10 Rules for Life Crystallized by the Pandemic: ADHD Lessons Learned
Over the last 10 months, ADDitude readers have had no choice but to confront, stare straight in the eye, and better understand the ADHD-related challenges (and strengths) that influence their lives. This reflection has yielded something remarkable: 10 rules for life and lessons learned that may persist for a lifetime.
“Out of adversity comes opportunity.” — Benjamin Franklin
For the ADHD community, isolation has encouraged self-reflection and acceptance. Remote school and work have built resiliency. Lockdowns have rewarded flexibility. And the pandemic, at large, has crystallized 10 ADHD life lessons that might have otherwise remained unknown. This is the finding of ADDitude’s survey of 2,295 readers in December — our 12th pandemic check-in since April 2020.
“Routines matter. Sleep matters. Personal space matters. Checking in on others matters,” wrote Jen from Wisconsin, whose 7-year-old daughter slogs through remote school at night with her essential-worker parents. “Patience, empathy, and kindness matter always. Spending more time outdoors is healthy. Having an inner circle of friends is healthy. Saying NO is healthy. Being ultra-respectful of others is something to be exercised at all times. Make the most of everyday. Get rid of the excess. Try to reduce stress.”
Everyone is exhausted. Everyone is frustrated — even “defeated and overwhelmed,” Jen wrote in her response to the ADDitude survey. “I’ve been doing a lot of praying for our situation… My broken heart is weary and tired.”
[Can’t Get Anything Done? Why ADHD Brains Shut Down]
And yet when we asked Jen to stop and reflect — to tell us what lessons she will take away from this time — her answers were not blurry-eyed. They were clear, insightful, and even inspiring. Her response, above, reads like the Cliff’s Notes to an ADHD rule book for life. They are simultaneously obvious and easy-to-forget truths that have been seared in our collective brain these past 10 months, and we can’t help but wonder if they will make us stronger in the end.
Jen was not alone is sharing deeply personal and astute insights from the pandemic. In total, 1,689 ADDitude readers offered such reflections. This is a staggering number, and we think the sheer volume of responses speaks to three truths:
1. Truth #1: 2020 sparked a revolution of ADHD awareness.
We don’t say this lightly; it is a truth repeated over and over by our readers — both adults with ADHD coming face-to-face with their symptoms in a new way during this pandemic, and caregivers of children who were learning and regulating emotions before their eyes every day.
“Being together so much and seeing my son in school gives me a greater appreciation for his special interests and abilities,” wrote the mother of a 1st grade student with ADHD in Virginia. “This pandemic has given me a greater perspective for how many obstacles individuals with ADHD have to hurdle each day.”
“I sought an ADHD diagnosis as a result of the additional time spent at home, analyzing myself and my behavior,” wrote a young adult. “As a result of being more self-aware, I realized that filling my time with what I considered necessary day-to-day life was a way of masking my symptoms.”
[Read This: “I Could Have Been Myself for So Much Longer.”]
Truth #2: People with ADHD are remarkably resilient.
For most people, having ADHD means making mistakes, facing criticism, and trying again. The things that come easily to others — remembering appointments or assignments, managing time, prioritizing tasks — are difficult and require sustained effort and persistence. This never-say-die training is useful, it turns out, in a pandemic.
“Having ADHD prepared me for the disturbances of the pandemic and gave me greater resiliency than my neurotypical peers,” wrote Andy, who has ADHD and OCD. “I’m used to hypervigilance. I’m used to anxiety. I’m used to not getting my way. I’ve learned to deal with disappointment and fear and a lack of motivation in ways the people around me have never done.”
“We are resilient and can cope with tough circumstances,” wrote the mother of 5th and 8th grade students with ADHD in North Carolina. “We can thrive and still work to improve ourselves and our family’s well-being, even when the rest of the world seems to be in chaos.”
3. Truth #3: People with ADHD are naturally adaptive.
When one solution doesn’t work, we try another. And then another. And maybe another until it clicks with our ADHD brains. We don’t assume that one size fits all because that’s never been our experience. Though change is unsettling and disruptive, we are nimble.
“Having to unknowingly adapt to my ADHD for most of my life has definitely made it easier to adapt to pandemic life,” wrote one woman with ADHD in Texas. “Our emotions may run wild sometimes, our brain fog may slow us down, and we may procrastinate to the extreme, but we can handle the changes and find the unpredictable sparks of happiness and joy. The best and worst thing about ADHD is our ability to feel the intensity of the present moment, good or bad. And in this pandemic, I like to think that being able to fully appreciate the pockets of good times is a morale booster for me and my hospital co-workers.”
10 Rules for Life with ADHD: What We Learned in the Pandemic
For many ADDitude readers, these adaptive tendencies have translated into something quite remarkable during the pandemic: the ability to recognize patterns and truths otherwise obscured by the “static” of daily life, and to shift accordingly. Below are the 10 most prevalent and poignant of these truths — a list that looks an awful lot like rules for life.
1. Routine is anchoring.
Of the 1,903 adults who answered the ADDitude survey, 65% said their ability to stick to a routine has worsened due to the pandemic, which destroyed daily guardrails like office jobs, gym classes, and social commitments. For children with ADHD, morning and evening routines have worsened for 44% and 48% of respondents, respectively — largely due to strange new remote learning schedules.
“Structure and routine need to be a priority,” wrote a young adult with ADHD from North Carolina. “Everything else hinges on this: mental health, productivity, emotional management, interpersonal dynamics, keeping the abode livable. When routine falls by the wayside, everything else tumbles down after it.”
“I need structure to live my best life,” wrote a California native with ADHD who lost her job in 2020. “Without it, I feel invisible… the days blur into each other and my stress level is high.”
2. Honest communication is healthy.
More than 60% of caregivers and 62% of adults say emotional dysregulation has worsened during the pandemic. Frustration is turning quickly to anger. Anxiety is manifesting as rage. And fear looks like extreme sadness. This emotional minefield is ubiquitous; those who have navigated it best are the 20% to 23% of respondents who say that communication with family members has improved during this time.
“We’ve learned that we need to be open and honest about what is going on with each one of us,” wrote the parent of a 7th grader with ADHD. “An open, nurturing environment leads to a close-knit family.”
“I will remember the importance of communicating with my family about how I feel, even if it’s awkward, because doing so allows me to avoid bottling up my feelings and exploding in outbursts later,” wrote one young adult living at home with her parents during the pandemic.
3. Less is more.
Nearly 12% of ADDitude readers lost their jobs in 2020. Many more have lost clients and income and motivation. Discretionary spending is tightening, and you are saving money by cooking at home, cutting entertainment, and resisting impulse buys. By and large, the “stuff” is not missed — and neither is the busyness of rushing back and forth to stores, practices, social gatherings, and the other obligations that once filled our calendars. Less stuff — physical, mental, and emotional — is liberating.
“We can live with a lot less ‘stuff,’” wrote the mother of a child with ADHD in Nebraska.
“Over-extending our schedule has been a coping mechanism for our family,” said a mother of four — two with ADHD and two with learning disabilities — in Alaska. “When we were forced to slow down, we were able to spend time working on the emotional and relational difficulties of ADHD, which had been neglected due to busyness.”
“In the future, I hope we schedule less stuff to do,” wrote the parent of a high school senior with anxiety in Ohio. “I hope we don’t allow the not-missed ‘shoulds’ to return. I hope we retain the slower pace of life and spend more time ‘being’ with each other.”
4. Empathy is strength.
Three-quarters of ADDitude readers are feeling overwhelmed or exhausted; 70% of you are feeling worried or anxious; and 56% are sad. The reasons for this unprecedented mental health strain are no mystery; 45% of you told us you are more worried about the pandemic than ever. And these survey results came in more than a week before the terrorist attack on the United States Capitol on January 6.
Many emotions are bubbling beneath the surface. This is true for adults and children — with and without ADHD and comorbid conditions — and it requires a new level of understanding and empathy. Nearly 28% of adults with ADHD say their empathy has improved during the pandemic and 17% of parents say their kids’ empathy has expanded during this time, contributing to a kinder, gentler family environment.
“Empathy is so important — remembering that we’re all struggling in our own ways has helped us to cope with the new world,” wrote the mother with ADHD who also has a 1st grade student with ADHD in Washington. “We are sad and disappointed with how the quarantine has played out, but we know other people feel this way, too. Emotional dysregulation isn’t just unique to us, at the moment.”
“I have re-learned the lesson that we truly never know what’s going on in people’s lives,” wrote a young adult with ADHD and mood disorder in Virginia. “I have to be more empathetic to other’s situations and give as much love to them as possible.”
5. Learning is personal.
Half of all children with ADHD are now doing remote learning; 17% are learning in a hybrid model; and only 24% are learning in person at school every day. According to the ADDitude survey, school motivation has fallen for 63% of students learning at home, and it’s fallen for 45% of those still physically going to school. The majority of children and teens with ADHD are struggling; others are actually thriving.
Some students are benefiting enormously from the ability to move their bodies during the school day, to bypass social drama, to pursue personal interests, and to follow more relaxed schedules. These students have not tapped into some elusive remote school secret; they just learn differently. And watching how different students react to today’s circumstances reminds us that learning is personal; every mind brings its own unique gifts and perspectives, and the education system needs to better recognize this.
“The public school system is broken,” wrote one mother of a 10th grade student with ADHD who recently transferred to a private school due to inadequate 504 Plan accommodations at her Texas public school. “Standardized testing has destroyed public education since it began 80 years ago.”
“I have learned that we can do school differently and better,” wrote one school counselor with ADHD, anxiety, and mood disorder in Rhode Island. “We can use more outdoor classrooms and spend more time building stronger communities. We can teach empathy and compassion for others and their struggles.”
“Distance learning has actually been great for my 7-year-old daughter with ADHD,” wrote the mother of a 2nd grader with ADHD in California. “She doesn’t have to ‘sit still’ all day long. She has movement breaks when she needs to and fewer distractions… I am shocked, but actually I think she is learning much more in distance learning than she did in the confines of a traditional classroom!”
6. Movement is centering.
If ever there was doubt about the focusing, calming, and healing properties of exercise, this pandemic has eradicated it. ADHD brains require physical movement daily. This is not optional, and it is not debatable.
“Emotional regulation and impulsivity are improved by exercise,” wrote the mother of four children in Minnesota. “The canceling of sports has increased impulsive and emotional behavior but having more downtime to address it has greatly increased our ability to respond well and make improvements.”
“Being outdoors and active is important,” wrote an ADHD professional in California. “Being sedentary, alone, and on screens makes life harder.”
7. Saying “No” is smart.
Not everyone or everything deserves our time. We are not demonstrating weakness by saying “No” to new responsibilities or obligations; we are demonstrating strength and strong prioritization skills.
“I really hope the rest of the world remembers how nice it can be to say ‘No,’ cancel something, do something virtual, and mostly have less to do,” wrote the parent of two children.
“The things that we thought were important actually aren’t,” wrote the parent of a 5th grader with anxiety and a 10th grader with ADHD.” We now understand how to prioritize our time with things that actually matter, and that it’s OK to not attend every function that happens every weekend (pre-pandemic).”
8. Emotional health is no less important than physical health.
More than half of children with ADHD have experienced worsened emotional regulation, motivation, outbursts, and patience, according to their caregivers. Emotional health is also precarious for adults, 62% of whom report worsened emotional regulation and 42% of whom report more outbursts and explosions. The emotional and mental scars may be largely invisible, but that doesn’t make them any less impactful.
“The emotional component to ADHD is just as important as the behavioral component,” wrote one woman with ADHD, anxiety, and mood disorder in Minnesota. “I spent most of my life focusing on ways to stay organized, focused, and performing well in school and at work, but I neglected spending the same amount of energy on addressing emotional dysregulation. While it’s been really challenging, the pandemic really helped me realize what was missing in my ADD treatment.”
“I learned to not sacrifice my own mental health for the rest of my family,” wrote a West Virginia mother. “Every part of the family needs to be healthy and working together or it doesn’t work.”
9. Energy is wasted on worry.
This one is very simple: Investing time and energy on things you cannot change — like whether strangers adhere to public health guidelines or vaccine distribution is fair in Florida — is not productive or healthy. Instead, focus your energy on things within your control.
“Find the thing that is triggering your anxiety, despair, sadness, and talk about it,” wrote the mother of three adult children in Tennessee. “We may not be able to fix what is causing your pain, but we can look at it squarely in the face and figure out a way to make adjustments. For instance, I can’t help that all our usual Christmas parties are not happening this year, but I can get a kid from the angel tree and focus my attention on making their Christmas better. I can’t let myself get in a funk and live there; I must constantly think of what I need to do to keep my head above the water and do it.”
“Be OK with not being OK and try to put your energy into things within your control,” wrote a parent with ADHD in Canada.
10. Racing brains need more slow time.
Overwhelmingly, ADDitude readers report that slowing down has helped their ADHD brains and kids to process, regulate, and regain control. For many over-extended, over-booked, over-committed ADHD families, this was a revelation — that their busy, buzzing brains were actually screaming for a pause but we could never hear them over all the yelling.
“The pandemic has slowed down our lives and made me realize that a lot of the frantic elements of our lives were not necessary,” wrote the parent of three children with ADHD. “I’ve learned to cherish the quiet times.”
“We were doing too much before this started, and we need a balance between home (down) time and activities with friends or other things to look forward to, both together and separately,” wrote the mother of two teens in Colorado.
“I’ve always felt like what happens at home is not ‘real life’ since I’m an extrovert and not a homebody,” wrote an adult with ADHD and two teenagers. “I’ve learned that what happens at home is ‘real life,’ and those relationships must be carefully tended. It’s made us all appreciate the importance of a change of scenery, the inspiration we can take from new experiences, and the fragile and strong nature of humans.”
Rules for Life with ADHD: Next Steps
- Read This: “My 25 Rules for Life – a Practical Cure for ADHD Shame
- Make Change: Work on One Thing Each Day in 2021
- ADHD Experts Podcast: Real Life Hacks for Adults and Kids with ADHD
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