The 5 C’s to Remember for Kids with ADHD or Any Kid, Really

I came across a podcast called Uh-PARENT-ly, probably through the CHADD newsletter, that caught my interest as I am immersing myself in everything ADHD these days.

Even though I have a degree and professional experience in this area, it’s been a while. So to make sure I was up to date on the latest findings, I made an alert on Google Scholar for any new studies published on ADHD.

This post is for me as much as anyone else who may benefit from a new way of approaching your ADHD child’s needs, or simply as a reminder. I know I need these reminders often, to keep what I need to do top of mind. These concepts apply to neurotypical children as well.

Uh-PARENT-ly interviewed Dr. Sharon Saline, clinical psychologist and the author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew: Working Together to Empower Kids for Success in School and Life who gives 5 C’s to help parents remember “how to develop daily skills to improve communication and reduce frustration.” Anyone who has or has worked with an ADHD child, understands how important this could be.

Compassion-accepting your child for who they are, not who you want them or expect them to be. Also, self-Compassion as a parent, because parenting an ADHD parent is difficult and tiring.

Collaboration-working with kids and letting them have a say in plans, including in school, getting buy-in, and using incentives, rather than “because I said so.” We need to help kids develop skills, rather than using fear-based parenting. Studies have shown that the ADHD brain tends to have a 3 year developmental delay. Even for neurotypical people, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until about 25 years of age. So we need to compensate more and help those kids with ADHD especially, develop their executive skills. The best way to do this is through praise and collaboration so they understand the need for these skills and are willing to work with us on it.

Self Control-manage yourself before you manage your child. Modeling self-control and emotional regulation is paramount. Easier said than done, though. Parents are human too. So I’d say, take this as an ideal to strive for, but don’t beat yourself up if you falter. Again, self-Compassion is also important to model, right? We need less mom-shaming in the world. So find what works best for you. A therapist, medication (including cannabis!), whatever you need to do, make sure you take some time to work on yourself as well as it will pay big dividends for your child when you’re able to demonstrate more self-control. Some examples-if you’re getting upset, voice those feelings and say “I’m getting really frustrated right now. I’m going to walk away and take 5 minutes to calm down” or “Hang on, I’m counting to 10 (or taking deep breaths, etc.)” Sometimes it’s a matter of staging a conversation at dinner with your partner in front of the kids about a problem you are facing and talk it through to problem solve, and maybe even demonstrate flexible thinking.

Consistency-not necessarily the same thing all the time, but being consistent in your principles so that no matter what the situation, they provide guidance. Part of this is having purposeful exceptions and explaining when there is one. I think it’s important to teach kids that life is not black and white and if they are able to understand nuance and navigate the gray areas, the better off they will be.

Dr. Saline also says to notice consistent “efforting.” Noticing when kids are trying, not just when they succeed. Help them to develop a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. I write about Mindset here. This also aligns with Dr. Carol Dweck’s concept of grit and teaching your children to keep trying in the face of challenges or adversity. You can see a video with her about this subject here.

Celebration-acknowledging, validating, and encouraging them along the way. When they do what you ask, no matter how small, give them praise. For kids with ADHD as well as any kids, specific praise is very useful. If you’re not specific, kids can usually tell when you’re just blowing smoke up their butts. It’s more powerful if, when you’re kid presents to you that piece of art of questionable quality, that you say something along the lines of “Wow, I love the colors you chose!” or whatever less obvious smoke you could blow up their butts! This concept aligns with Positive Parenting styles. Children are so used to hearing negative feedback; praise and positive feedback counterbalances this.

Dr. Saline cites research by Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology researcher, that the ideal ratio of positive to negative is 3:1. However, the typical ratio for kids with ADHD is 1:15-25. The same kids describe a ratio of up to 30 negative points of feedback. It’s hard enough being a kid, behaving as expected, but imagine a kid with even less ability to regulate, monitor and control oneself joined with a difficulty staying on task, paying attention, and following directions. That’s a lot of opportunity for negative feedback.

I know sometimes it feels reaaallllly hard to find that silver lining and praise them when they are in the throws of an especially rough patch, but even when they manage to pull themselves together after a tantrum, praise them for being able to move on or simply trying to use their words, whatever you can find for them to build on.

Extra tips

Dr. Saline also gave some tips for typical struggles with ADHD kids, though this is useful for all kids. For things like getting ready for school in the morning or cleaning their rooms, have a simple system set up, including a list of steps needed to accomplish an activity. This will help develop executive functioning and organization.

In our home, we have used a printout with visuals of what needed to be done as part of my son’s bedtime routine, though it has been much quicker and easier to just remind him along the way what to do next. The same goes for the morning (and bedtime) routine. I am always behind my kids saying “Time to get dressed, time to go brush your teeth,” or “Have you done X, Y, or Z yet?” I’m starting to tweek to the even more effective “What’s next for you to do?” This is a good reminder that they need to develop these skills for themselves (even my neurotypical kid needs this). I need to implement this for cleaning his room, which tends to be an overwhelming mess for him.

Simple repetition of expectations has been helpful as well. Though we still struggle with staying on task and getting out in the morning, I have found simply reminding my son at night of the main tasks for the morning-get up, get dressed, eat, brush teeth, put shoes on, and we’re out the door.

She also suggests a “body double,” or someone who is just there to help. One example she gave is to be there putting clothes away while he is cleaning his room. This is still a work in progress, but does seem to help. Just being there helps keep him on task and remembering what he needs to do. This has been met with some degree of success-I still need to point out at times that it’s not my job to do all the cleaning while he plays.

Another technique Dr. Saline suggests, which we use all the time, is making it a game. “How fast can you get your pajamas on?” “Let’s see who can get dressed the quickest.” “Can you clean your room in 5 minutes? I’ll start the timer. Tell me when you’re ready.” We’ve used this trick for years, but it is still hard to remember at the end of the day and your patience has already been worn out by dinner-table antics.

As for homework, Dr. Saline suggests implementing a family work time, and working with your child’s teacher on how long they can realistically work. Take a timed break, a set work period, and provide an incentive at the end (screen-time is VERY motivating for my kids). And last but not least, make it a collaborative process. My kid hates being told what to do. I’ve found when I approach him collaboratively and say, so this needs to be done, when do you think will be a good time? (and let them know you are setting the alarm on your phone) or “how will you fit this in so we make sure it gets done?” It’s peaceful, gives him a sense of agency and responsibility, and helps develop organization and planning skills as well.

My son’s therapist has also suggested breaking homework time into chunks with a few minutes of physical activity in between as a break (for example, jumping on a trampoline, doing jumping jack, doing laps around the house outside, or even burpees!).

It might sound like I’ve got this all figured out, but every single day is a struggle in some way. It’s the nature of being a parent, especially if you are a parent of a kid with special needs. Some days, you will feel like you’ve GOT THIS, other days you might feel like the suckiest parent in the world. Sometimes this describes the same day!

Remember to be compassionate with yourself and know that tomorrow is another day. We’re not going to give up; we just have to keep trying our best. Go hug a mom, get a drink with a friend, and remember to practice self-care!

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