As you collapse into bed after another exhausting day of managing your child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) 24/7, you’re probably wondering how your family is going to survive an extended stay-at-home order. While it’s challenging enough for you to stay calm in the midst of all of the changes and unknowns of COVID-19, it’s extra tough supervising kids who struggle with academics, miss their friends and argue with their siblings. Living with a child or teen with ADHD and/or a learning disability (LD) is complicated enough without those added challenges. What can you do to ease the stress and create a home structure that works for everybody?
First, start with some compassion — for yourself and for your child or teen. Take a deep breath and accept that family life is just going to be more intense for a while. We are all doing the best we can to get by in an unprecedented time. Kids with and without ADHD are at home for reasons they may not fully understand and most feel sad, scared and angry. They’ve lost what’s familiar to them — daily routines, seeing friends, playing sports, participating in extracurriculars. For kids with ADHD who naturally struggle with impulse control and managing emotions, they’re likely to act out more than usual by refusing to cooperate or arguing with everyone about trivial issues. Like you, they’re stressed, but they haven’t yet developed the executive functioning skills needed to express their feelings appropriately and use effective problem-solving strategies.
In order to create a structure that actually works, you have to work together. Make a short, weekly family meeting to figure out a daily schedule that includes everyone’s needs. The day could be divided into blocks for studying, doing chores, exercise, fun activities and chilling out (with and without screens). You may need more frequent breaks than you expect, because kids with ADHD and LD often struggle to concentrate on one thing for too long.
Follow these tips to help make your family’s plan and then post it in the kitchen and bedrooms so people can easily refer to it. Expect to make adjustments along the way at a weekly family chat.
1. Set up formal study periods. Break assignments into do-able chunks based on how long your child or teen can actually focus. If your son can focus for 20 minutes and then needs a quick break, set up three of these consecutive periods before a longer snack or movement break. Offer incentives (like bonus screen time) for the completion of work. Plan on working yourself at the table alongside to be available for any questions and help them stay on task.
2. Manage screen time and use it to your advantage. Kids with ADHD often struggle mightily to get off their screens. Gaming and social media are now their lifelines for connections with friends. Plan for a certain amount of daily automatic screen time with bonus time. Here’s how this works: If you want your kids to have three hours of daily time on their devices outside of schoolwork, try giving them a baseline of 90 minutes. They can then earn bonus time based on completing schoolwork and chores. If they argue and can’t get off the devices as planned, they don’t earn the privileged bonus time. If you are working from home, use your kids’ automatic screen time to your advantage and schedule it for times that will help you.
3. Do chores together. When the whole family is doing chores, it’s easy to keep kids involved. Your presence aids their focus and helps them accomplish tasks without drifting off. Discuss which chores your kids can do according to their ability and the value of contributing to the household in this pandemic. To make things more fun, add music. Why not dance through after dinner clean-up? How about singing while making lunch? These may seem corny but music and dancing lift our spirits and make us smile.
4. Exercise. Whether it’s hide and seek, jumping jacks, free dancing to music your kids love and you dislike, yoga, walking or biking, get yourself moving with your child. This will really help kids with ADHD with their initiation and follow through.
5. Extend wake-up and bedtime routines. It’s harder to get up and get moving or go to bed when there’s nothing compelling you to do so. For kids with ADHD who often lack motivation for things they don’t want to do or dislike, it’s even tougher. Cut your kids and yourself some slack and think about giving them an extra half hour. It’s okay to make exceptions right now.
6. Play with your kids. If you give them your attention freely and positively, then they won’t need to act up to get it. Make a master list of games, interests or projects that you and your kids have always wanted to do or try out but never had the time to explore. Rank them according to interest, post on the refrigerator and work your way down the list.
Take time to answer questions about COVID-19 with honesty. Children and teens with ADHD are concrete thinkers and benefit from hearing information from you instead of searching for it online. These conversations can calm some of their concerns while opening the door for other issues such as friendship or school. During this strange time, remember to take care of yourself so you’ll be available to take care of others. Reach out to folks for support but try to not discuss distressing content in front of your kids.
Sharon Saline is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “What your ADHD child wishes you knew: Empowering kids for success in school and life” and “The ADHD solution card deck.” For more information, visit drsharonsaline.com.