Ask the Experts

Your Child Is Not Lazy. He Is Overwhelmed.

What parents perceive as laziness may be ADHD — specifically, the executive dysfunction that impairs focus, effort, and processing speed. Here, learn how you can help your child get started and keep going with an ADHD brain.

Q: “I listened to a webinar recently that told us not to call our son lazy and gave a very thorough explanation on ADHD and how it affects the brain. But it didn’t give any suggestions on how to avoid using the term ‘lazy.’ I would appreciate your suggestions.” — Gloria


Hi Gloria:

I’m thrilled you found a webinar that gave you a thorough explanation of ADHD and how it effects the brain. However, I would like to take the explanation one step further. (Trust me, it will lead to tips!)

People with ADHD and executive functioning challenges have a difficult time regulating alertness, sustaining effort, and achieving strong processing speed. Many with ADHD say they can perform short-term tasks or projects or listen to short and concise commands, but they have a much more difficult time sustaining effort over longer periods of time. In other words, what you might perceive as laziness or lack of effort might be a very real and challenging executive dysfunction. Since I don’t know where you are “seeing” the perceived laziness in your son, I’m going to keep my tips pretty general.

Many of my student coaching clients have a particularly difficult time sustaining effort when too much information is being thrown at them. Long and complicated verbal instructions or too many words on the written page can derail them.

When I see that my students are losing focus, I know it is time to modulate how I am presenting information. How do you do that? First, I talk in sound bites. If you are giving instructions to your son, only use the words that are truly necessary. Eliminate all unnecessary information from your verbiage. Second, try “introducing” to him that you are about to say something important and ask him to increase his “effort level.” This will give him time to wiggle, sit up straight, clear his brain, and get ready to receive the info you are about to give. This strategy will allow him to put his brain on “high alert.” And once you are finished, ask him to repeat back what you said, and then give him permission to bring his effort level back down. Crazy as it may sound, it works!

[Could Your Child Have an Executive Function Deficit? Take This Symptoms Test]

Now let’s focus on eliminating the overwhelm he might be feeling when he sits down to work on a project or paper. The first order of business is to break down larger projects into small, achievable tasks. I can’t stress this point enough. What does that look like? Instead of saying, “Go study for your Mesopotamia exam,” break down that task into steps such as:

  • Review the seven Mesopotamian gods and their importance.
  • What were the three main points of cultural significance for Mesopotamian culture?
  • Understand the most important invention during Mesopotamian times and why it was critical.

It’s so much easier for the brain – particularly those that overwhelm easily – to complete individual steps then it is to tackle a whole project at one time.

And if your son gets overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work on a page? Teach him to cover up the questions he is not working on. If he only sees one or two questions on a page, he might be able to sustain his effort and move through the assignment.

In regard to ways to avoid not calling your son lazy. I firmly believe that immersing yourself in education on this topic is truly the way to go. And you’re in the right place for that. ADDitude has a library of information and resources on this topic. I invite you to dive in!

Good Luck!

[Read This Next: Nudge, Don’t Nag — 9 Ways to Motivate Your Child to Do Well]


ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to the ADHD Family Coach here!


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Updated on June 22, 2020

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