Teaching Self-Control to ADHD Kids, One Structure at a Time

Teaching self control

You Know What Temptation Is Like

You walk into your favorite coffee shop for a cup – black, no cream, no sugar. You're trying to rein in your calorie intake. But then you spot them. Fresh, warm chocolate chip cookies. The aroma is wafting towards you, enticing with its promise of comfort. But no! You turn your eyes away. You check your email. You look at the person in front of you in line and make up a story about her to pass the time. You do everything you can think of to resist temptation, get your coffee (okay, just a little cream), and leave. Congratulations! Your executive functions have helped you use self-control.

But what happens when that ability is impaired? Your ADHD kid is less able to regulate their actions. What is happening for them, and what can you do to be teaching self-control?

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ADHD and Action

In the tempting cookie example, this seemingly simple process of controlling your actions actually calls on a variety of cognitive skills:

  • we have to be aware of the situation;
  • we have to redirect our attention;
  • we have to use our mind's voice to coach ourselves through the moment;
  • we have to problem-solve.

All of this goes into that one moment, and we utilize executive functions to make the right call.

Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that are intricately involved in managing everyday tasks. This set of skills helps us do everything from manage our time and focus, to plan and act. ADHD parent and author Chris A. Zeigler Dendy calls it the “brain's CEO.” Since the ADHD brain matures much more slowly than the non-ADHD brain – a delay of some three years – this creates a deficit in many of these areas. The CEO is still a junior executive at this point. This is when regulating action becomes a struggle for both kids and parents.

Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom!

This is great in theory, but how does it show up for our kids? Teaching self-control is not easy! Action relates to the ability to know when to act and when not to. Classic ADHD impulsivity is actually what happens when action comes before thinking things through.

Say you're on the phone. Your kid might be in the background, trying constantly to get your attention. “Mom, Mom, Mom…” He needs that attention right then! And he can't regulate his actions effectively to allow you to finish your conversation and then turn your focus to him.

Putting Structures In Place to Teach Self-Control

So what's a mom or dad to do? As you identify the times in your child's life when impulsivity is a common occurrence, you can begin to put structures in place to teach your child self-control. Elaine uses a structure to help her kids learn not to interrupt, for example. She has taught them to put their hand on her arm to get her attention. When she puts her hand on top of theirs, she is signaling to them that she understands they want her attention, and she will get to them soon. No words have been spoken, and the child has avoided interrupting rudely. Better yet, they know, “Yes, I have my mom's attention. She's going to get to me in a minute.” They don't feel that they have to, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, MOM!!!” to get your attention.

Impulsivity and other challenges related to self-regulation can make life with ADHD chaotic. Often, kids (and ADHD adults) feel bewildered, as if they're navigating a world without a map that everyone else is using. This can lead to inappropriate behavior, acting out, meltdowns.

When you support your child with healthy systems and structures, one behavior at a time, you can teach self-control and help them manage their actions more effectively. And when you support yourself with help, community – and maybe a massage every now and then – you will find that your ADHD house is less chaotic and more joyful.

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