9 Strategies for Stress-Free Evenings

From easy dinner ideas to medication management, these 9 fail-proof strategies will streamline your family’s daily routine.

Father and son with ADHD playing soccor outside in field
Father and son with ADHD playing soccor outside in field

Rush-hour traffic, hungry kids, and mountains of homework make weeknights stressful for any parent. For parents of children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), the hours from school dismissal to bedtime can be overwhelming.

You can manage these chaotic periods with the following ADHD daily schedule strategies from experts, all of which have been road-tested by parents and kids.

1. Focus on After-School Nutrition.

Some studies indicate that nutrition affects children’s behavior and may reduce or increase the symptoms of ADHD.

Too much sugar and artificial coloring, for instance, can make some children with ADHD more hyperactive.

Have a healthy snack ready when your child walks in the door. After a long day at school, where lunch may have been a bag of chips and a juice, the last thing kids need is more junk food. “Avoid snacks that are high in simple sugars and fat; instead, choose foods that are high in nutrients,” advises Laura J. Stevens, founder of Nutrition in Action, Inc.

[Clickt to Read: How Nutrition Harmonizes the ADHD Brain]

A nutritious snack could be whole-grain crackers with natural peanut butter and an apple; a slice of cold turkey or ham and an orange; or a banana and nuts (walnuts are particularly nutritious, because they contain omega-3 fatty acids, which may improve ADHD symptoms).

Similarly, what you serve for dinner — and when you serve it — can impact your child’s evening behavior. If your child gets home early in the evening — say, five or six — after playing sports or doing an extracurricular activity, consider having dinner on the table as soon as he walks in. A meal will help maintain blood sugar levels, which can establish focus and attention. Providing nutrient-rich foods is the goal.

“The human body is the most amazing chemical factory ever designed,” says Stevens, author of 12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child (Avery). “It takes in roughly 40 to 50 nutrients and makes more than 100,000 chemicals! If it doesn’t get the right nutrients in the right amounts, it won’t function normally.”

Stevens suggests the following dinner options:

  • Mixed-greens salad with dressing made with canola oil; whole-grain pasta and meat sauce; whole-wheat roll; seasonal fresh fruit salad for dessert; low-fat milk.

[Get This Free Download: Routines for Morning and Night]

  • Fresh fruit salad to start; broiled salmon or other fish; baked sweet potato or white potato; steamed green vegetable; sugar-free, dye-free ice cream for dessert.
  • Baked chicken; seasoned brown rice; carrot sticks and steamed broccoli or another deep-green vegetable; watermelon for dessert.

2. Consider Early-Evening Meds.

Longer-acting medications to treat symptoms of ADHD, such as Ritalin and Concerta, are generally preferable to short-acting medication stimulants like Focalin because they don’t require dosing during the school day.

However, many children have trouble focusing in the late afternoon and evening, when their meds wear off. Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., co-founder of the now closed National Center for Girls and Women with ADHD, agrees. “It’s hardest to focus when you’re tired at the end of the day, and this is especially difficult for kids with ADHD,” says Nadeau. “Short-acting medication can be used to improve focus, as long-acting medication is wearing off.”

Talk with your child’s doctor about prescribing a short-acting evening medication, often referred to as a “booster dose.” Keep in mind, however, that timing of an ADHD medication dosage is critically important. “Parents will need to experiment to know how late in the afternoon they can administer a short-acting stimulant that will wear off just in time for the child to be able to fall asleep,” advises Nadeau.

3. Establish Your Own Routine.

Creating routines that work with your child’s unique needs is critical to managing evening chaos. Some families, for instance, find that heightened emotionality and impulsiveness make finishing homework in the evenings tough. If this is the case, experiment with your child’s schedule. Try doing homework at different times, or breaking it into small pieces. Another strategy is having someone sit in the room with him, reading a book or engaged in another quiet activity; it provides reassurance to the child.

Make the routine clear by creating a chart or poster with your child. Have her write words about or draw illustrations (or use pictures from magazines) of the things that need to be accomplished that day: feed the dog, go to soccer practice, and help prepare dinner.

4. Be Realistic.

A common source of parental frustration is the length of time it takes a child to complete tasks. Some children can take a shower, brush teeth, and get into pajamas in 30 minutes, but maybe your child can’t.

You should have reasonable expectations about what your child can do independently and which tasks need your active participation. Lauren Braswell, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist, agrees that realistic expectations help the evening go smoother. “I see families struggle with what they can change and what they have to accept,” she says. If it takes your child longer to get through the evening chores or nightly homework, that’s just the way it is. “Educate yourself about the symptoms of ADHD, so that you can have accurate expectations of your child and of yourself,” Braswell suggests.

5. Run. Jump. Kick.

For some children with ADHD, it’s hard to tackle homework or chores immediately after school. One way to re-establish focus is through exercise. “Evidence shows that 20 or 30 minutes of exercise-taking a walk, playing in the backyard, doing some jumping jacks-can help a child focus for about 45 minutes to an hour afterward,” says John Ratey, M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “It should be something fun, an activity he does with friends or with you.”

6. Give Frequent Feedback.

Children with ADHD are often impulsive at school, making them targets for teachers’ reprimands and disapproval. At home, your child needs extra encouragement and frequent feedback to counteract that negative commentary.

To avoid parent-child power struggles, make fewer verbal demands. Instead of telling your child what to do (which is often perceived as nagging), use a nonverbal cue. “Children with ADHD may lock into certain behaviors and lose focus, but parents can often redirect them with a simple nonverbal cue,” says Lynne Reeves Griffin, author of Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Parental Authority Without Punishment! Griffin suggests handing your child a sharpened pencil or lightly tapping your finger on his worksheet when he is distracted. “When parents use nonverbal feedback, it helps children get focused quickly. This is encouraging to a child who is struggling,” Griffin says.

When your child does something that helps the evening go more smoothly, acknowledge his contribution. Children feel valued when their actions are appreciated. Using phrases like, “Thanks for your help” or “I appreciate your cooperation,” makes a child feel good about himself.

[Read This: Why Praise Is So Important for Children with ADHD]

7. Stay Calm.

Children with ADHD thrive when surrounded by adults who provide order and balance — those who offer a calming presence amid chaos. Unfortunately, many of us wear a big red button on the front of our shirt that reads, “Push here to see me explode.” And children press it as often as they can. Sometimes, kids with ADHD get so wound up that they want others to join them in their chaos.

Hal Edward Runkel, author of Screamfree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool (Broadway), agrees that serenity begins with parents. “Kids follow our example better than they follow our words,” Runkel says. “No child responds well to chaos, and those with ADHD have even more difficulty with disorder.”

Runkel suggests the following stay-calm strategies: In the midst of a child’s eruption over homework, imagine yourself as a movie actor. How would you like to see yourself behave? Or give yourself permission to act silly to break the tension. “Maybe that means strapping on an imaginary bulletproof vest before he talks with you,” suggests Runkel. Levity may be what you need to rein in your emotions — and it may be so surprising to your child that she stops in her tracks.

8. Use Sleep Strategies.

For many children and adolescents with ADHD, a good night’s sleep is only a dream. Children’s sleep can often be disturbed by mental and physical restlessness. In fact, poor sleep is a hallmark of ADHD. Not surprisingly, families are always looking for solutions and strategies to help their child get to bed at a reasonable hour.

If your child takes medication, look for the “sleep window” — the time when he falls asleep with the least difficulty. “It is a period of about two hours after the noticeable effects of meds have worn off but during which there is enough stimulant effect to ward off the nervousness and hyperactivity of a nonmedicated mind,” says Glen Hogard, an ADHD coach.

Also think about using an ADHD-friendly alarm clock to signal time for bed. “I work with parents to develop a routine for their family. It usually starts with a warm bath, tooth-brushing, and some light stretching or calming breathing techniques,” Hogard says. He suggests some light reading before lights out. “If you establish a bedtime routine, you help your child prepare her mind and body for a good night’s rest.”

9. Watch Your Words.

When conflicting priorities collide, parents often feel overwhelmed. This leads to harsh words or an edgy tone of voice. How we talk to a child affects how he perceives himself. When you tell your son that he’s impulsive, you are labeling him, so, chances are, he will continue to act that way, Runkel explains. “When you battle against his behavior and tell him to get in control, his behavior gets worse. He becomes openly impulsive,” Runkel says. It’s important for parents and caregivers to stop labeling children. Focus on the things you can control — your behavior and your attitudes toward your child.

Here are several examples of verbal options:

  • Instead of saying, “You’re getting me mad,” say “This situation makes me angry” or “I’m having a tough time with all of this tonight. Aren’t you?”
  • Instead of saying, “You’re a little out of control tonight,” try “Let’s try to find something to calm both of us down this evening” or “Let’s take a break and listen to some music or dance around a little.”
  • Instead of saying, “You seem distracted,” try “Let’s work on finding a way to focus” or “I know homework isn’t fun, but we need to get it done. So let’s get focused.”
  • Instead of saying, “You’re making a mess” or “You’re getting a little sloppy,” try “Could you use a hand?” or “How can I help you clean this up?”
  • Instead of saying, “There are no monsters in your closet, just go to bed,” try “Lots of kids have scary dreams. How do you want to get rid of the monsters?” or “How about I stay in the room for awhile until you fall asleep?”

Getting through weeknights takes tenacity and extraordinary patience. When pressure is getting the best of you, focus on your ultimate parenting goal. Says Dr. Braswell, “Teach your child to be self-sufficient and preserve a loving parent/child relationship at all costs.”

Parenting a Child with ADHD: Tips from Readers

I pack a small cooler filled with nutritious food and water every afternoon, so that the kids have something to eat while we are driving to after-school activities.” –Sherri, Atlanta, Georgia

“It’s very important that our son gets his homework done before his medicine wears off. Once it has worn off, the work will take twice as long to complete.” –Jennifer, Lexington, Kentucky

We follow the same routine day in and day out. My children know what to expect, and they find it very reassuring.” –Louise, Québec, Canada

I help my children with homework as soon as I come home from work, because it takes them twice as long as most children. That’s just the way it is.” –Heather, Mechanicsville, Virginia

“Getting outside for some ‘green time’ is always a priority. We take a walk, ride bikes, chase butterflies, or have water fights with the hose. The big thing is being outside and staying active.” –Cindy, Kalamazoo, Michigan

When our routine changes, I give a heads-up in the morning, so my children know what to expect. It’s important to keep them informed.” –Jennifer, Norwalk, Connecticut

Yoga helps me slow down in the face of a tough evening.” –Heather, San Antonio, Texas

Bedtime is much easier since we turned off the TV. My kids are more likely to play quietly, read, or write as it gets closer to lights out.” –Elisabeth, Jackson, Mississippi