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Getting Children with ADHD to Entertain Themselves

Will my child with ADHD ever learn to provide her own structure and stimulation or to entertain herself?

“Play with Me” — The ADHD Child’s Battle Cry

Natalie has to be doing something every waking moment, and she’s almost never willing (or able?) to do that something alone. Is this true for your child with ADHD?

I know kids with ADHD need structure, but for Natalie, the need seems to be more about stimulation than structure, and more about being dependent upon one-on-one interaction with someone on her preferred-playmate list. Playing with a
friend is, of course, her ideal scenario. But if no friend can play, watch out.

Natalie’s nine years old, for goodness sake, and Don and I still practice tag-team parenting in order to complete basic household chores. Don entertains Natalie so that I can load the dishwasher. Tag. I take over play duty so Don can drive Aaron to basketball practice. Tag.

I have to hire a babysitter if I want to work — from home — when Natalie’s here. And, I have to deal with the fall-out when I’m too tired or too busy to give Natalie the wholehearted energy and attention that she demands. Her reaction to a lack of attention and stimulation is near panic.

Last night was a case in point. None of Nat’s friends were available to play. Don had an evening meeting. I was ON. I was IT. Energetic playmate! Imaginative entertainer! No cooking or kitchen clean-up allowed. No time or attention diverted to my other child. No reading the evening paper. No catching the TV news. Or else — put up with Nat’s whining. Clinging to me. Hanging on me. She becomes un-grounded; un-centered — giggling uncontrollably — at nothing. Wiggling frantically, like she’s lost control of her body and her limbs are in danger of flying off. Escalating, escalating until I feel like screaming.

This morning, I thought with relief, tonight will be different. Allie is coming from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 pm. for a respite. She’ll be the one who’s ON. Nat was happy to hear it. “I want Allie to play with me,” she said. “I want Allie to play play play play play play play play plaaaaaayyyyyy with me.”

After school (early-out day, 2:05 p.m. dismissal) I was once again 100 percent ON — until Allie came for respite time. Then, I cooked a good supper. I watched a little TV with Aaron and listened to him talk sports. I left the house for an hour-and-a-mocha. I didn’t scream — or even feel like screaming — once.

Will Natalie ever learn to provide her own structure and stimulation; to entertain herself? How can I help her learn to do so? How old was your child with ADHD when this skill began to develop? Or, like me, are you still in the entertain-me-trenches?

Share your experiences in a comment below.

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  1. Hi Kay,
    Thank you for sharing your journey with your daughter. As I was reading your blog, I noticed many similarities of my 9 year old daughter, Bethany. She has not been officially diagnosed with ADHD but her brother has and I suspect she has it too.
    My daughter does not seem to know what to do with herself when she has to entertain herself alone. She has some difficulty socially but she does have a few friends she plays well with. That is her ideal situation, much like your daughter. If Bethany is not playing with a friend, she craves attention from my husband and me. She can have boundless energy. She can also stir up her brother and sister.

    Here is something I tried at home so that my children can entertain themselves in a way that frees me to have my own space. I call it “stations”. The teachers use this in the schools and it is so effective so I decided to try it at home with play. I have 3 stations: “Art”, “Construct”, and “Imagine” (You could name yours however you like of course).
    In art, there are art supplies, coloring books, puzzles, play doh, etc. In construct, there are blocks, legos, gears, and I used to have train tracks. In imagine, there are Barbie dolls, make believe kitchen items, regular dolls, cars, etc. I have 3 kids so each kid goes to a station for 30 minutes. They may change activities but they must clean up the original activity first and they must stay within the station. For example, if they are in art and they are bored of watercolors they can clean it up and get the play doh out. Is it perfect, do they always want to do stations, no. But what I find is that at the end of the 30 minutes they have gotten into it and often ask for more time. I think that the structure that stations provides helps them to focus while giving them the opportunity to create and entertain themselves by getting to choose within the station. Each child also has the opportunity to play in their room for a station if they just cannot get into it that round. It helps to have an outlet. I also make sure that I go and “notice and praise” at least once per station how well the children are playing. I ask what they are doing and reward good behavior with 5 minute computer time increments. They are also very easy to redirect in this scenario because everyone has a specific station to be at and it is easy to tell who is and is not in their station. Hope this helps!

    Lindsey

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