The Upside of Downtime: Encouraging Creativity in Kids with ADHD

If you encourage your child with ADHD to take a little alone time, you may be surprised — and blown away — by her creativity

A child using her downtime to explore her creativity, encouraged by her parents

“Look What I Did!”

Some kids I know with ADHD have used their downtime to:

> Cut a large bamboo cane and make six-ounce drinking glasses from it.
> Dam up a small stream. When the dam broke, they built a bridge over it.
> Write poetry, stories, jokes, and even chapters of a novel or autobiography while trapped in the car on a family road trip.
> Transplant sprouted acorns and other tree seedlings into a “tree farm,” and tend it for several years.
> Write, stage, rehearse, shoot, and edit a video.
> Train a dog to shake hands with either front paw.


Giving time, space, and freedom to middle-schoolers with ADHD to do what they want to do, without criticism, works wonders for their confidence. Downtime gets their dopamine flowing, not only through the thinking parts of the brain but the reward centers as well. It may be the only time of the day that they feel comfortable in their skin.

For kids with ADHD, any pressure to achieve can cause tension and discouragement. ADHDers are especially sensitive to criticism. It takes a lot of positive responses to counteract one negative response. And it’s hard for ADHDers to get positive responses when day-to-day tasks seem boring, they are struggling to meet other people’s goals, and they are discouraged from thinking outside the box.

Life on the Wild Side

Kids with ADHD show their creativity best when they are left to their own devices. Natural improv comedians, they pick something up and think, “What can I do with this?” “I wonder what would happen if….”

How can parents help their kids express their authentic selves? Here’s how.

TIME: Don’t over-schedule your child’s time. Allow him time to do nothing. He (and his friends) will fill the time with something. It’s no secret that kids with ADHD have an abundance of creativity, just looking for an outlet.

SPACE: Creativity is usually messy. Set aside part of a basement or garage for your child’s projects. Or give the kitchen over to him for an afternoon. Some middle-schoolers I know do their projects at one end of a walk-in closet or in a tree house.

MATERIALS: Help your child to assemble a mini-junkyard — duct tape, wire hangers, round oatmeal boxes, shoe boxes and Styrofoam packing, cardboard tubes, scraps of fabric or wood, things with parts missing, old wheels from a toy. Other raw materials are paper, pens, and markers.

Access to tools goes along with a selection of materials. A good gift for a middle-schooler is a toolbox equipped with basic tools. You can never have too many scissors, staples, metal rulers, or screwdrivers. Drop your old sheets, shower curtains, and shirts into the junkyard for messy activities.

FREEDOM: Once equipped, don’t tie your child’s hands or mind with rules and directions. Forgo critiques, unless safety requires otherwise. One 13-year-old I know told her mom she wanted to make a dress. The mother gave her some remnants, needles, and thread, and let her try.

The daughter was happy with the shapeless garment she created, and happy enough with the experience of making the dress, but her mother’s response was, “I thought you wanted to make a real dress.” Instead of a put-down, she could have said, “I like those colors together” or “That was fast.”

Offer help; don’t urge it. If the child is disappointed in the results, and says, “This is crooked,” or “I thought it would turn out bigger/different/straighter,” that is the time to say, “If you want, I’ll show you how to use a pattern” or “There are ways to prevent that. Let me know if you want me to show you how.” If you take over their projects, kids will feel inadequate and afraid that their interests are not up to your expectations.

When a parent shows confidence in his middle-schooler’s choices, and encourages her to follow her own plan or whim, that confidence is contagious. She learns that her choices are sometimes right, that her personality is OK, and that it is fine to do things because they feel right, even if they don’t serve someone else’s purpose.

TAGS: Teens and Tweens with ADHD, Self Esteem

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