Eight-year-old Éva is constantly challenged at school. An environment in which she’s expected to focus for long periods isn’t ideal for someone who has a hard time paying attention for more than five or 10 minutes at a time. That makes it all the more important to her mother, Patricia Tomasi, to make home somewhere Éva can feel safe and secure.
“At home, she’s free to be herself,” says the Barrie, Ont., mom. “There are still rules and there’s still discipline, but she’s free to run and yell as much as she needs to.”
Keeping it together all day long can be challenging for kids with ADHD, so here’s how to set things up so home is a place where they can let loose, recharge and relax, and where you can all enjoy family time together.
While experts say no method of discipline will eliminate ADHD symptoms altogether, the following techniques can be helpful in teaching kids who have ADHD learn to follow rules and instructions.
Good discipline for kids with ADHD is closely tied to behavioural therapy strategies: When they act appropriately, kids are rewarded with privileges. When they don’t achieve their goals, there are consequences. Some experts recommend a token system, in which kids can earn points for completing tasks (for example, making the bed), lose points for misbehaviour (ignoring rules) and spend points for privileges (staying up 30 minutes past bedtime).
Before her kids can read, make magnetic images of each task they needed to complete prior to going to school, such as brushing their teeth and getting dressed, and put these on a magnetic board in each child’s room. For older kids, you can make simple checklists with a breakdown of the tasks in their routine and boxes for them to check as they complete each one.
Noticing and praising good behaviours, like when your child stays in their seat through a meal or remembers to write homework down in their planner, reinforces good behaviour.
It’s always important for parents to set clear expectations, but even more so when their kid has ADHD. If the rule is your son needs to clean his room before watching YouTube, be precise about what constitutes a “clean” room. Is it just putting dirty clothes in the hamper and making the bed, or does it involve sweeping the floor and putting books back on the shelf?
Having a time out can be a useful strategy for kids with ADHD, especially when they are having trouble regulating their emotions. Kids should have a clear understanding of the kinds of behaviours that will land them in time outs. Avoid being angry, emotional or getting into arguments, as too much negative attention can reinforce problematic behaviours.
Sarah Gander, a paediatrician at New Brunswick’s Horizon Health Network, says time outs may need to be shorter for kids with ADHD, and it’s important that the time-out zone is quiet and free from stimulation. “Putting them in a time out in a bedroom that has a TV, an iPad, all of their toys, all of these distractions, doesn’t really allow them to decompress,” she says.
Consistency is king when it comes to parenting a child with ADHD. Rules shouldn’t change from day to day or parent to parent. Consequences for misbehaviour also need to be consistent. If you have a rule in your house that your child will lose their meal if they get up from the table, this rule needs to be enforced every time the child leaves their chair.
The best techniques come from knowing your own child’s strengths and weaknesses, and looking for creative strategies. For example, Patricia used to struggle with getting Éva off her tablet. While no kids like being told they need to stop doing something they enjoy, Éva’s reaction was often a complete meltdown. So Patricia gives her daughter lots of advance notice and encourages her to set a timer on the tablet. “She’ll tell me eight more minutes, then five more minutes. And then when it gets down to zero, she gets the satisfaction of turning it off herself,” Patricia says.
Young children with ADHD often have a high-energy enthusiasm that lends itself well to playtime. Play can even help moderate difficult ADHD behaviours because it increases dopamine levels, which is similar to the effect of stimulant medications. For younger kids, tabletop activities like puzzles, Lego and colouring are fun ways to learn to sit in one place and focus.
Bonnie Guy from Toronto, who has two children with ADHD, says sensory play, such as squelching rain boots in mud or drawing pictures on a tray with unscented shaving cream, seem to be especially helpful for her kids. “Sensory experiences help to draw your mind into the present and focus on what you’re experiencing in the moment, rather than your mind scattering around to different thoughts,” Bonnie says.
Calgary mom Joan Chand’oiseau says all three of her kids have very creative minds—including the two who have been diagnosed with ADHD. So they tend to gravitate toward artistic and imaginary play, such as crafts, dressing up or making up stories together. “They have creative brains, so it’s about trying to reach them where they’re strong,” Joan says. “We have the hugest dress-up section you’ve ever seen.”
As kids grow older, however, undesirable ADHD behaviours can sometimes express themselves during activities with other children. Kids with ADHD tend to be bossy in play and want to define the game and its rules. If things don’t go their way, they may abandon the activity. These kids may even find that other children begin avoiding them.
Gander says parents can help at home when they play with their kids by pointing out anti-social behaviours. “As a parent, you have to play the role of a peer,” Gander says. “If your child changes the rules or gets frustrated or gets too bossy, you’re the peer saying, ‘I don’t want to play with you if you play that way.’”
Kids with ADHD can be especially fond of video games, but parents need to be mindful of how much time kids spend in front of screens. When the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) put out recommendations on limiting screen time for preschool-aged children in 2017, they noted that the effects of too much screen time might be worse for kids with ADHD. The CPS recommends no screen time for neuro-typical kids under two and no more than an hour a day for kids two to five years of age.
Multiple studies have shown aerobic exercise can help reduce ADHD symptoms. For little kids, active games like tag can be a fun way to get exercise. Encourage your kids to get up and move around every few minutes if they’re watching TV. And consider setting up a treadmill or exercise bike for older kids that they can use while watching TV.