When parents learn their child has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), they react in various ways. One parent might see himself in his child (attentional disorders are often hereditary), while the other might feel confused because organization comes naturally to her.
Some might want to “fix” the disorder with medication or diet, others might hope it dissipates on its own, while others might feel it isn’t a “disorder” at all. Perhaps the best way for a parent to begin is to find a community so you can research and discuss your reactions and options with others.
And then, keep an open mind. For example, some students I’ve known did not do well with medication while others described being on medication as “me on my best day.” There are as many ways to address this as there are students who have been diagnosed.
Shift your philosophy. Perhaps it’s less about “fixing” or “treating” the symptoms and more about helping your child navigate particular situations and experiences. After all, there is nothing wrong with your child. Rather, there are different settings and situations that require different approaches.
For instance, some kids with ADHD get particularly revved up at birthday parties and find it hard to observe social norms such as not crowding their friends, waiting their turn in a game or using an indoor voice. Even if they manage to do these things in school, often children struggle to transfer one set of coping strategies to a different setting.
We all learn to adapt to new circumstances; we do not behave the same when we watch sports on a lazy Sunday afternoon as we do at an office cocktail party. But some children need to be taught these changes in nuance and setting.
Embrace routines. All kids benefit from routines. But kids who struggle with ADHD and ADD especially do. Bedtime should be both reliable and reasonable. Kids should do the same thing prior to bed each night. They should know what to expect in the morning, and each segment of the routine should be allotted a reasonable amount of time. (Give kids too much time and they dawdle; too little and they become anxious.)
My favorite strategy came from a former student back in the day of mixed tapes. He created a tape for himself set to some of his favorite music and he was the DJ. He pressed play when the alarm went off and listened to his own voice talking through his morning routine on tape, allowing for just the right amount of time to complete each task. Even though mix tapes are a thing of the past, your child could do something very similar using a computer.
Let your kid take control. As my former student did with his mix tape, figure out ways for your child to own some of the work. If it begins to feel as though all of your conversations consist of you nagging her, something must change. Together, brainstorm ways for making mornings and evenings easier.
How can homework time become less painful? How can she be the one telling herself what needs to be done? Is there a way to organize your home or her room so that what she needs for certain activities stays in a designated place? Are there things you nag her about that could be let go?
Organize. Some kids are born with a secretary inside their heads and some aren’t. It’s that simple. Until your child hits it big and can hire his own help, you may need to be his secretary. This is normal and understandable. Don’t expect your child—even in high school—to be able to manage deadlines and long-term projects without your help.
Model good habits by listing your own deadlines on the family calendar. Talk through what goes into each deadline. You may need to insist on more check-ins than the teacher has created. In your home, create an area for toys and another for homework. As you construct your days, make time for play as well as work and quiet reflection as well as active sports. Experiment with the order of things. Perhaps he focuses better on homework if he’s had a half-hour to blow off steam.
Nurture strengths and persevere. What does your child love to do? Try to give your child opportunities for success—especially when she is forced to spend much of her day living up to someone else’s expectations. Avoid tying this activity to punishment for bad behavior. Rather, this should be a source of pure joy and nourishment. Equally important, she can use this activity to learn to push past frustration.
Many children with ADHD give up too quickly. Their impulsivity makes them throw down the book or problem and declare “I can’t do it” when they’ve barely tried. Yet the most successful people are those who push through moments of frustration.
So find something that she is already good at and loves, and provide the resources so she can get better at it. When she inevitably hits that wall, help her push past. When this happens again with other activities, remind her of that moment of persisting.
Parenting is the hardest job I know. We want so much for our kids. Most of all, we want them to succeed and to have easy lives. But it’s simply not the reality; ease and success don’t often go together. So parenting becomes about blending moments of heartache and joy, of truth and ideals. But with routines, organization and support, you can experience more joy than heartache as you and your child navigate the worlds of ADD and ADHD.
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.