A Huge “aha” Moment: Set Realistic Expectations for ADHD Kids

set realistic expectations for adhd kids

When Everything Starts to Make Sense

Challenges with Executive Function have many implications for the ADHDer in your life. One result is that, on average, our kids are 3-5 years behind their peers developmentally (about 30% for older teens)! This can make it really difficult to set realistic expectations for ADHD kids.

It seems like every time I share this with a client I can almost see the light bulb turning on. “Wow! That explains so much!”

So if you take your child's birth age, subtract 4 years, and think about what the kids are like in that class at school – things should start making more sense. Still hard to imagine? Go visit a classroom of kids 3-5 years younger than your child. You might be surprised at how familiar the behaviors feel.

If your kid is in 9th grade, even though they are 14 years old, they are actually more like a 5th grader who is just learning the skills to manage their work more independently. If your child is in 3rd grade, they may behave more like a child who is in Kindergarten.

For most of my clients, this knowledge is freeing, especially when you consider how frustrating it is when you don't understand why your child isn't “up to speed.”

So now that you know this, what should you do about it?

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Shift Your Expectations!

Let me be very clear: I'm not saying lower your expectations, I'm saying shift your expectations for kids with ADHD to be more realistic. As empowering parents, we always want to challenge our kids to grow and learn, to develop at an appropriate pace. But we want to make sure that we hold them to a pace that makes sense for them, rather than for their same-age peers who do not have ADHD!

Would you give a full cup of milk to a toddler? No, probably not. If you don't want to risk having a big mess to clean up, you would likely use a sippy-cup. Would you let your 12-year-old drive your car? As a fellow driver, I hope not. 😉

The 3-Step Process is Simple:

  1. Get clear on where your child is on the developmental ladder
  2. Figure out what the next step on the ladder is
  3. Support them in reaching the next step (and then the next, and then the next)

Real-World Example

What might this look like in real life? Let's say your child is having a hard time completing homework. First, get clear about the steps in the process, and which can be done independently. The steps of increasing academic independence might look something like this:

  • Teacher provides parent with written instructions for each night; parent reviews and leads the child through assignments.
  • Teacher provides written instructions; parent reminds child to check and complete assignments.
  • Teacher reminds child to write down assignments; parent reminds child to check and complete.
  • Teacher checks to make sure child writes down assignments each night; parent checks to make sure assignments are done.
  • Teacher posts assignments on webpage so that parents and kids can double check.

Shifting Expectations Is A Process

Each level is increasingly more independent. The challenge is to set our expectations for kids with ADHD at a realistic level that matches our child's development. When we don't, it typically leads to a lot of frustration for the adults involved, and bruised self-esteem for our kids. Taking the time to figure out what kids can reasonably do, and challenge them to their next level (rather than the level of their peers,) is a highly supportive solution for everyone involved.

If your child were in a wheelchair at the bottom of the stairs, you wouldn't expect that child to be able to get up and run up the stairs. Depending on their capability, you might expect them to scoot up backward, or crawl, or be carried. (You might also build one of those cool lift thingies!)

The point isn't to give our kids a free pass, or to do things for them. It's to figure out how to hold them accountable and, at the same time, set them up for success. So the next time you find yourself getting frustrated when you find that your child can't do something, take a step back. Identify clearly what they can do, set realistic expectations based on your understanding of your kid's ADHD, and support them in getting to the next level – when the time is right.

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