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Caring for a child with ADHD

Marisca Uitenweerde
Marisca Uitenweerde

Bringing up a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD comes with its own challenges. There are no hard and fast rules, as ADHD can have different degrees of severity and symptoms. However, children can benefit from person-centered or tailor-made approaches.

Please note:  These are just general observations. Every case is unique. Please seek the help of a trained mental health professional if you have any concerns.

ADHD can cause a child to have poor impulse control, which can lead to challenging or inappropriate behaviors. But an important step for parents is to accept that ADHD simply represents a functional difference in the brain. It does not mean that their child cannot learn right from wrong, but that they may need to find other ways to support their child in developing positive behavior.

Parents and caregivers will need to adapt their own ways of interacting with the child. This includes speech, gestures, emotional language, and the physical environment.

For a child with ADHD, consistency is vital. By using a supportive and structured approach, challenging behaviors can be limited, and the child can flourish.

The following tips have been compiled to help parents reduce disruptive behaviors and deal with challenges related to ADHD:

1. Keep it interesting

Encouraging exercise and giving praise are recommended parenting tips.

When a child with ADHD is doing a complex task, they are less likely to become distracted. Children with ADHD often get distracted if a task is not challenging enough. This is called distractibility.

The opposite of distractability is hyperfocus, which is when a child is focused to the point of being unaware of their surroundings. Hyperfocus can also be challenging but can allow a child to get important tasks done.

Many hobbies and jobs call for a high degree of focus, so if a child enjoys challenging activities and can focus while doing them, it is worth encouraging them to continue.

2. Give praise and encouragement

Good behavior should be reinforced with praise. It is just as important for children with ADHD to learn what behaviors are acceptable by receiving praise, as it is for them to learn what is unacceptable.

3. Provide structure

Providing structure with a daily schedule may limit sudden distractions. Knowing what to expect can be calming for children with ADHD. It can also be a good way to introduce responsibility into a child’s life.

4. Encourage exercise

Burning off excess energy through exercise can help by:

  • lowering the risk of depression and anxiety
  • promoting concentration and focus
  • improving sleep patterns
  • stimulating the brain

Parents can encourage physical activity by providing active toys, such as balls and skipping ropes, teaching their child to ride a bike, or enrolling them in a sport.

Children are also more likely to develop physically active habits if their parents are good role models in this area. Going on family hikes or playing outdoors together can help a child with ADHD expend excess energy and build healthful habits for the future.

5. Practice good sleep hygiene

Good quality sleep can help to regulate energy levels the next day. It can also improve stress and mood.

To this end, parents may want to try and include regular bedtime hours into the structure of the day.

6. Break tasks down

For someone with ADHD, some tasks can feel too complex and off-putting. Where possible, break tasks into achievable goals. As well as simplifying the picture, this can regulate the emotions associated with succeeding or failing.

If a child has been asked to clean their room, for example, it may be helpful to break this into smaller tasks, such as making the bed, putting any toys on the floor back into storage, or folding their clothes.

7. Think out loud

Children with ADHD often lack impulse control. This means they may say or do something without thinking it through. Getting them to pause and say out loud what they are thinking can have several benefits.

It can allow the parent to learn their child’s thought patterns. It can also give the child time to consider their thought, and whether or not to act on it.

8. Keep distractions to a minimum

If a child is easily distracted, it pays to keep their surroundings uncluttered. Depending on the child’s preferences, radios or televisions could be turned down or off.

Getting them to work on tasks away from the lure of TVs or games is important, and toys should be put away when they are doing something in their bedroom.

9. Explain rather than command

Explaining reasons for doing tasks in clear and positive language is helpful.

A parent or caregiver can give reasons for what they are asking, where it is age appropriate for the child. Keep it simple but expect to be asked to elaborate.

Explaining the reasons for doing a task can alleviate worry and confusion in a child with ADHD. When explaining things, a person should use positive and clear language.

Explaining the reasons for asking the child to do a task is also respectful, and self-respect is crucial if the child feels they may be different to others.

10. Introduce wait time

The idea behind wait time is similar to thinking out loud. If a child waits a few seconds before speaking or acting when they have a thought, they have time to consider if it is appropriate.

This will take a lot of practice, but it can be worth it, and it can give them a real advantage in their social life.

11. Do not get overwhelmed

When a parent is overly stressed, not only does their wellbeing suffer, but they can also be less effective in supporting their child.

If a person’s workload and obligations become overwhelming, it can be beneficial to ask for support. Friends, family, or local ADHD groups are potential sources of help. Even just dropping one thing from a person’s weekly schedule can reduce stress.

12. Avoid using negative language

Positive feedback can help build a child’s confidence.

A child with ADHD may feel that they are disliked or that they always do things wrong. Reinforcing this with negative language can be hurtful and make disruptive behaviors worse.

It is impossible to be positive all the time, and so it is essential for a parent to find an outlet to express their concerns or worries. This might be a friend, partner, or a therapist.

There are also online groups where parents of children with ADHD can discuss their challenges with people in similar situations.

13. Don’t allow ADHD to be in control

While some allowances can be made, ADHD does not excuse poor behavior. Children and parents both need boundaries, and it is essential for children to learn that there are always consequences when they misbehave.

These consequences should be appropriate and consistent. If a child sees a parent does not always follow through on the consequences, this may encourage the unruly behavior.

14. Pick your battles

Living with a child who may demonstrate hyperactive and impulsive behavior can be a constant challenge. If a parent addressed every problem, every day would be stressful and unpleasant for everyone.

Learning to let the smaller things go can alleviate stress in the long-term, and help a parent focus on curbing the more important behaviors.

15. Do not see other adults as the enemy

It is natural for parents to feel protective, but when a child has ADHD, it can seem that other caregivers do not understand them or do not care enough. Good communication can help solve this problem.

It can help to talk with anyone your child has contact with about ADHD, explaining their preferences, and describing the most effective interventions for challenging behavior.

16. Keep working to modify behavior

If improvements to behavior stall or seem to have reached their limit, keep trying. Children with ADHD have huge potential.

Perhaps a strategy needs to be tweaked, or even just paused for a while. Children go through many developmental leaps and sometimes they plateau.

It is essential to be patient and keep trying to make positive changes, even if they take time.

17. Find specialist support

An ADHD therapist can help with parental stress in addition to a child’s behaviors. As well as professional help, there are also many local and national support groups. Input from other parents in a similar situation can be invaluable.

18. Take breaks

Spending the entire day focusing on any child can be exhausting. Take breaks where possible, either by arranging a babysitter or trading off responsibilities with a partner. The more energy a parent has, the better they can cope with stress.

19. Stay calm

Remaining calm allows the brain to problem-solve and communicate better. There are many ways for a parent to stay calm in challenging situations. These strategies include:

  • meditating regularly
  • practicing sport
  • sticking to a routine to eliminate the stress of “what next?”
  • walking in nature or other calming outdoor space
  • reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption

20. Remember that all children misbehave

It can be easy to think that all challenging behavior is caused by ADHD, but all children misbehave sometimes. Learn which behaviors need managing, and which ones are normal parts of growing up.

21. Be kind to yourself

It can be tempting to imagine that everyone else is coping better, but if a person speaks to other parents of children with ADHD, they will likely be feeling the same way.

Parents of children with ADHD should try to appreciate the challenges they have overcome and take pride in what they have achieved.