A Survival Guide for Parents with ADHD: Strategies from Preschool to High School
For any parent with ADHD, raising children, managing a household, and maintaining emotional health is a Herculean task. ADHD impacts nearly every facet of parenting, so caregivers with the condition need distinct tools and resources to manage their symptoms and effectively meet their kids’ needs through every developmental phase. Here they are.
Parenting is hard. It’s rewarding, yes. But also difficult, demanding, and draining. When caregivers have ADHD, the challenges of parenting seem to multiply in number and intensity. ADHD symptoms like inattention, impulsivity, and emotional dysregulation inevitably impact the daily rhythms and responsibilities of parenting, not to mention the relationships we forge with our children as they grow.
From diapers to driver licenses, here’s advice for parents with ADHD on simultaneously managing their symptoms while raising happy, healthy, well-adjusted children.
How ADHD Impacts Parenting Skills
Parenting requires the daily, dependable execution of non-novel, repetitive tasks, a combination that’s kryptonite for adults with core ADHD deficits including fluctuating attention and poor working memory. More broadly, ADHD impacts these core facets of parenting:
- Emotional availability: When children are experiencing big feelings or challenging situations, they look for guidance and protection from their parents. But with ADHD and its own emotional dysregulation, it’s tough to be consistently present and focused to support a child’s emotions.
- Relationship-building: The parent-child bond is the nexus of any healthy family dynamic. But many parents with ADHD struggle to stay engaged and interested while spending time with their child, especially if Candy Land is involved.
- Planning ahead for problematic situations: Parents are continuously making time and space to reflect on what’s been challenging for their family, and how they can alter plans, procedures, and schedules for future success. But caregivers with ADHD often lack the executive function skills to do this high-level analysis, planning, and execution. Impulse control deficits may also cause parents to lash out and complicate already-challenging situations.
- Organizing supplies and schedules: Managing family logistics and routines requires unwavering organizational skills, a known difficulty with ADHD.
- Keeping children safe: Parents need the attentional capacity to monitor their children, whether toddlers or teenagers, without distraction.
- Shaping positive behavior: Positive reinforcement helps establish good behavior, but it requires parents to “catch” and praise their children quickly and with meaningful details.
- Staying regulated in challenging situations: Emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, and intense emotions are part of the ADHD experience, which makes “calm” elusive in many ADHD households. Managing stress is also an issue for many parents with ADHD.
- Setting boundaries and giving consistent consequences.
Parenting with ADHD: Tailored Approaches for Spirited Families
The charts below highlight critical areas in each of the four childhood developmental stages, plus strategies for caregivers with ADHD to employ for each.
ADHD Parenting Skills: Early Childhood (Ages 2 to 5)
|Focus Area||ADHD-Friendly Approach|
|Parent-child bonding: Bonding experiences help children learn to identify their caregivers as consistent sources of safety and joy.||Schedule play time as a way to bond in a low-risk, low-pressure environment. Stick to a schedule to help you be fully present with your child. Use timers to stay engaged, and leave your phone in another room.|
|Basic needs: From snacks and drinks to an extra set of clothes, parents must anticipate, prepare, and lug around essentials for their child. Basic organizational skills come in handy.||Designate spaces: Group snacks in one area, learning supplies in another area, and so on to eliminate guesswork and overwhelm. Prepare several go-bags with essentials like toys, clothes, and snacks that you can easily grab or even leave in the car.|
|Structure and routine: Predictability helps children understand and develop conscientiousness and perseverance — important skills for later academic achievement and structuring in their own lives.||Visual schedules help young children see, procedurally, what’s going to happen in the day. Use stickers, magnets, and drawings to represent daily activities like waking, brushing teeth, playing, eating, sleeping, etc.|
|Safety and play: Children need appropriate activities and games to play with others or independently. Monitoring might be difficult due to distractibility.||Create “Yes” spaces: Engineer a fool-proof safe space for play — nothing too high, too sharp, chemical-free, etc. That way, even with distractibility, the risks are low.|
|Positive reinforcement: It can be difficult to remember to notice and praise good behavior. Praising might also feel unnatural.||Practice play-by-play announcing: Describe your child’s actions, and pick out the things you like. “I see your fire truck on the carpet. Now your sister is picking it up. It’s really great of you to share.”|
|Discipline: At this age, it’s best to give simple, short-lived consequences to address negative behaviors.||Plan ahead for simple consequences: Create a list of specific responses, like a time out or less screen time, to have at your disposal for undesired behaviors. Give your child a warning first before doling out the consequence, which should follow quickly.|
ADHD Parenting Skills: Elementary School (Ages 6 to 10)
|Focus Area||ADHD-Friendly Approach|
|Forming relationships: Children start to form bonds independently and engage in parallel play.||Reflective modeling: Children adopt the social skills they see at home — from their parents and siblings or on the TV. Model appropriate interactions for your child, and be mindful of what they’re watching.|
|Developing interests and hobbies: Children practice and start to demonstrate skill in certain activities.||Create opportunities for practice. Think: How can I give my child whatever materials they need to independently practice?|
|Complex schedules: More activities require more planning and materials.||Externalize information. It’s common for individuals with ADHD to forget verbal instructions. Use whiteboards, sticky notes, digital calendars, and other visual organizing tools to keep track of schedules and to-dos.|
|Academic responsibility: Homework, tests, projects, and elevated expectations place extra demand on organizational skills.||Set up “help times;” To manage frustration and frequent interruptions, establish certain times when your child can check in with you. First, make sure that they have a clear workspace free of distractions. (No screens, all supplies in one place, etc.)|
|Social life: Play dates and parties are still facilitated by parents, which requires clear communication and planning.||Set reminders: Schedule a time every week to verify and prepare for upcoming plans. Create multiple countdown reminders until the day of the event.|
ADHD Parenting Skills: Middle School (Ages 11 to 13)
|Focus Area||ADHD-Friendly Approach|
|Academic functioning: Independently managing increased workloads.||Facilitate organizational skills: Look for skills training interventions if you and your child need additional support. Glean insights from these programs in managing backpacks, creating folder systems, tracking assignments, etc.|
|Maintaining positive parent-child interactions as tweens start to pull away from family to friends. A strong bond will make it easier for your child to approach you when they’re struggling.||Cultivate attachment rituals: Find an activity you can do routinely with your child that is purely for the sake of bonding (e.g. not agenda-driven, which can push them away). These activities will likely become the setting for big conversations.|
|Challenges and transitions (e.g. puberty) that come with this developmental phase.||Non-judgmental presence: Plan talking points about awkward subjects ahead of time, and deliver them neutrally. Remind your child that you’re there for them if they want to talk. (Ideally, during an attachment ritual.)|
|Fostering responsibility and independence.||Allowances and household trade-offs: How do you want your child to earn spending money? What household responsibilities and chores should they assume?|
|Screen habits: Screens are everywhere, and the key is to create balance and help children self-regulate later in life.||Set clear boundaries around screen time, especially at night. Charge devices outside bedrooms, and model good screen use for your child.|
ADHD Parenting Skills: High School (Ages 14 to 18)
|Focus Area||ADHD-Friendly Approach|
|Privileges like money, screens, and transportation (the source of most fights in households).||Attention to positive behavior and establishing contracts: Praise your teen for spending money the right way, for giving you receipts, for abiding by screen time rules, etc. Contracts also lay the ground rules for access to reinforcers of teen independence.|
|Social life often receives overwhelming focus while family life is de-emphasized in this stage.||Family rituals and routines: Continue cultivating attachment rituals that allow you access to your child in familiar, low-pressure settings.|
|Novelty- and risk-seeking are normal for this age, and they aren’t always bad.||Consequences: Validate your teen’s feelings, but make sure they know which behaviors are off-limits. Set up a “Good Sam” policy, where honesty will always lead to a lesser punishment than will lying.|
|More rigorous schedule with academics, extracurriculars, social outings, and more.||Know when to show up: You may not maintain your teen’s schedule, but it’s important to routinely attend events they consider important — a sports match, an academic decathlon, an awards ceremony, etc.|
|Balance of independence and monitoring.||Regularly review boundaries: Make sure you’re rewarding your teen if they’re adhering to rules and monitoring points.|
ADHD Parenting Skills: Self-Care Checklist
The only way to reliably, genuinely care for your child is to practice regular self-care. You need not do the following activities perfectly, but make sure you’re paying attention to them:
Basic Wellness Tasks
- Eat regularly
- Find and cultivate social support
- Keep physical- and mental-health appointments
Self-Care Skills to Develop
- Distress tolerance
- Behavioral activation
- Emotional monitoring
- Mindfulness and relaxation skills
- Seeking help if functioning is impaired
ADHD Interventions and Strategies
- ADHD medication
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness and acceptance interventions
- ADHD coaching
- Support groups
The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Caregivers with ADHD: How to Help Your Children Thrive While Meeting Your Own Challenges”[Video Replay & Podcast #367] with David Anderson, Ph.D., which was broadcast live on August 10, 2021.
Parents with ADHD: Next Steps
- Free Download: The Ages & Stages of ADHD — Key Solutions from Childhood to Adulthood
- Read: When the ADHD Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree
- Read: Hey, ADHD Parents: Shoot for Progress, not Perfection
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