Schedules & Routines

Why Task Switching is Difficult for ADHD Brains — and 7 Ways to Smooth Transitions

There’s a lot more to task switching and transitions than meets the eye. ADHD-related issues with focus and executive dysfunction complicate the process of moving from one task to the next. Here, take a deep dive into transitions and learn how to help your teen get over the hump.

Going from point a to point b - the letters a and b with squiggles and straight lines

Q: “My 13-year-old son has been diagnosed with ADHD. He’s been having a lot of trouble going from one thing to another. Task switching seems to be more complicated for him than I would have expected. When I try to help, we argue. What am I missing?”

Why Task Switching and Transitions Roil ADHD Teens

Transitions are difficult for ADHD brains. Why? What seems like a simple process actually comprises several discrete steps, any one of which could cause a derailment.

The first step to supporting your teen is to get to know the different aspects of transitions, as well as the various stages that are involved with task switching.

3 Types of Transitions

  • Physical transitions include walking from one room to another, taking out a laptop or a notebook, and getting out of bed. We often think that a transition is finished just because the physical aspect has been completed, but this is false.
  • Mental transitions take place internally. When switching tasks, we must change how we are thinking. For example, the competitive mindset needed to play a sport has to change when we’re going out to dinner with family after the game. If we don’t move out of the previous mindset, we won’t be as cooperative as we should be in the new setting. The executive function challenges that go with ADHD may cause this shift to lag.
  • Emotional transitions, like mental ones, take place internally and are hard to observe. (The clues are in the nonverbal cues.) Sometimes we have to go from one emotional state to another to take on a new task or situation. When a teen says that they don’t “feel like” doing homework, it’s likely that they haven’t emotionally transitioned to that task yet. The emotional regulation challenges that go with ADHD can make these transitions difficult, and they may cause a child to get stuck in a powerful feeling like excitement, anger, or shame.

A single transition may comprise all three of these.

[Get This Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

How Things Can Go Wrong When Task Switching

There are three stages to each transition.

  1. Making the initial move away from the activity
  2. Navigating the path between the last activity and the future one
  3. Moving into the coming task or activity.

Things can go wrong at each of these stages.

Problems at the first stage:

  • If ending a pleasant, enjoyable task, it may be hard for your teen to let go of the fun that they’re having.
  • If the task is urgent, that, too, can make putting it down hard.
  • ADHD hyperfocus could make it difficult to disconnect.

Problems at the second stage:

  • The path between leaving a task and entering a new one requires focus, a common weak spot for teens with ADHD. It is easy for a teen to get sidetracked and distracted before entering a new activity, especially if it doesn’t start quickly enough.

Problems at the third stage:

  • Unclear instructions can make it difficult to move on to the new task. If your teen misunderstands, they may not start the task soon enough.
  • If the task is a dreaded one, or one charged with negative feelings, your teen might delay getting started or avoid it altogether. This delay could lead to harsh words from Mom or Dad, which could lead to even stronger negative feelings.

[Read: The Trickiest Transitions for Our Kids — and Proven Remedies]

Task Switching: 6 Tips for Helping Teens with Transitions

1. Establish easy-to-follow routines to let kids know what to expect, and when to expect it. Establishing and following set patterns of behavior goes a long way toward smoothing transitions.

2 . Cue your teen in advance of upcoming transitions. Giving kids a heads-up when a transition is coming will give them more time to make the needed mental and emotional shifts.

3. Use checklists and other visual reminders that build independence as our kids learn to navigate transitions and increase their ownership of their behavior.

4. Play music during transitions. Music helps us time how long a transition will take, and it can also soothe emotions that might arise from the change of tasks.

5. Use timers and reminders. Timers and digital reminders allow parents to stop nagging and, therefore, reduce conflict at home.

6. Let your teen take the lead on transitions. Give a teen as much control over transitions as they can manage. Let them take charge of moving from one task to another. This will reduce the mishegoss of transitions.

7. Understanding goes a long way. Transitions are more complicated than most of us realize. Understanding and patience will go a long way in helping your teen get over the transition hump.

Task Switching and Transitions for ADHD Brains: Next Steps

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