ADHD News & Research

“They Have Put Us in an Impossible Situation.”

“I feel like I’m being forced to choose between my child’s mental health and his physical health. There is no good option.” This comment, one of more than 3,000 shared in ADDitude’s latest pandemic survey, sums up the main source of anxiety and overwhelm among families living with ADHD as the school year looms.

Wave representing the school year for ADHD families
“I feel like I’m being forced to choose between my child’s mental health (socialization, access to educational support) and his physical health (exposure to COVID and the toll that fear of potential exposure is having on his anxiety/mental health. There is no good option.” This comment, one of more than 3,000 shared in ADDitude’s latest pandemic survey, sums up the main source of anxiety and overwhelm among families living with ADHD in these dog days of summer.

Click here for Survey Report #9: August 17, 2020

August 3, 2020

It began like an earthquake.

The world shifted suddenly and violently beneath your feet. Foundations crumbled, sparking a thousand little fires. And so you raced around dousing the flames while living in constant fear of aftershocks…

  • 9% of you lost your jobs
  • 34% of you are working from home for the first time
  • at least 42% of you became ill with COVID-19 or know someone who did
  • and almost 100% of your children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) were thrust out of school.

All the while, though, a tsunami was building offshore. We knew the shock could trigger an even larger and more enduring disaster, though we hoped it wouldn’t. Yet here we are, feet sunk in the sand, watching as a wall of water begins to crest on the horizon. When it crashes down the other side, we know, it will wipe out so much.

This is how the 1,705 respondents to ADDitude’s eighth pandemic survey describe the coming school year — a quiet catastrophe now within sight.

  • 71% of you told us that you are feeling anxious or worried — the second highest percentage since the pandemic first shook us in mid-March.
  • 65% of you said you’re feeling overwhelmed or exhausted.
  • For the first time since we began surveying ADDitude readers in early April, far more of you reported feeling more concerned about coronavirus than you were the week before. In total, 44% of you said you feel worse and only 8% of you said you feel better than you did a few weeks ago.

The reasons are clear: Schools are pushing to reopen even as 68% of you say the risk for COVID-19 is moderate, high, or very high in your area.

[Are You Crisis Schooling? Daily Schedule Advice for ADHD Families]

“The numbers are going up again,” wrote one parent in Indiana. “We have reached more daily cases than we did at the original peak.”

“The cases continue to rise in my state,” wrote a reader in Kansas. “It’s like there is no end in sight.”

“People in my state refuse to wear masks… and it’s now a ‘hot spot,’” wrote one parent of a 3rd grader with ADHD in Tennessee. “Schools are starting in person here and I am fearful about cases going up and people dying needlessly. My child will do virtual school, but I do worry about the quality.”

Parents Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The decisions facing families are impossible. For families of children with ADHD, especially those who receive services and accommodations through an IEP or 504 Plan, they are worse than impossible. Parents are being forced to make trade-offs between their child’s mental/emotional and physical health; between their education and their safety; between their family’s livelihood and its lives.

“I feel like I’m being forced to choose between my child’s mental health (socialization, access to educational support) and his physical health (exposure to COVID and the toll that fear of potential exposure is having on his anxiety/mental health),” wrote one mother of a 2nd grader and a 5th grader with ADHD. “There is no good option.”

“I’m feeling more and more anxiety over school reopening plans,” wrote one Rhode Island mother of a 6th grader with ADHD and 12th grader with anxiety. “I’m torn between wanting my kids to be with their friends and have some normalcy vs. the need to protect them from the virus.”

“Schools are still charging ahead to reopen, despite the fact that kids 10-17 are as good at spreading coronavirus as adults,” wrote one mother of 3rd and 6th graders with ADHD in Oregon. “Neither of my kids learn well via distance learning and I would have to quit my job to teach them. Why are we trying to focus on educational goals at the cost of health and safety?”

“With schools set to reopen and government programs about to stop, the stress is getting worse,” wrote the mother of a 1st grader with ADHD in New York. “The virus will spread in schools, so I’m forced to keep my kids home with me because my youngest has respiratory issues. Without childcare, I’m unable to go back to work, so I will have more responsibilities without any income. It’s terrifying.”

[How This Pandemic Triggers Trauma Responses in the ADHD Brain]

A Common Stressor: Uncertainty

As total cases of COVID-19 surge toward 5 million in the United States, the ADDitude survey deployed on July 20 tells us these things:

  • 31% of those working from home expect to return to their workplace soon.
  • Only 39% of you said your local public school district or private school has released a full, comprehensive plan for the 2020-2021 academic year.
  • Not knowing is exacting a very real emotional and psychological cost as we enter August.

“I feel adrift,” wrote a New York mother whose 7th grader has ADHD. “I am still waiting to hear from my school, but something tells me that my child with ADHD and anxiety will not do well with a school situation where everyone is afraid of each other or where things are changing day to day. I feel like remote learning is at least a more sustainable option, but there are many sacrifices there.”

“I’m anxious and frustrated that there is still no clear-cut decision on what will happen in the fall,” wrote one caregiver. “All options seem bad; whether in-person with numerous restrictions and responsibilities for the safety of my students; online without social closeness and the equity found in the classroom; or a hybrid model that will inevitably end in 10+ hour days for teachers and therapists.”

“I feel trapped by uncertainty and constantly shifting mask requirements and school plans,” wrote one parent from Colorado with a 3rd grader with ADHD. “Our biggest worry: What if they shut down again during the school year? How can we come up with Plan B? We’re faced with preparing our child for a year filled with uncertainty and ambiguity.”

“I am uncertain about the school plans for my son, who is 11 and has ADHD,” wrote one parent in Rhode Island. “I am a single parent with no family support system and I have some health problems. I am not sure how I will juggle work and his education whether in person or remote learning. At the same time, I am concerned about lack of/limited social interactions for him.”

The Factors Weighed Most Heavily

Among those ADDitude readers who have made a decision, here is how the coming school year is shaping up:

  • roughly 43% will do 100% remote learning
  • roughly 24% plan to be in school 100% of the time
  • 20% will follow a hybrid model with some in-person and some remote learning
  • 6% will be independently homeschooling

What factors were of greatest concern among caregivers making the school decision?

  • socialization: 93% of survey respondents called it a big or moderate concern
  • child’s anxiety and stress 92% cited this factor
  • academics: nearly 91% called academics a big or moderate concern

Just fewer than half of caregivers also cited the following as big concerns:

  • teachers’ exposure to COVID: 49%
  • managing work and remote learning from home: 48%
  • the child’s physical activity: 47%
  • access to educational services through an IEP or 504 Plan: 44%
  • the family’s potential exposure to COVID (43%)

“We have a newborn in the house and also help care for my elderly mother, so we are forced to do 100% distance learning; we have no choice,” wrote the mother of a 5th grader with ADHD and 2nd grader with ODD in Mississippi. “This is not ideal for my boys. They need socialization and structure, but we cannot take the health risk.”

“I worry my child will no longer be allowed to move around or take a break from the classroom when needed,” wrote a caregiver in Arkansas. “I worry about them having no recess, PE, or going to the cafeteria for lunch, and how all of this will impact her ADHD and other issues. But remote learning was a disaster last spring. Because if that, I feel forced into letting her attend regular in-person classes that may expose her to COVID.”

“My daughter is already well behind her peers,” wrote another parent. “I’m afraid that the gap is only going to widen with her receiving only one day a week of actual instruction time. I have four kids with ADHD. I don’t know how I’m going to manage distance learning and maintain my sanity.”

“My son needs the structure that a school day can bring; with my own ADHD, it is challenging to create that structure at home,” wrote one mother of a 7th grader with ADHD in Minnesota. “Part of me would like my son to be able to go back to school, however I’m concerned about the virus because it is so new — we really don’t know the lasting affects it might have on kids.”

[Read: 8 Secrets to Engaged Online Learning for Students with ADHD]

Educators in Distress

For many educators, the decision is even more complicated. Teachers with young children must send their kids back to school in person if their own districts mandate their return to the classroom, and this is only a portion of the burden they carry right now.

“I am a teacher in a school district that will open for face-to-face instruction in just a couple weeks,” wrote one educator with ADHD and anxiety in New Mexico. “I have chronic health issues and don’t know what I will do.”

“I am more concerned as the school year gets closer that I will inadvertently give the virus to one of my students,” wrote an educator with ADHD in Philadelphia. “I am also very anxious about the many changes to my day-to-day job responsibilities.”

Still Recovering from Spring Semester

For many parents and caregivers, the fall school decision is influenced heavily by their spring semester experience. We asked caregivers to share their feedback on remote learning, and we received 855 long, detailed comments. The word used most commonly? Disaster.

“Remote learning was a disaster,” wrote the parent of a 6th grader with autism in Washington. “Minimal participation, lack of motivation to participate, refusal to complete work, and minimal teacher contact made spring extremely stressful for our family.”

“It was a complete disaster; the kids were unengaged and miserable,” wrote the parent of a 6th grader with ADHD and an 8th grader with autism in Massachusetts. “There was crying, yelling, refusal, anger. It compounded underlying issues like anxiety and trichotillomania..”

“Virtual learning was a disaster for my middle-school aged son and really helped us solidify his diagnosis,” wrote the parent of an 8th grader with anxiety in Virginia. “It was so hard for him in so many ways and being home with him all of the time it was impossible not to see. This is new and I still do not know how to help him.”

“It was a total disaster,” wrote the mother of an 8th grader with ADHD in Oregon. “I dread the fall, knowing that things may not be much different. Teachers simply don’t have the training, and I have little confidence in my district that they will provide better training and expectations for teachers.”

“Without the distractions from classmates, my son ended up doing his best work and getting his best report card if his entire school career,” wrote the mother of a 9th grader with ADHD in Los Angeles. “But I know this was not only due in part to my constant oversight and management of his assignments. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting for me as a parent, and very stressful for my son.”

Coming Off of a Worrisome Summer

On top of everything else, summer was neither restorative nor fun for many ADDitude families. With camps and other activities canceled, plus social distancing measures in place, new problems arose this summer:

  • screen time: 67% of you cited screen time as a big concern, and another 26% called it a moderate concern
  • lack of social interaction and loneliness was a big or moderate concern for 89% of you
  • missed opportunities (camps, jobs, classes): 87%
  • difficulty getting my child to read or engage in summer learning: 85%
  • boredom: 84%

“Since I am working from home, my children have been mostly engaging in lots of gaming and other screen time,” wrote the mother of a 3rd and 8th grader in Colorado. “Sometimes I feel guilty about this, but I really cannot do much about it right now because I have to focus on my work as well as parent them the best I can.”

“He has become a recluse,” another respondent said about her 6th grader with ADHD. “He spends as much time as possible on computer, barely stopping to eat or use the bathroom. His therapist says he needs 15 minutes outside daily, but he will just stand in one place waiting until he can go back inside.”

“Overnight camp was canceled. Sports were canceled. Activities like the water park/pool are not possible. Beach vacation was canceled,” wrote the parent of a 9th grader with ADHD in Pennsylvania. “I am worried for my 14-year-old with limited social activity prior to COVID-19.”

Many parents reported new, distressing signs of emotional or psychological turmoil in their children this summer. We are hearing reports of lashing out, sleeping all day, and pulling away from family members. All of these behaviors are understood, but also difficult to witness and even harder to remedy.

“My son has been very depressed this summer,” wrote the mother of a 10th grader with ADHD in Ohio. “He misses his summer activities. It’s been hard to just get him out of bed and out of his room to go enjoy the outside air and sunshine. He doesn’t want to leave the house since he can’t be with friends.”

“She’s spends all her time in room,” wrote another mother of a 10th grader with ADHD in Texas. “She’s always angry, she refuses to engage, she won’t share or open up.”

“My child has been acting out a lot more than when she has a structured routine with school,” wrote the parent of a 1st grader with ADHD also in Texas. “She talks about how the coronavirus messed everything up and how we are no longer able to have fun and go anywhere. Her anxiety and stress is causing her to pick her skin more than ever.”

Holding Our Collective Breath

No matter where we stand, we can clearly see the wave. It is gaining strength and high ground is scarce. Some of us will suffer more than others, due to inequities and circumstances beyond our concern, but all of us will feel the impact of COVID-19 in our lives and our schools for the foreseeable future. There is no right or wrong way to ride out this storm, and that may the most difficult and damning thing about it.

“I couldn’t send my child in person with a clear conscience,” wrote the parent of a 3rd grader with ADHD in Tennessee. “I think remote learning will have its challenges, but it will be consistent. My concern is that in-person school will transition to remote then back to in-person and it will be chaos. I would prefer consistency for my child.”

“I live in an area that doesn’t have many cases and I’m relieved that my child will be able to return September 1 to a full in-person school, 5 days a week, and finally have that structure and education that he so desperately needs,” writes one adult with ADHD in Wisconsin. “I was trying to teach a child at home when I am not a teacher and we have zero internet access, and it was impossible to get my 7 year old to even try focusing on schoolwork… He needs to go back to school.”

“I am concerned about increasing disparities and knowledge slide that many disadvantaged students will experience,” wrote a mother of three in Maryland. “This is a serious societal and social justice concern that fuels my anger. I’m also frustrated and worried about my three boys, all of whom would start at new school experiences as kindergarten, 6th and 9th graders, losing the hard-won gains in personal responsibility, executive function, social skills, and self-discipline.”

“I feel like a horrible person and parent sending my kid back to school with everything going on, but I don’t know what else to do,” wrote the parent of a 7th grader with autism in Florida. “If any of the adults in the house or someone I trusted was able to be with him during the day, I would keep him home and attempt whatever they’re doing for distance learning. There is just NO possible way he can do it without a facilitator, and since he is going into the 7th grade, he is expected to be ‘old enough to figure it out.’ But being not only ADHD but Asperger’s as well, there is NO POSSIBLE WAY. They have put us (and I’m sure a lot of other parents and caregivers) in an impossible situation, where any decision makes me feel sick to my stomach and guilty.”

School Safety for Kids with ADHD: Next Steps

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