Change Is Hard. Confronting an Unknown Future is Harder.
Change is hard for children and teens with ADHD, who don’t know when school will resume, vacations will be rescheduled, and life will return to normal. Use these strategies to help your child see the big picture, regain control over their own destiny, and deal with stress in healthy ways.
Nearly two months into distance learning, we’ve discovered myriad online resources and supports for students learning at home. Perhaps more necessary, though, are social and emotional supports.
Students with ADHD are known to struggle with unexpected transitions and unusual situations with no defined end point. Understandably, the unknown serves to increase anxiety and consternation. Field trips, end-of-year special events, mandatory standardized tests, and extra-curricular activities that have been cancelled, modified, or remain in limbo can add to the overall uncertainty of the situation. Accumulated adverse impacts can pile up over time.
Difficulty with transitions manifests in several ways, including resistance, avoidance, distraction, negotiations, or a full-blown meltdowns. If your child is demonstrating these behaviors, try these proven strategies to help them better navigate the change and uncertainty of today — and tomorrow.
1. Remind Your Child That Change is No One’s Fault
Acknowledge that there will be a change and put it on a family calendar. Print a copy and tape it to the bathroom mirror so that schedule deviations aren’t a surprise. Keep in mind that, though we know schedule changes right now aren’t anyone’s “fault,” it is important to verbalize this as a means of reassurance for children. Being able to relate things to logic and science provide a grounding structure for understanding.
“I know that you were excited to go on that field trip, but it has been cancelled. It isn’t anyone’s fault, but it is what the science says is best to keep people safe. Doesn’t it make sense to do what science tells us to keep people safe?”
2. Teach Perspective Taking
Understanding how someone else sees the world allows us to work together and communicate. Perspective taking involves several distinct skills, including determining how someone else feels, controlling inhibitions, and practicing cognitive flexibility. Children with ADHD may struggle to think of anything or anyone else when they realize that 5th grade graduation or baseball season or senior prom isn’t happening as scheduled.
To help your child see the bigger picture, first make sure you provide pre-emptive validation regarding their personal worth. Then dedicate time, space, and support in reflective listening. Hear your child out, but be sure to emphasize that their life experience is much more than one event or achievement.
Just opening the lines of communication can help to relieve your child’s anxiety. While each situation is unique, you might give examples from your own life — witnessing the Challenger explosion or moving forward after 9/11 — to provide context for how you coped with the unexpected.
“Will this event matter in one week, one month, one year, or one decade?” If so, how? Practicing perspective taking in this way can help prevent a child from tying their personal worth to a single performance or social event.
3. Create Boundaries and Coping Strategies
The uncertainty of a less-than-stable routine can increase a student’s anxiety and stress regarding school. Spending hours in front of a screen or a tablet isn’t a great coping strategy, either, as excessive screen time can disrupt the production of melatonin, a sleep regulator. Physical activity outdoors in a natural setting can reduce stress and restore attention. Work with your child to define physical activities and coping strategies that they can use to stay focused and energized throughout the day.
Buy or create a customizable prize wheel wherein each choice is allocated a space (again a collaborative conversation to provide meaningful input). Examples might include bike riding, basketball, family game night, charades, building time (LEGO, K’nex, Keva Planks), meditation, or dedicated time with the family pet.
4. Ask for Buy In
Structure is great for soothing an anxious mind. If summer vacation plans are now uncertain, be honest about the reality of the situation and offer opportunity for feedback and buy in for meaningful alternatives. Asking open-ended questions and taking time for thoughtful pauses in the conversation empower children to be creative, reclaim some ownership, and feel a part of a shared integrative experience.
It is OK to balance being supportive and being honest. It’s OK to admit that you do not have all of the answers. Hold a Tuesday night family meeting around a favorite meal would to provide a structured opportunity for each family member to participate in updates and voice concerns in a meaningful way. These conversations are not important just because of the content discussed, but also because they introduce a process of active listening and reflection. Adults’ top concerns may not be source of anxiety for kids, and vice versa.
5. World History and Statistics are Not Priorities
In the big scheme of things, one semester of academic time missed should be placed in context. As a licensed educator who’s worked for more than two decades with ADHD and 2e children from elementary to graduate school, I know there is a natural impulse to provide a best-fit solution to unusual circumstances. Sometimes, there isn’t a best fit. Sometimes that is OK. If a child reads “Song of the Dodo” instead of finishing high school ecology or is encouraged to explore a new interest during this time, that is OK.
Together, we can do this. With patience, structure, creativity, and good intentions, we can support our children during these unusual times.
Brian Lux, MAT is a licensed k-12 master educator whose work with ADHD and 2e children has been presented at World Gifted Conferences and numerous regional venues. He is the owner/director of Camp Sequoia dedicated to the meaningful growth of exceptional populations.
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Updated on May 18, 2020