ADHD News & Research

‘Back to Normal’ Sparks Equal Parts Relief & Unease in Adults and Children with ADHD

ADDitude’s 14th pandemic survey revealed a significant degree of re-entry anxiety, often paired with bouts of optimism and euphoria — sometimes simultaneously and at high volume. As society ‘returns to normal,’ readers report feeling complex and sometimes contradictory emotions, and wrestling with new questions about the pandemic habits they might choose to retain.

Back to normal tightrope walk with re-entry anxiety

May 17, 2021

When the CDC revised its mask guidance for fully vaccinated Americans last week, a light switch flipped — at least theoretically. In reality, ADDitude readers are reporting decidedly mixed emotions and a high degree of anxiety about getting ‘back to normal.’ Your optimism about re-entry is pulsing on and off, and everyone is feeling a little dizzy.

In ADDitude’s recent survey of 1,471 caregivers and adults with ADHD — our 14th pandemic pulse-taking since April 2020 — nearly 70% of respondents said they are still feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, but 30% are also feeling optimistic. For the first time in 13 months, the percentage of people more concerned about the pandemic (15%) is significantly lower than the percentage of people who feel relatively less concerned (41%) than they did two weeks ago.

Virus variants and anti-vaxxers and relaxed mask mandates are all sources of ongoing pandemic anxiety, but 55% of you are now fully vaccinated and another 33% are on the way. That breakthrough brings relief. But, of course, most of our kids remain vulnerable. And so you are tired but allowing yourselves to imagine days with more joy than fear. You are worried but hopeful. Frustrated but grateful.

Many ADDitude readers say they are walking a tightrope between old and new realities, learning how to balance their families’ mental, emotional, and physical health all over again.Here is what you told us about this delicate dance on various frontiers: at work, at school, and in social settings.

[When ‘Normal’ No Longer Exists: A Report on ADHD Brains in Free Fall]

Back to Work: Eager for Interactions, Not Distractions

Readers’ feelings about returning to work in person:

  • Positive: 28%
  • Negative: 29%
  • Neutral: 19%

“I have very mixed feelings,” wrote one mother with ADHD raising a 5th grader with ADHD. “I feel positive that it will be nice to get out of the house, but I feel anxious about resuming the bombardment of people, noise, and distractions at work. It’s been amazing to not have so much to filter out and I’m sure it will become overwhelming.”

Colleagues are motivating and engaging, but also distracting for many adults with ADHD.

“I have been more productive and less stressed working from home, and the thought of having to go back to dealing with people — all their incessant needs and interruptions — fills me with dread,” wrote another adult with ADHD and depression. “I just don’t want it.”

[The ADHD WFH Guide: 7 Ways to Build Essential Structure]

Others, however, are hungry for interpersonal office relationships and the clear delineation between work and home.

“I’m excited to see coworkers again,” wrote one young woman with ADHD and depression in Brooklyn. “I’m excited to have a designated workspace again. I’m excited to be a part of a community again.”

Of course, all of the above means adhering to a strict morning routine, leaving the house on time, and planning ahead not to forget anything — a cause of stress in itself.

“I don’t think I can swing leaving daily without being a mess,” wrote one mom with ADHD and OCD in Los Angeles. “I can do a few days a week — but, honestly, I will forget my keys, my wallet, my laptop, or something. And I can’t grind my teeth anymore!”

Back to School: Hungry for Social Interaction and Hands-On Learning, But with Worry of Regression

Readers’ feelings about returning to school in person:

  • Positive: 54%
  • Negative: 17%
  • Neutral: 14%

Only 17% of caregivers voiced serious concerns about in-person school — perhaps, in part, because 71% of readers’ children have already returned to school, at least on a hybrid schedule. The unknown is steadily becoming more familiar.

“I did not realize how much the school atmosphere, socialization, and transitions actually helped her cope with her ADHD,” wrote the mother of an 8th grader with ADHD in Canada. “I look forward to seeing her thrive again in her social element, but aspects of this COVID isolation and online learning have significantly impacted her as an adolescent. I think that it happened at a very pivotal point in her development and will always be part of her now.”

For others, the isolated screen time associated with online learning was just a terrible fit for their ADHD brains, and in-person learning promises more one-on-one engagement.

“It is exceedingly difficult for my daughter to focus during remote learning and to participate in class without getting distracted,” wrote the parent of a 5th grader with ADHD. “She started back at school for two days, and both she and her teacher reported dramatically improved attention, participation, and completion of assignments now.”

Other students have benefited greatly from the flexibility of home learning, and their parents worry about a return to less-than-ideal settings for neurodivergent thinkers.

“At home, my son takes movement breaks as needed or walks away to regroup when he is overwhelmed,” wrote a mother and educator in Massachusetts. “I don’t know if those accommodations will be there when he goes back to school. I worry because he has had such negative experiences in previous years with teachers not fully understanding his ADHD. While many have said this year was a year of learning loss, I feel this was a mental health year that helped my son to reset.”

On the flip side, many parents worry that their children have regressed — socially, academically, and even emotionally — while isolated at home.

“We both want him to return in person, but quarantine has exacerbated sensory issues, anxiety, and more,” wrote the parent of a 4th grader with anxiety in Michigan. “He won’t wear normal clothes or shoes and he seems to have forgotten everything he learned in 2nd and 3rd grade, as well as what I have tried to teach him this year.”

In the end, the anxiety around returning to school with other unvaccinated students, plus hesitations about current learning models, are encouraging some parents to delay the return to in-person school until the Fall and others to consider having their child repeat a grade.

“Aside from the COVID risk, I think that the delivery model offered (instructor must teach remotely and in-person simultaneously while in-person students stare at their teacher on a screen) is not optimal, and the health protocols are anxiety-inducing,” wrote the mother of a 3rd grader with ADHD and anxiety in California. “I’m glad it’s available for families that really need it, but I don’t plan on sending my child back this Spring. We’re planning on a Fall 2021 return.”

Back to Social Settings: Craving Hugs — and a Better Life Balance

Readers’ feelings about returning to in-person socializing:

  • Positive: 56% (adults); 58% (caregivers)
  • Negative: 19% (adults); 14% (caregivers)
  • Neutral: 22% (adults); 17% (caregivers)

Even before the CDC updated its guidance, more than half of adults and caregivers said they felt positive about the return to in-person social events — with a few big caveats: only if people continue to adhere to the latest health guidelines, get vaccinated when possible, and remain outside.

“I long to give good hugs to close friends and some family members, but I don’t want to have physical contact (hugs, handshakes, etc.) with strangers or acquaintances anymore,” wrote a young adult with ADD. “I never want to be so close to anyone that I can feel their breath or their saliva.”

Loneliness has impacted many adults’ mental health and exacerbated existing problems with depression and anxiety, in particular. For these people, social gatherings this summer feel like a life line.

“After this year, I need to talk to other people so I can get out of my own head and hear about other people’s lives/problems/anything at this point,” wrote a newly diagnosed educator in Illinois. “Being vaccinated, I now feel safe doing social things with other people who are vaccinated.”

Other adults are picking and choosing their social events more carefully now. They are saying “no” to obligations that cause stress or family friction, and feeling less guilt about it.

“The pandemic highlighted how much I truly hate some normal social activities,” wrote one woman with ADHD and anxiety in Utah. “The thought of no longer having the pandemic as an excuse to attend events virtually is making me panic. On the flip side, small doses of interactions with family and friends are necessary for good mental health. It’s a balance that I’ll need to figure out as vaccination spreads.”

For many adults, it’s all about baby steps — and self-compassion.

“I worry about how awkward I’ll feel,” wrote one woman with ADHD and anxiety in Scotland. “I feel like I’ve forgotten how to engage in conversations and interact normally with people on a day-to-day basis.”

The same is largely true to children with ADHD — with an added degree of caution and worry because so many are not yet vaccinated. Most parents are keeping their kids’ social gatherings small and outdoors. No big birthday parties yet, but families report going strawberry picking with friends, celebrating Passover with grandparents, and planning summer BBQs with one or two other families. The trick is finding a balance that feels right.

As we know, exercise benefits the ADHD brain and body immensely. For many children and teens, the return of sports and recreation — even if modified and masked — has been the biggest social breakthrough of the spring.

“My son needs movement and exercise for self-regulation, better sleep habits, socializing, and maintaining a schedule,” wrote the parent of a 3rd grader with ADHD. “He feels so much better when we can participate in organized sports.”

But even for active children who would play four sports every season if they could, a new appreciation for downtime and quiet has emerged from the pandemic — perhaps one of its few silver linings.

“COVID-19 has made me realize the pressure we were all under to complete lots of after-school activities, have play dates, and constantly be on the go,” wrote the mother of children with ADHD and autism. “We will not be returning to this when restrictions are lifted. We are getting better at recognizing and allowing ourselves downtime and self-care days.”

As society opens up again, it’s clear that the ADHD brain’s propensity for binary thinking — calm vs. anxious, productive vs. lazy, exciting vs. terrifying — will not work. The world is more nuanced — and complicated — than this, especially during the twilight of a global pandemic. Navigating re-entry anxiety is not a matter of choosing between the old normal and the new normal; it’s a matter of identifying the good and bad of both, and then figuring out a hybrid approach that works for you and your family.

Getting ‘Back to Normal:’ Next Steps

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