By Kate Rockwood
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is common: The 2018 National Survey of Children's Health estimated that about 9% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD. It’s a condition that can make it challenging for kids to focus, control their impulses, and stay seated without fidgeting. When unmanaged, the symptoms impact friendships, schoolwork, and even family relationships.
Luckily, ADHD has been around for a long time, and there are many very effective treatments—lifestyle changes and medications—that can help kids thrive. With these thoughtful steps, you can support your child in developing strategies that will keep symptoms in check from elementary school through adulthood.
If you suspect your child has ADHD, the first step is getting a formal diagnosis from a clinical psychologist, physician, or clinical social worker. Check in advance to see if your insurance will cover all or part of your child’s ADHD evaluation or treatment—some plans may only cover certain brands of medication or diagnoses from certain specialists.
If an assessment with a specialist is too expensive, there are a variety of options for getting a free or low-cost assessment, including having it done for free at your child’s school. You can also ask your child’s primary care physician to conduct the assessment or refer you to affordable options.
There are many prescription medications that are very effective at treating ADHD symptoms. For children younger than 6, the American Association of Pediatricians suggests that parents try behavioral therapy first. Some mental health providers will train parents in behavior therapy to give them tools to better understand and respond to their children’s needs. For older children, medication, in combination with behavior therapy, can improve your child’s ability to learn and focus and reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity.
Additionally, you can take certain steps at school and at home to help your child flourish.
Children with ADHD do best when they understand what’s expected of them. Often, what looks like disobedience is just that kids didn’t hear or fully process what you wanted them to do. Write out household rules and put them where your child can see them, such as on the refrigerator. Keep them clear, simple, and consistent—a moving target will make it hard for your child to understand what to do to succeed.
Make successes a cause for celebration. Praising your child for a task well-done will help them build confidence and get excited about meeting expectations. Often, kids with ADHD receive a lot more negative feedback than positive. Reward successes with praise, privileges, or activities, to build their self-esteem back up, but remember to switch up rewards every once in a while so your child remains enthusiastic about the prize.
Kids with ADHD need structure and routine. Establish rituals around daily events such as meal time, homework, and getting ready for bed. This could be as simple as washing hands ahead of meals or setting out clothes for the next day before bed. Once these routines become a habit, they’ll begin to happen naturally.
Clocks or timers are a good tool for helping your child get things done in a timely manner. “Get dressed in five minutes,” isn’t likely to mean much to kids unless they’re able to look at a clock and see what five minutes actually looks like.
Your child may have a hard time remembering or focusing on long, complicated directions. Instead, break tasks into bite-sized pieces. If the goal is to clean the playroom, start by having kids pick up the Legos that are scattered around the room, and only after that’s done ask them to put stuffed animals in the toy bin. Celebrate after each success to help them build a sense of accomplishment.
Encourage your child to channel the need to move into healthy hobbies, such as sports or other activities. Sports with constant motion, such as basketball or hockey, may be best for children with ADHD. Organized activities will help your child build focus, learn teamwork and social skills, and burn off excess energy—which will lead to better sleep.
Be open and honest with your child’s school about the ADHD diagnosis. Public schools are required by law to help you and want to see your child succeed in the classroom. (See your child’s rights by state here.) Request an educational evaluation to see if your child qualifies for special resources, including testing help and individual attention, under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act. Even if your child doesn’t qualify for special services, forming a team between you, your child, and her teachers will make sure everyone understands what she needs to succeed.
To take care of your child, you also need to take care of yourself. When managing your child’s behavior gets frustrating, take some time to relax. Read a book, take a bath, go for a walk, or get some exercise. Consider joining a support group with other parents of children with ADHD, where you can compare notes, share frustrations, and celebrate successes together.
Remember that ADHD is a real medical condition—it is in no way caused by the way you’re parenting. You’re not going to be able to win every battle with your child, but by taking care of yourself, you’ll be able to ensure that you’re providing him or her with the best, most supportive environment possible.
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