Quick Tip

Video: #1 Most Important Thing to Help Your ADHD Kids (& Spouses)

Nearly every parent I work with struggles with this, “Why can't my kid just ____!”

You can fill in the blank with a variety of phrases: get his homework done? Listen to me? Stop talking back? Get out of bed in the morning? If your spouse is an ADHDer, you can probably use the sentence for her or him, as well!

Here's the reality: they can't just ____! The ADHD brain needs to be genuinely interested in something in order to take action.

Simple Science

For people who have no real challenges with executive function, this can be one of the hardest things for us to understand, even though it's simple science. The presence of a motivator is what fuels the neuro-pathways in the ADHD brain. Motivation helps ADHDers take action!

When most of us are faced with something that we really don't want to do, we simply press our imaginary “just get it done” button, and voila! We are able to make it happen. In the ADHD brain, the challenge is that the “just get it done” button has a glass box around it! They can see it, but they have a very hard time accessing it.

A motivator has to be in place if you want to help an ADHDer get something done.

You can do this in 3 easy steps:

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1. Identify: Figure out what motivates your child.

    • Start by asking yourself whether your child responds more favorably to positive or negative consequences (the carrot or the stick). While punishment might get immediate results, for most people it is not sustainable. If we continue to use avoidance of punishment as our child's only motivator, it begins to wear out our kids, our relationships and our selves. Set some time aside to “interview” your children and come up with a list of motivators. What activities do they like? What do they do in their free time?  What are their favorite TV shows or movies? Motivators don't have to be big and they don't have to cost money. When they were younger, my kids were motivated by being able to choose the radio station on the way to school, having story time with mom before bed, or choosing a favorite desert.You can also turn things that are already a privilege for your kids into a motivator. At my house, my kids get an hour of screen time a night.  Instead of automatically getting the time, we use it as a motivator to get them up and out in the morning. Downstairs by 7:20, you get 30 minutes.  Out of the house by 7:45, you get 30 more minutes.

2. Incorporate: Use motivators to help your children be more successful in accomplishing their goals.

      • Once you understand their motivators, begin to use them when you notice your child getting stuck. Here's an example from my daughter: “I notice you're having a hard time getting your room clean.  Why don't you set a goal to focus on cleaning for a solid 20 minutes? Then we can take a break and celebrate with a 10 minute dance party.”

3. Empower: Shift the responsibility for motivation from you to your children.

      • Motivation is a powerful tool. Even though we know that the ADHD brain needs to be motivated in order to maintain focus, it can be even more powerful when our kids begin to understand the concept and create tools to help themselves.

Here's what it looks like: “Son, you look like you've lost focus. What do you need to do to get back on task?” At (almost) 14, he's finally starting to get it. “I need a motivator!” is a typical response. He has learned to create incentives for himself (something to do with ice-cream usually). When it's working well, he finishes his homework in record speed.

How do you get there?

      • Educate your kids about the how their ADHD shows up, as early as you can, using terms they understand. For example, you might say: “Honey, did you notice how fast you were able to clean your room when you knew that your favorite show is starting in 15 minutes? Your brain definitely focuses well when there is something you really want waiting at the other end. We'll have to remember that next time you're having a hard time staying on track.” It might be helpful to share some information with them about your own motivators. They need to understand that we all need to motivate ourselves sometimes – it's not just an ADHD thing!
      • Instead of telling them what to do, encourage them to pull from a “tool-box” of tricks that you have both learned. Start by taking the results of the interview you did earlier, and create a list or a “box” of ideas that they can refer to if they need a motivator.

At the end of the day, when our kids (or our partners) can't just get things done, it's (usually) not that they are lazy or inconsiderate, or disrespectful.  It is simply a side effect of their ADHD and executive function challenges.  Teach them about motivators and get things moving!

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