ADHD Management Strategies

You don’t need us to tell you the name of the game with ADHD comes down to managing it! We’ve been giving tips to manage ADHD on ImpactParents for a decade now, and here is a collection of gems from over the years:

Filter Expert Advice

The traditional parenting gurus have amazing advice. Some of them are absolutely brilliant. Wendy Mogel, Hal Runkel … seriously, there are some terrific, wise experts out there.

BUT …

Whenever you listen to the traditional wisdom of the sages of parenting, remember to modify it for your kid!

More than a decade ago, Wendy Mogel (Blessings of a Skinned Knee) was speaking in Atlanta, and I asked her a question regarding a specific issue she was addressing – how does it work when your child has special needs?

She looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “it doesn't.” I don't know what else she said – I was so blown away. That's when I realized that parents of kids with complex needs are on a completely different path from other parents.

It was a defining moment for me – to stop trying to fit my kid into the traditional parenting mold. She didn't fit. I had to create a new mold.

So whatever your child's issues are, when you hear parenting advice, you need to run it through your own filter – the filter of a parent who understands your kid better than anyone else! Trust your instincts, and everyone will benefit.

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Try Double-Tasking 

There's a great ADHD management strategy to help adults and kids stay on task and complete projects, and it's called Double Tasking. 

Here's how it works: 

Instead of working on one thing at a time, try working on two things at a time. Now, I don't mean multi-tasking – your brain cannot do two things simultaneously (even if you think it can!) Rather, if you have two projects going at once, you can switch back and forth between them whenever attention starts to wander, or enthusiasm wanes. Instead of stopping mid-project and starting some other random activity when you lose interest in the task at hand, double-tasking sets the intention that, when you get bored, you already have something else you've decided to do. 

Examples include cooking dinner and opening the mail; or doing the laundry and managing communications from school; or even switching back and forth between studying for a test and doing math homework. The point is to keep your self (or your child) engaged and interested by anticipating distraction, and planning for it. Double-tasking is a proactive solution for ADHD brains that get easily bored. 

Why It’s Important to Let Your Kid’s ADHD Mind Wander Sometimes 

Now, I know we're supposed to be focusing our kid's attention and managing the symptoms of ADHD, but everything in moderation! Sometimes, the ADHD mind needs permission to wander at will. Whether it's taking a long shower, or staring out the window, a creative mind needs some unstructured time to keep those creative juices flowing. 

Now, you might be thinking, “Is she kidding? His whole life is unstructured time!” I get it. I live it. 

But the tip here is to remember that just because your child's mind has a tendency to wander doesn't mean it always needs to be re-directed. Our kids need a creative space for their brains to bounce around and explore new ideas. We need to accept that it's healthy for their “productivity” to be balanced with something that nourishes their brain – which for our kids could very well come from an hour of just listening to music. 

What Time is It? 

Once our kids learn to tell time, the next step is to teach them time management.  Help them understand how long things take, and how to balance tasks and schedules. 

Here's a simple way to teach your kids using mornings as an example. Do these steps with your child, even if they just watch and listen. 

  1. Create a list of the steps that need to be completed 
  2. Put them in order (out of bed, teeth brushed, dressed, at the table, breakfast finished, lunch made, backpacks packed, etc.) 
  3. Estimate how long each step takes 
  4. Use an analog clock to work backward and figure out what time each step needs to be done. (teeth brushed -7:10, at the table - 7:20, breakfast done - 7:40) 
  5. Agree on a system to “notify” everyone about the passage of time. This might be a clock in each room or a parent calling out time and tasks every 10 minutes. Adding a weather report at a certain time serves to help people choose clothes AND become more time aware. 
  6. Add an explicit motivator, a critical need for the ADHD brain. 

Try it out and adjust to make it better. Helping our kids with life skills is critical, and we must teach it, not just do it. 

Catch ‘Em Being Good 

You've probably heard that we want to praise our kids five times for every one time we correct or criticize them.  This helps to build their self-concept.  Frankly, that can be really difficult to do, especially because we are not aware of the many times a day that we say something our kids hear as a criticism. In their world, it's all about “them”, and they can't really help but to take things personally! 

So how do you come closer to the 5:1 ratio? Catch your kid being good. Acknowledge anything you can, thank them for everything you see them do right. You can do this even if what they are doing is their job and they are expected to do it! Don't you like to be told you're doing a good job? It's amazing how far you can get with a simple, “thanks for taking out the trash,” or “that was a nice way of responding to your little brother.” More than likely, you won't over do it. It's not easy to put a dent in all of those unconscious criticisms they hear daily. But it's definitely worth a try. 

Adopting ADHD Systems and Structures at Different Ages 

True or False: You Can Outgrow ADHD? 

Okay, it's a trick question. But more often than not, the answer is: False. 

ADHD is a chronic condition that continues to throw obstacles in your child's way as he develops. The good news – of course there is good news! – is that when you implement systems and structures into your kid's life, he will learn how to adapt, accommodate, and overcome those challenges as they arise. ADHD follows your child into adulthood, but so can helpful systems and structures. 

Adapting to Growth 

Let's say your child takes medication. Maybe, as a young child, you put it on the morning checklist and watch him take it. As he gets older, he keeps it in a days-of-the-week container and takes it before he gets on the bus. Then, it's tied to a house rule and he can't get his driver's license or borrow the car unless he takes it consistently. As an adult, he may set an alarm on his phone to remind him. When he learns the value of systems and structures, he will be more likely to use them on his own. Will the obstacles still be there? Sure. But he will have learned how to jump over them. 

Communication Strategies 

What's the Bottom Line? 

People with ADHD often have communication challenges. Many of them are “circular talkers.” They are so creative and non-linear that they tend to talk around a subject, or go off subject entirely. That can be difficult to understand and follow. A coach friend of mine refers to it as “taking a stroll through the tuna aisle” – looking at all the pretty cans and describing them in great detail, instead of just buying a can and getting out of the store! 

Here's the tip. When you notice that your kids (or you) are talking in circles, getting a little carried away on the details, gently interrupt them and ask them to summarize what they just said. “What's the bottom line?” You can even challenge them to do it in one sentence or less (our kids love to be challenged). At the beginning, you might need to help them. It takes a few tries to learn the skill. 

Then, talk with them about why it's important and how they can use it when they talk with others. It is important to help our kids become aware of how they communicate. If they do have a tendency to go to the tuna isle, it can get in the way of effective communication with their friends and teachers. If they get into a habit of “bottom lining” what they want to say, it can go a long way to help them in their interactions as well. 

Bottom line: Help your kids learn to be clear, and it can help their relationships! 

It might even help with your ADHD spouse – they tend to love tuna, too! 

Write it Down 

Selective Hearing 

How often do we make agreements with our kids, only to have them say, “You never told me!” "We didn't talk about that!” The best solution for this situation is preventative: Put it in writing.  As I approach age 50, I admit that my brain is a little “squishier” than it used to be. There are certainly times when I think I've told them something but I didn't (although not as often than my kids think!).  

Write It Down 

So, to protect from selective hearing from your kids, or gaps in your overwhelmed brain, here are some simple ideas on what you might put in writing: 

  • List of chores and homework assignments for the weekend. We make a plan on Friday night of what needs to be done each day, and a target for when it will get done. In her Time Management tele-class, Marydee Sklar suggests you write it on a big White Board in your kitchen or family room. This helps make sure that you don't get to Sunday night and find that nothing is done. 
  • Written “contracts” for car, cellphone use, homework, and school performance. We do one of these at the beginning of each new semester as a way to talk to my kids about commitment to the things that are needed to be successful in school. 
  • House rules. There are tons of variations, and they can be fun to create it together as a family. Elaine actually has a “Family Constitution” on her refrigerator which covers family guidelines, and is still funny enough to keep people interested. 
  • Financial log (answers the age-old question, did I actually pay you your allowance this week?). 
  • Love notes. Periodically leave little hearts or smiley notes – or “you rock” notes – around the house or in your child's lunch box. This can help make sure that they pay attention to the other stuff you put in writing! 

Good Kid, Bad Behavior? 3 Tips to Deal with Disrespect 

We sometimes forget the kinds of challenges our ADHD kids face – even if we face them ourselves! We get so caught up with their incomplete chores, backtalking, homework battles… situations that frustrate and anger us – that we forget there's a reason behind them. I know I get worked up when I'm not careful! 

When we become so focused on our kids' intense emotions, sometimes we forget that they are struggling and need our support. 

How can you step back and see the bigger picture? 

Realize it's not “disrespect.” When your kid lashes out at you, is she being disrespectful? Or are her emotions running wild? She may be so fixated on anger, fear, frustration, or anxiety that she literally forgets that she wants to be respectful. 

Handle it with compassion. Rather than viewing it as your kid being “bad,” remember that she's having difficulty managing her emotions. When you think about it with that in mind, it's easier to deal with charged situations calmly.  

Remember emotions are normal! We can't stop them – nor would we want to. Emotions are part of the richness of life. Focus on strategies for managing intense feelings in constructive, healthy ways. Reinforce that it's ok that your kid is mad; she just needs to deal with it in a way that does not hurt other people (like yelling or melting down). 

Here's the big picture: you've got a good kid. Sometimes her emotions get the best of her. It happens – to her and to you. When you see it for what it is and stay supportive, you may just find it happens less and less. 

Help Your Child Stay Focused 

Sustaining focus is a major obstacle for ADHD kids, and let's face it, ADHD adults! Teaching our children to use systems and structures can help them stay on track and complete everyday activities more effectively. Homework, for instance, is a daily struggle for many families. Try this: set an alarm on your phone so it vibrates every 10 minutes. At first, sit with your child so that you are BOTH working on independent tasks. When the timer goes off, ask, “Are we on track? Are we doing what we need to do?” It's okay to let your child catch you being off task once in a while! 

As he gets older and more accustomed to the system, he can do this on his own. “Am I still focusing on my homework?” He will be able to be more aware and conscious of where his attention is – and where it should be! 

Yes, You CAN Teach Kids with ADHD to Stop Distractions

Turn Off The Noise

This may sound obvious, but sometimes you just need to turn off the “noise”: the cell phones, the iPads, and anything else that goes “beep” in the night…and the day. I'm not calling for full silence – especially when our brains keep making all these loud noises on the inside – but a little noise reduction (literally and otherwise) can help everyone find a little more focus, and connect to each other better in daily conversations.

We are all living in an “interruption-driven” environment, and when you add ADHD and other executive dysfunctions to the mix, it can be incredibly difficult to stay focused.

So it's up to us to teach our kids the value of consciously turning off outside distractions so they can achieve their goals. Of course, it helps if we model it for them, ourselves.

Sometimes this is as simple as clearing off a desk before getting started on a project, or teaching your child to do that before studying for a test. Maybe it's verbally stating that you're putting your cell phone away during dinner. Or stating that you're going to turn off NPR when your child comes into the kitchen while you're making dinner.

Start By Raising Awareness

Other times it can be a lot more complicated. The idea is to raise awareness to the impact that distraction is having on our lives, so our kids can begin to recognize when it is interfering in theirs.

For example, one of my daughters came to me before exams one semester and asked us to change her Instagram password. She just knew that it was too distracting for her and she wanted to be able to focus on her studying, which was hard for her to do. After exams, we changed it back.

Now if we had changed her password without her involvement, there would have been a lot of screaming and crying. But because she had learned of the importance of minimizing distractions to set herself up for success, she actually came up with the idea herself – and that made all the difference.

Now, don't expect your teenager to volunteer this suggestion in the first week of practicing this strategy. But when you start small, by putting cell phones away during dinner, you'll eventually get to the pot of gold at the end of the… wait, no, rainbows are too distracting!

Activate the Brain 

You can't effectively manage ADHD without engaging the brain at some point in the process. It is, after all, a neurobiological condition. So when you understand what is actually happening in your child's brain, you can do something to influence and improve it. Below are some tips on how to activate the brain, and to really get things moving for you and your child. 

There are many ways to address activating the brain: 

  • exercise, 
  • nutrition, 
  • water, 
  • medication, 
  • fidgeting, 
  • brain-training, 
  • sleep hygiene, 
  • and more 

I do not want to prescribe for parents the choices that you make for your children. I do want you to be aware of the importance of engaging the brain in effectively managing the impact of ADHD. Medication is one such option, and there are many others. 

When you are dealing with any challenge with ADHD, ask yourself, “Is this an area where activating the brain could help? Is my child hungry, or sleepy, or does he need to move?” If there is something you can do, start there. It's often the source of many solutions! 

Let Them Read (Almost) Anything

I'm not a reading specialist, but I can tell you this: Kids with ADHD (who often struggle with reading, though not always) are motivated by novelty and interest.

If they LIKE the subject matter, they're more likely to read. If they're bored, they're less likely to stay engaged.

Reading takes a lot of effort for some kids, so it's gotta capture their attention enough for them to do the hard work of reading.

In some ways, then, the kind of book a child reads is not very important – what matters is whether its relevant to the child who is reading it. Comic books are every bit as helpful as chapter books – if it inspires a child to go to the effort of reading!

Now I'm not saying that you shouldn't also encourage your child to read quality literature and stretch his vocabulary. But if your child is struggling with complex material (especially if he's a young reader), consider reading aloud, or letting him listen to books on tape. Focus on helping him learn to enjoy the process of reading first, before you “make” him do the “hard stuff.”

Slow Down to Speed Up 

A Note From The Universe 

Every day, mixed in among the school notices, newsletters and email spam, I get a note from “The Universe.” Even when I don't read it, I smile, knowing that someone, somewhere, is trying to help us all manage this wild and wacky modern world with some semblance of calm and collectedness. 

A recent message was perfect for all of us parents of ADHD kids: “Fast takes longer when you hurry.” 

So true. 

"Hurry Up" Has The Inverse Effect 

We all know the inevitable “slow down” that happens when we try to rush our kids. They lose what focus they've got, and then get anxious on top of it. Like the proverbial union-slow-down, the more we push them to get moving, the slower they're likely to go. 

Slow It Down 

So instead of relying on rushing to get you places on time, take a breath and slow down a bit. Maybe allow for a little extra time (I know, easier said than done!). But try leveling your pace and see what happens. It might turn out that you'll only be 1-2 minutes later, but your (or your child's) mood will be in a place of calm. 

And remember this corollary my wise husband added to "The Universe": “Slow gets faster when you're happy.” 

Do Something Boring

In general, people with ADHD have a hard time doing things that are boring. That includes taking good care of yourself.  Let's face it, Eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, taking vitamins – they all take so much time! What's worse, they can be so boring!

I realize that when I take the time to do the boring aspects of self-care, the benefits are well worth it.  It's a dilemma, because it's all about delayed gratification, something that is not easy for people with ADHD.

So my suggestion this week is to do something boring for yourself. Here's how:

  1.  Identify something you really want to do for yourself that you've been having trouble sticking with.
  2. Figure out what the benefits will be for you when you do it.
  3. Really focus on your motivation – get specific, or draw a picture or write yourself a big note about WHY you want to do it.
  4. Figure out how you might make that one thing more interesting or fun.
  5. Tell someone else that you plan to focus on this one area (accountability helps).
  6. Commit to sticking with this ONE thing for 3 weeks.

Give it a try and see if it works. At the very least, it won't be boring!

Ask For What You Want 

Asking for what you want is a lot more difficult than it sounds. It actually involves executive function AND intentionality – both of which can be challenge areas for people with ADHD. So not only is it an important habit for parents, but it's a great skill to model for and teach your kids. 

Let's look at it. First, you must clearly identify what you want – and that's often a challenge. It requires decisiveness, decision-making, focus, prioritization. Think about how often no one wants to decide what to make for dinner, or where to go out to eat. THEN, you have to ask for something, and that requires mood management, emotional control, activation, even working memory (what was it I wanted to ask you, again?). 

But here's the thing. When you don't ask for what you want, it's a lot harder to get it. Sometimes it's going to fall into your lap. But more often than not, when we sit on our urges, we miss opportunities. 

So keep it simple, and see what happens. Ask for help unloading the dishwasher, or advice on an outfit you're wearing, or a hug after a long day. Today I asked my teenager to snuggle with me. Sure, she rolled her eyes… but she did it with a smile all the way to my lap. I got what I wanted. I suspect she did, too (but shhh, don't tell anyone, she might lose her teenage union card!). 

Get Clear About How You Feel About Change

Some people are all about change. They are all about self-improvement and personal development. They like to improve systems, or watch people grow. They like new and different. They place a high value on change in many forms.

Other people tend to be happy enough with things staying the same much of the time. They tend to be satisfied enough with their lot in life, and don't really know what all the fuss is about in terms of “self-improvement.” They like for things to be dependable and reliable. They place a high value on the status quo.

When “changers” and “status quo'ers” are in a relationship with each other, it can cause a lot of conflict. “Changers” become impatient with those who don't seem to be interested in self-improvement; and “status quo'ers” get annoyed by the constant transitions of those who thrive on change.

Now here's an exception to this rule: kids often appear like they don't want to change anything, and that tends to make their parents crazy. Even if the kids are changers, and even if the parents are status-quoers.

So the tip here is to get to know yourself and your kids, and your styles around change. Are there glimmers of hope that she might be a change-agent in ANY aspect of her life? (BTW – do not expect her to want to clean her room – be realistic!) You don't necessarily need to do anything about it right now. Just notice, and see what comes up.

Find the Humor (AKA The Banana Peel Perspective)

If you look for it, almost every scenario has both a silver lining and a banana peel perspective. The silver lining you probably already know – it's a positive way of looking at any situation (cue the violins playing in the background). It's a way of reframing something frustrating or difficult to find the opportunity or the advantage. 

The banana peel perspective may be a new concept for you. 

Think of it as the comedic way of looking at anything (cue the wa-wa horns). 

We tend to be excellent at taking things seriously, and even at finding the silver lining. Most of us could benefit from building the muscle to look for the "banana peel" perspective when things don't go our way. 

When we don't take things too seriously – when we look for the humor in a situation – we can often lighten up enough to avoid the stress cycle and manage whatever comes at us with more calm. 

That doesn't mean that we ignore "serious" situations. 

It just means that we can apply a filter to avoid seeing everything as overly serious! AND, even when something is serious, we still allow ourselves to use laughter where possible to lighten the load. 

If you've ever cried until you ended up laughing, or laughed until you ended up crying, then you probably know what I'm talking about. Sometimes in life it's a fine line between finding the absurdity or seriousness of a situation, and seeing the humor in it. 

As parents, we are in this for the long haul, and we have to expect our kids to do some “stupid” things over time. It's part of their job description. 

The more we laugh, and help them begin to see the banana peel perspective when things don't go their way (or our way for that matter), the easier life will be for the whole family. 

Oh, and one more thing. It works for adults when we do "stupid" things, too! 

ADHD Management Strategies

For more tips, check out our Treatment for Complex Kids, Manage Emotions & Impulses, and Organize Your Life and Family categories

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