5 Critical Life Skills That Build Independence & Confidence
Teaching life skills to children and teens with ADHD is no simple (or quick) task. Weak executive functions and limited parental patience interfere with the process, but learning life skills is critical not only for gaining independence but also for improving self-esteem. Here are five good tasks to teach.
I work with many families, and I find that most parents are so focused on their child’s academic progress — getting an IEP, teaming up with teachers, finding strategies for acing a test — that they fall short in teaching their kids life skills: ordering food at a restaurant, scheduling (and attending) a doctor or dental appointment, doing laundry, cleaning a dirty air conditioner filter. These are the skills they will need to make it in the world.
We sometimes forget how challenging mastering some of these life skills can be. Consider your child’s individual strengths and weaknesses. Children with ADHD often have executive dysfunctions — weaker working memory, slower processing speed, and difficulty managing time. They get frustrated easily and give up when a task is boring or complex. Parents must be patient and encouraging. Here are some tips for teaching five life skills to your child:
ADHD Life Skill: Ordering at a Restaurant
Some kids can’t order fast enough. They know what they want, and they are all too happy to let the server know. But many children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) have so much internal chatter that the task is daunting. Will the server hear me? Can I explain what I want correctly? Will he get angry if I ask to taste a flavor? Will the other kids be pushy if I take too long? Throwing our kids into such situations and assuming they will “catch on” if we encourage them enough leaves a child feeling insecure, perhaps embarrassed, and mostly misunderstood. How can we set this child up for success?
- Log on to the online menu before going to the restaurant, and have him decide what he will order.
- Go to the restaurant at less busy times — when it opens, say, or mid-afternoon.
- Role-play the situation at home, and discuss potential problems: speaking too softly or taking a long time to order.
ADHD Life Skill: Planning Dinner
Asking your child to plan a meal is a wonderful opportunity to build executive function skills. Depending on your child’s age, you can let her take some or all responsibility for the meal:
- Discuss the menu. What makes up a healthy meal? How much food is needed?
- Determine when and where the grocery shopping will be done. If age-appropriate, consider discussing the food budget as well.
- Discuss the timing for food preparation and cooking. Can some of the cooking be done in advance? How much time is needed for preparation and how much for cooking? What supervision might be necessary?
- Talk about efficient ways to clean up the kitchen. One child may prefer to clean as she goes, while another may prefer to focus on cooking and worry about cleanup afterward. When helping kids develop skills, it’s not about teaching the “right” way, but about finding what works best for them.
Ask your child to do as much planning as he can, and, before shopping or cooking, review the plan to see if any modifications are needed. Explain your reasoning or concerns.
ADHD Life Skill: Doing and Folding Laundry
Children see clean clothes back in their bedroom drawers, but may not know the time and effort it took to get them there. Kids as young as two years old can do some aspects of laundry (sorting dark from light or matching up socks).
- Decide whether you want to teach your child to do her own laundry or the family’s.
- Talk about how often laundry should be done and what the choices are: the same day each week, when specific kinds of items are running low?
- Ask your child to write down the steps involved in sorting the clothing and running the machine. Talk about how much detergent to use, and when to use fabric softener.
- Discuss different places and methods for folding the laundry. Remember, it’s not necessarily about a right way, but a way that works for your child, as long as the task is done well.
ADHD Life Skill: Scheduling a Haircut or a Dental Appointment
Many children don’t like talking on the phone to make appointments. Don’t get impatient if your child makes mistakes while learning this skill. Here are some questions you should ask before he makes the call:
- How comfortable is your child with speaking on the phone without getting visual cues from the person he is speaking to? Perhaps he should write down what he wants to say.
- Does your child know exactly what she needs? If she is scheduling a haircut, does she need a blowout or just a wash and cut? If he is scheduling a dental appointment, does he need a regular checkup and cleaning or does he have a problem that needs to be addressed?
- Is the need urgent, or can he accept a date further in the future?
- Does the child know what her personal calendar looks like? What are the times when she is available? What other times are acceptable if her first choice is not available?
- If someone will need to transport your child, is that person available for that appointment time? Both calendars should be nearby when the call is being made. As your child practices these skills, she will grow confident in managing all the details of her life.
Don’t Let Your Child Feel Demoralized
- Anticipate trouble spots.
- Talk in advance about your child’s concerns or conflicts about the task.
- Discuss the likelihood of your child being able to master the task independently.
- Be patient and accepting as your child tries new skills. As kids get used to greater responsibility, they may exhibit frustration or annoyance.
- Praise your child as he learns to overcome resistance, frustration, and fear.
- If your child is especially resistant to learning a new skill, drop it for now and agree on a time to revisit the discussion.
- Remember, don’t consider only your child’s chronological age when setting goals. Some children with ADHD take longer to mature, so stay positive as he finds his way toward mastering the skill.