Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tends to run in families, so it’s common for both parent and child to struggle with the disorder. Naturally, this can create unique challenges when it comes to parenting.
“Having ADD and parenting a child with ADD has been one of the most difficult challenges in my life,” said Terry Matlen, ACSW, a psychotherapist and coach who specializes in ADHD and is founder and director of ADDConsults.com. Matlen’s daughter has ADHD and other special needs. She frequently hears from parents with ADHD who also worry about their ability to parent.
Sometimes, parenting can feel like “the blind leading the blind,” Matlen said. For instance, it might seem next to impossible to teach your child the very skills you struggle with. “If I have trouble organizing my space, how do I teach my child organizational skills? If I’m always dashing at the last minute, how do I teach my child better time management skills?” Matlen said.
But there are many strategies that can help. Here are 21 parenting tips that help you minimize stress, parent effectively and maintain a good relationship with your child.
1. Identify your challenges, and find solutions that work for you.
Pinpoint the problems your child is having and determine how you can help. For instance, homework has been a challenge for Matlen’s daughter. After a full day at school, she just didn’t have the mental energy to complete more assignments at home. Combine that with Matlen’s own exhaustion after her long days, and homework became a battle that started to chip away at their relationship.
To solve the problem, Matlen hired someone to help her daughter with homework several times a week. But as she got older, this, too, proved ineffective, so Matlen went back to the drawing board. “Because [my daughter] has ADD and a variety of special needs, I put in her IEP that her homework was to be done during school hours — when she was well medicated and had the structure she needed in order to sit still and focus. That may not work for all kids, but it was a miracle solution for us.”
2. Get creative.
Matlen uses a variety of novel strategies to remind her daughter about chores and other responsibilities. For instance, she used to write reminders on her daughter’s bathroom mirror. Now she uses a Boogie Board, an electronic writing tablet, for school-related reminders.
3. Ask your kids for tips.
Traditional reinforcement tactics like sticker rewards usually don’t work with kids with ADHD because they get bored easily, Matlen said. But it can be hard coming up with new strategies all the time, she said. She suggested simply asking your child what they think would work. “It’s amazing how well kids can come up with solutions if we just give them the opportunity to do so.”
4. Create visual cues.
Visual cues are very effective for people with ADHD. For instance, Matlen has made poster-sized lists for her daughter, which clearly lay out the steps to clean her room.
When her daughter forgets to speak softly and slams doors—Matlen is extra sensitive to loud noises—Matlen uses hand signals to remind her to lower her voice. What also helps is lowering your own voice, because kids usually match their parent’s tone.
5. Create consistency.
Both Matlen and ADHD expert Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, underscored the importance of structure and consistency. Adults benefit greatly from this, too, since managing time and being organized are challenges, Matlen said. “Keeping each day as structured as possible will lessen the stress for all.”
6. Explain expectations ahead of time.
“Children with ADHD need to know parental expectations ahead of time,” said Sarkis, who’s also the author of Adult ADD: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed and Making the Grade with ADD. For instance, before going to the grocery store, explain to your child how they need to act and positively reinforce proper behavior, she said.
7. Praise your child.
According to Sarkis, “In an ideal world, the ratio of positive statements to negative statements should be 6 to 1.” In other words, if you criticize your child once, you should praise them at least six times.
8. Take care of yourself.
“Most parents spend so much time and energy helping their kids that they neglect their own needs,” said Matlen, also author of Survival Tips for Women with ADHD and founder and director of the website MomsWithADD.com.
“If you aren’t taking good care of yourself, it is difficult to take care of anyone else,” Sarkis said. Taking good care of yourself includes getting proper treatment (seeing a therapist who specializes in ADHD and taking medication, if recommended by your doctor), getting enough sleep and being active.
9. Adjust your expectations about your child.
Both Matlen and Sarkis suggested parents create more realistic expectations and let the small stuff go. For instance, Matlen doesn’t mind when her daughter’s room is messy or she’s forgotten to wash her hair. Her house rules focus on safety and health.
“Decide which household rules are non-negotiable, and which you can let go,” Sarkis said. Holding your hand while crossing the street is non-negotiable. But fidgeting while completing homework isn’t a big deal. In fact, many kids with ADHD can’t sit still while doing homework, Sarkis said. As long as the homework gets done, who cares if they need to keep moving?
10. Adjust your expectations as a parent.
“There is no law that says, for instance, that the house must be immaculate, or that all family members must eat together every single night,” Matlen said. Instead, find what works for you as a family. “Honor and celebrate [your] differences!”
And remember that everyone makes mistakes. “Learn to forgive yourself. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect parent,’” Sarkis said.
11. Use positive phrases when giving instructions.
Avoid giving instructions with the word “don’t.” As Sarkis said, “The brain does not process ‘not.’” (She compared it to not thinking about a white elephant. Tough, right?)
For instance, rather than saying “’Don’t touch the cereal boxes on the grocery store shelf,’ tell your child to keep his hands at his sides, and reward him as often as possible for following directions,” she said.
12. Give one direction at a time.
Multi-step directions can get confusing and overwhelming. Keep things simple by giving one direction at a time to your kids, Sarkis said. Also, ask them to repeat the instructions so you know they got it, she added.
13. Give your child choices.
“Instead of having your child pick out his or her own outfit for school, lay out two outfits the night before,” Sarkis said. Your child gets to make her own decision, and you’re not spending the entire morning fighting about what to wear.
14. Ask your kids what they need when they act out.
“Did they have a rough day and just need a hug, are they hungry, or do they need to talk about their day?” Sarkis said. “Even if they aren’t really sure why they are upset, asking them how you can help can redirect them from being upset.”
15. Get outside help.
Women are taught that they must juggle motherhood, work and household chores successfully. If we don’t, then there’s something wrong with us. But as Matlen pointed out, having outside help, such as a housecleaner, professional organizer, coach or babysitter, is not a luxury. “They are accommodations for living with ADD.”
It also helps to hire a babysitter when you’re home. This creates more positive interactions between you and your child, Matlen said. “ADD parents often have a short fuse, and finding ways to cope will make life calmer and happier for both parent and child.”
16. Take a timeout.
When you notice the early signs of a stress meltdown, take a timeout. “Explain to the child that when things become tense, the parent may choose to give himself a ‘time-out’ in order to cool down,” Matlen said. “This is also a wonderful way for the child to learn how to be proactive with his own strategies for dealing with his stress.”
17. Carve out breaks for yourself.
Parents need to take breaks in order to refuel, Matlen said. That can mean spending time with their spouse or friends or by themselves.
18. Let kids have breaks, too.
Kids also need breaks from their parents and routines, Matlen said. Ask grandparents and close family and friends to have them over for sleepovers and other fun activities.
19. Educate your non-ADHD spouse.
It’s important for the spouse who doesn’t have ADHD to understand the disorder and how it manifests. Help them by providing books, articles and other resources to read, Matlen said. She also suggested encouraging your spouse to attend support groups.
20. Work with specialists.
It’s vital to work with mental health professionals who truly understand ADHD and the challenges that come with parenting. Remember that getting parenting help doesn’t make you a poor parent, Matlen said. In fact, it’s a smart and proactive thing to do. “One needs to understand that the ADD parent has special needs which often require special help,” Matlen said.
21. Don’t forget to laugh and have fun!
There’s no doubt that parenting a child with ADHD when you have the disorder yourself is stressful. But taking life seriously all the time increases everyone’s stress. Matlen encouraged families to see the humor in life, which can bring you together. Also, let your child take the reins and lead the family in a fun activity, Matlen said. This is a great tension-reducer.
While parenting is exhausting, finding what works for you and your family can ease the strain and improve your relationship. “Understanding one’s own special needs as an adult with ADD can take a parent a long way in learning how to cope and utilize the many tips and strategies available,” Matlen said.