Tips and Strategies for Managing Life With Children With ADHD

Penny Williams of Asheville, N.C., still remembers the day she got a call from her son’s kindergarten teacher. It was the second day of school, and the teacher requested a meeting for that same day.

“He was always a really rambunctious boy, but he was also so sweet and caring,” says Williams, an author, podcaster, and parenting coach for neurodiverse families. “And then he went to school, and everything fell off the rails. … He was so wild and active and unfocused and so was really struggling with following along with the system of the classroom.”

About a year later, her son was diagnosed with ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She struggled back then to find resources and information about how to parent a child with ADHD. So, she dived into reading books and began blogging about her experience.

Now, 13 years later, her son is 19 and she’s helping other parents raising kids with ADHD cope in a neurotypical world.

“As I was obsessively researching, I was wondering why no one was putting this out there to help other parents,” she says. “I felt like I had spent so much time and energy trying to figure it out. I wanted to share it so someone else wouldn’t have to go through such a lengthy ordeal.”

Erin Snyders, a mom of three in Minneapolis, MN, and an ADHD parenting coach, had a similar experience with her son.

“Life before the diagnosis was very chaotic and confusing,” she says. “As a parent I felt like a total failure. I knew he was really smart and a really kind kid with a great heart, but his behavior was not matching that.”

Williams and Snyders, like many parents with children with ADHD, have found that a mix of strategies, treatments, and medication have helped them manage symptoms, teach new skills, and manage daily life.

Medication for ADHD

There are a variety of medications — including psychostimulants (such as Adderall and Ritalin) and nonstimulant medications (such as Intuniv, Kapvay, and Strattera) — that can help children manage their ADHD symptoms. These symptoms include things like impulsivity, hyperactivity, and the inability to focus. The type of medication — or whether medication is used — is a personal preference. It’s something each parent should discuss with their child’s doctor. A lot depends on the severity of a child’s symptoms, the child’s sensitivity and reactions to different medications, and other factors.

Williams says her son began taking medication soon after his diagnose when he was in the first grade. But it took some time to find the right medicines for him and the right dosage.

Ultimately, he needed to take a few medications together. Williams says the medication helped him calm down and focus for longer periods of time. But he has since stopped taking medication in his late teens due to side effects.

“It was not immediately great, it took some trial and error,” Williams says. “For several years he was pretty steady with a stimulant and another medication added.”

Snyders says her son first tried stimulant medications, but it increased his anxiety. Now, he is on a nonstimulant medication.

But both women stress that medication is only one piece of the puzzle.

Snyders says if you try medication and it begins working, that is the time to begin teaching coping mechanism and skills, like time management, emotion regulation, prioritization, how to transition between activities, and more.

Diet, Exercise, and Lifestyle Changes

Many families also try a variety of other treatments to help with their child’s ADHD symptoms.

Snyders says through the years, her family has tried many different treatments and therapies, including chiropractic care. They’ve also made changes to their diet and exercise habits.

“We definitely see changes with diet and with exercise — those have been the biggest for us,” she says. 

Snyders says having her son walk or run on the treadmill for 15-minutes before school helped, as did genetic testing, which pointed them to vitamin supplements that have made a big difference for her son.

But some treatments didn’t have a big enough benefit to call for the time, energy, and expense. She warns other parents not to try to do everything at once or perfectly all the time.

“Parents who are raising kids with ADHD expect themselves to do all the things all the time,” she says. “You can’t expect yourself to have a perfect diet, work out every day, etc. That’s just setting yourself up for exhaustion and failure.”

Parenting Strategies and Mindset

While medication and support at school helped both their children, Williams and Snyders say managing their own expectations, reactions, and mindset have made the biggest difference for them and their families.

“The biggest piece was our own parenting and mindset around ADHD and behavior,” Williams says. “That’s when things started to become a little easier for us and I worried less because I understood what was going on under the surface.”

When working with new families, she says she tells them: “It’s about 90% for us as parents and 10% is skill building and coping mechanisms for the kids.”

Snyder says one of her biggest breakthroughs was recognizing that ADHD is a type of developmental delay.

“The biggest ‘aha’ moment for me was understanding executive age,” she says, which is the child’s age based on how his or her brain is functioning. “Your child’s executive function, impulse control, processing speed, all of it is delayed by about a third of their age. So instead of thinking about how he should be functioning at 9 years old, I think to myself, ‘How would I have helped him through this when he was 6 years old?’”

She says the reframe helps her to meet her son where he is and not where she thinks he should be.

Williams agrees. She says she tries to think of a child’s behavior as their way of communicating. So, when a child is having a tantrum or yelling, she sees it as their way of sharing that something is wrong.

“One parenting mantra that has helped me is: ‘He’s not giving you a hard time, he’s having a hard time’,” she says. “That gives you the lens for more compassion and a better relationship. Your problem solving is better then and it’s a much more comfortable and pleasant way of interacting as a family.”

Practical Tips for Getting Things Done With ADHD

One helpful trick that Snyders uses daily are Point of Performance reminders — or reminders that happen when a child needs to perform a task or remember something.

“If you remind them too early or after the fact, they are less likely to succeed,” she says. She uses technology — such as cell phone alarms — and post-it notes to remind her children of daily routines or to turn in homework, a common struggle she sees in children with ADHD.  

She also says children with ADHD need help getting motivated to do the things they need to do.

“Writing a to-do or chore list isn’t enough. You’re going to have to motivate your kid to get to the list,” she says.

Snyders says consistency is key. She suggests doing hard tasks at the same time every day or setting an alarm for when your child needs to start. And, when your child is learning or working on new skills, she recommends frequent rewards or quick wins to encourage them along the way.

“Our kids experience so much more negative feedback every single day. So, trying to help build some positivity and success often means starting really, really small,” she says. “Don’t try a big chore chart for the week, start with a day. For example, ‘I cleaned my room today, so I’m getting a reward today.’”

Tips for Difficult Days

Williams says sometimes, the best way to get through a bad day is, “letting go and a lot of self-care.”

“Sometimes, you just have to say, today isn’t the day because sometimes it just isn’t,” she says. “When our kids are really struggling, they can’t do the homework. They can’t have a conversation and plan something out. It’s just not possible. Take a step back to say, the homework is not that important tonight. We’ll work on it tomorrow. We’ll catch up over the weekend. Sometimes, it’s cause for doing nothing. Just for being.”

Snyders agrees.

“You have to be OK setting aside society’s expectations and society’s expectations of motherhood and do what’s best for your family,” she says.

Snyders says the most important thing for parents to remember is that everything will be OK.  

“Have the trust that this is going to get better, they will mature and grow, just on their own time,” she says. “The most important thing you can do is build a relationship with your child. They need a loving parent. They need that person that they know is in their corner.”

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