How to Stop Enabling and Start Trusting: ADHD Independence-Building Strategies for Parents
When students with ADHD need academic and organizational support, parents often (and understandably) supply it. But how much support is too much? When does it become enabling? And how can you help your child learn self-advocacy skills to develop independence? Try the strategies below.
Parents of neurodivergent students are detectives. By nature and necessity, they investigate and illuminate the obstacles — from inattention and disorganization to low frustration tolerance and time-management challenges — that block their kids’ paths to success.
Like other parents, you’re likely adept at tackling these obstacles. But if you’ve ever wondered whether you’re doing and intervening too much, you’re not alone. Many parents of students with ADHD wonder how to strike the elusive balance that offers support and encourages independent self-advocacy skills.
While this may seem like a clear distinction, knowing what to do at the moment is not always easy. For example, suppose you discover that your child has forgotten to bring his violin to school for the fourth time this month. Driving the instrument to school for him may seem to be enabling. However, your investigation suggests that your child may not have the skills he needs to manage that expectation right now. He often ends up practicing the violin later at night after he finishes his homework and runs out of time to pack up thoroughly before bedtime. In the morning rush, he leaves the house to barely make the bus, forgetting to take a moment to check that he has all he needs for school.
You are aware that you must help him develop the structures and strategies to remember everything he needs. However, you are also aware that you are working through other more pressing matters, such as learning how to study for his math quiz, making time to eat breakfast, and calming down before yelling at his sister. So, for now, rather than have him penalized for not remembering his violin, you decide to assist. What makes this action “supporting” rather than “enabling?” You discuss the concern with your child and make a plan to help him learn to remember for himself, even if that plan won’t be discussed or implemented for a little while as you focus on more pressing matters.
- Enabling is doing something for someone else, without a plan to help them do it for themselves.
- Supporting is providing guidance and encouragement to someone as they learn to manage the task on their own in time.
We don’t want our kids to fail. We don’t want our kids to struggle. But sometimes, we need to leave a little more space for discomfort so that they have the opportunity to recognize where they are really having trouble and what they really can accomplish.
[Read: “I Bailed Out My Kid and I’m Not Sorry”]
It’s important for you and your child to agree on your role in their education. This might involve pulling back more than you want to. Especially for older students, it might involve letting your kid feel the weight of their own decisions while reminding them you’ll always be there to help them figure out how to navigate choppy waters.
As the new school year kicks into high gear, here are a few ways you can help build a healthy relationship between you and your student with ADHD — one in which they’re expected to do the heavy lifting while you stand by, to spot them.
Strategies for Students with ADHD to Build Independence
Help Your Child Set Goals
Research tells us that when people set goals and really work toward them, not only do they perform better, they experience less stress and less anxiety. They’re more satisfied. Goals help us prioritize what’s important and focus on the possibilities in front of us. So, goal setting is an important part of your student’s success in school. For this to really work, though, the goals have to come from your child, not from you. Their buy-in is a prerequisite.
A goal without a plan is really just a wish. And making that plan may be an area where your child needs help. Here’s how to help, while letting them take ownership:
Step 1: Reflect on the Past
The start of the school year is a great time to reflect on last year – the triumphs as well as the hurdles. You may find that your child’s perspective on these triumphs and hurdles may differ from yours — and it’s their perspective that really counts when they’re creating goals. So, sit down with your child and ask them questions that help them reflect on things like completing homework, preparing for tests, and participating in class. These questions include:
- What worked well last year?
- What didn’t work so well?
- What did you do that wasn’t worth it?
- What could you have done that you didn’t do, because you forgot or felt scared or didn’t think of it?
- What do you wish you would have done differently?
[Quiz: How Well Do You Know Attention Deficit Disorder?]
Step 2: Take Stock of the Present
To help kids take stock of their skillset right now, I recommend using a coaching technique called “Wheel of Life.” It lists a few major areas in which we want kids to feel competent, including a lot of executive function skills. These are the skills that help you do what you need to do to reach your goals, and they include:
- Note-taking skills
- Study skills
- Time management
- Test- and quiz-taking skills
- Stress management
For each of these skills, ask your child to rate themselves from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). This encourages them to distinguish their different abilities in different areas, and helps them move away from all-or-nothing thinking, where they say, “Oh, I don’t need help with any of that” or, “Oh, I’m terrible at all of that.” It lets them diagnose specific problem areas.
Step 3: Look to the Future
Now that you’ve prompted your child to reflect on the past and take stock of current abilities, ask them where they want to go moving forward. Take a closer look at the skills from the Wheel of Life that they’ve rated a 1 or 2 and ask, “Which of these do you want to tackle first? What are a few specific steps you can take to improve in this area?” Broaden the conversation from here and ask them to name their hopes for this school year.
Remember, these goals don’t need to be academic. Maybe your child has a physical goal to integrate more exercise into their week. Maybe they have a social goal to make two new friends. Maybe their goal is about self-advocacy — to speak up for themselves more at school. Whatever it is, write it down — along with the steps they’ve brainstormed to help them reach it. This solidifies the goal and helps them remember what they’re working toward.
Give Kids Control by Emphasizing Effort
One of the most powerful ways we can give our children control over their education is to focus on effort, rather than grades. Carol Dweck, who developed the concept of the growth mindset, said, “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success.” By contrast, emphasizing intelligence or a grade that someone else gives to you takes the issue out of the child’s hands and makes it harder for them to know what to do when they fall short.
Someone with a fixed mindset believes that we’re born with a fixed set of skills and talents that can’t be improved, and that mistakes and failures should be avoided. A person with a growth mindset views setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, and believes practice makes progress. As the school year picks up momentum, something really helpful you can do is examine your mindset, and ask how it may be impacting your child.
Self-advocacy is a skill that has to be taught, like learning to write in cursive or to ride a bike. To that end, make sure your child knows who can support them at school and how they can ask for this support. Be sure to address the following together:
- Does the student know who they can approach for help? Broaden their support circle wherever possible.
- Does the student know the best way (and the best time) to get help? In-person, phone, email, or Zoom? In the morning, after school, or during lunchtime?
- Does the student know what kind of language to use when approaching these people? Practicing can be useful.
Invite Them Into IEP Conversations
As parents, we often advocate for our children behind closed doors, without the child there, in order to protect them. Sometimes, though, having the student join in the conversation is much more productive; it increases their accountability, and models for them how to manage these conversations on their own.
The age at which you may want to invite your child into an IEP meeting, or a school-related conversation about their education will depend on the child. But they might be ready for this at a younger age than you’d think. I have known kids who wanted to be in their IEP meeting starting in First Grade because they noticed they were in the resource room and wanted to know why.
If you don’t want your child to attend a formal IEP meeting, consider setting up a brief three-way meeting between yourself, the teacher, and the student. Their ability to assess their strengths, challenges, and needs may surprise you — and them, too.
Teaching Self-Advocacy & Building Independence: Next Steps
- Read: Enabling vs. Supporting – Helping ADHD Kids Be Independent
- Download: Free ADHD Master Class for Parents and Teachers
- Read: Homework Help – Building Independence in Students with ADHD
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Meet the Teacher: How to Build Relationships This Back-to-School Season” [Podcast #413] with Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., which was broadcast on July 26, 2022.
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