How to Get Your ADHD Child’s Attention

How to Get Your ADHD Child's Attention

Communication Barriers

As different as we all are, there are certain fundamental things most families have in common about how we communicate. Do you recognize any of these scenarios?

  • Your kid is playing video games, and you want their attention to take out the trash or set the table.
  • Your kid is upset and angry because you just imposed a limit, and you want to explain why you made that decision.
  • You've asked your spouse to help with … just about anything … only to later hear, “you never asked me.”

The list could go on, of course. Sound familiar? In ADHD land – or any land, for that matter – one big challenge to effective communication is to get and hold someone's attention at the time that works for them.

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How to Get Your ADHD Child's Attention?

I hear it from clients all the time, “Why can't he just do what I ask?” Looking at the situation, we see two steps, 1) listen to what I say, and 2) do it!

Seems simple. In reality, it's really very complex, particularly for the ADHD brain. Here's an example: your child is watching TV, and you want them to take a shower. In order for that to happen, here are (some of) the steps your child's brain has to go through:

  1. Notice that there is “something else” going on besides TV.
  2. Decide that “something else” (mom's voice) is more important than watching TV.
  3. Stop focusing on the TV.
  4. Focus on mom's voice.
  5. Keep focusing on mom's voice to get all the information (i.e. avoid going back to the TV or getting distracted by something else).
  6. Figure out what mom wants me to do.
  7. Take action (initiate).
  8. Keep the action moving forward (i.e. avoid going back to the TV or getting distracted by something else).

You get the picture. Each one of these steps on how to get your ADHD child's attention requires executive function, something that most of our kids have in limited supply. By the time you are done making your request, they are likely still on step #1. That means your child doesn't really hear what you are asking.

The most important tip here is... Get your child's attention first! Before you give instructions, make sure you have their attention. This will hugely increase the likelihood that what you are requesting will actually get done.

At our house the rule is:

  1. Say the name.
  2. Wait for eye contact.
  3. Make the request.

When Does It Work Best?

When they least expect it. Here's what I mean. Let's say you want your child to take out the trash today. Don't wait until you want it done. Set the expectation well in advance, and set a clear deadline: “By the way, Joel, I'd like you to take out the trash sometime today, before 5:00. Will you do that?” Let them know it's coming when it's not time-critical. Then, at 4:45, if it hasn't been done, you can remind helpfully (not critically, because they haven't actually missed the deadline), and if it has been done, you can praise them all the way to the bank!

Or, you've just identified something your teenager did ‘wrong,' and there are some lessons you really want them to get from the experience. Say nothing. Then, later, maybe at dinner, or playing cards, or during a commercial, you can bring it up again: “Julie, I know you felt bad about that happening. Don't worry about it – mistakes happen. But can we talk for a few minutes about how to keep it from happening again?” Now, you have a better shot at having a conversation, instead of giving a lecture, and being dismissed.

People with ADHD get hot under the collar for ‘no' reason, sometimes, because we get tired of being wrong all the time. When you say, “I asked you to …,” you are telling them that they did something wrong. At that point, they are triggered, and they can't really hear you. So help them by setting them up for success…when they least expect it!

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