual to be motivated to complete something, it must be novel, interesting or urgent to that specific person. That being said, involving the child in the planning process of how and when to fulfill various responsibilities is key.
Take the following into consideration when planning with your child:
1) Allow them to complete tasks (whether chores, projects, schoolwork etc.) in whatever order works for them.
2) Ask them how long they think something is going to take and what time they will start that specific task. (Setting start times is key!)
3) Have them set a timer (timed timers work the best) to see if their time estimation was correct.
4) Encourage them to take breaks, whether to get a drink of water, call a friend or walk the dog. (Again, ask them how long they’ll need and have them set a timer.)
Overwhelm comes in all shapes and sizes. Often times individuals with ADHD feel emotions so deeply and act on them impulsively. When this occurs, it is significantly challenging to move on or shift the thinking. At this point, comments, such as: “Calm down. Why are you so sensitive? Stop overreacting. You can do it. Just focus.” will only add fuel to the fire.
Instead, be proactive. When you and your child are hanging out (and calm), discuss TOGETHER the following (and right it down):
1) Define overwhelm.
2) Identify when this feeling happens and what it actually feels like.
a. What happens in your body when you are starting to feel overwhelmed?
b. How do you usually react to this feeling?
3) List 3-5 things that you can do to calm your body when you feel this BIG emotion.
a. Listening to music, petting the dog, shooting hoops, drawing, playing with fidgets, hitting a pillow….
4) Practice this plan!
a. Model “taking a break” or doing something that helps you regulate when you get overwhelmed.
b. When you notice your child starting to get overwhelmed, remind them of what choices they have to help them feel calm.
Food for Thought
It has been a challenging year for everyone; yet there are so many silver linings. Personally, I have loved watching my “out-of-the box” thinkers identify what works for them. I am constantly reminding myself, my family and my clients that an ADHD diagnosis does not define us; rather, it allows us to navigate the world a little differently. With understanding, realistic expectations and positive communication, we have the ability to help our children soar.