Feeling overwhelmed by something? Break it down!

One of the most common problems for many kids with ADHD is getting overwhelmed by a task. Whether it is doing homework, cleaning up a bedroom or looking for a summer job, they feel swamped and don’t know where to begin. Often they avoid doing these things rather skillfully and don’t respond to reminders you offer them. How can you help your child minimize his or her procrastination and get down to business?Frustrated high school student

One of the main issues behind most procrastination behaviors involves the size of the task. Something small can feel enormous. When a project seems too big for any of us, it’s usually daunting to start it. For kids with ADHD, that feeling of intimidation is especially powerful and immobilizing. They often think: “Why start something that seems impossible to finish or even partially finish? What even bother?” So they can freeze and unwittingly become masters of avoidance.

The best solution to feeling overwhelmed by a project, task or chore is to break it down into smaller pieces–sometimes really small pieces. We want your child or teen to be able to accomplish at least one step towards completion and no step is too little in this process. With the confidence of doing something instead of worrying and negative self-talk, they will be moving along towards the goal at hand. It’s this movement that builds confidence and further action.

Of course, the big question is: “How do I create tasks that are the right size to promote starting them?” The answers lie in working collaboratively with your child or teen to set up a plan that fits his capabilities. Being as specific as possible and remaining calm in the face of any frustration are the keys to working together successfully. For instance, when the room is very messy, agree that you will each pick up a few pieces of clothing per night so cleaning up is more tolerable. Or, when there are 30 math problems, try starting with half or even less (providing the teacher agrees to this) and increase steadily when those are successfully attempted and finished.Asian Teen Playing or Working on a Laptop Computer

Here’s how to get started:

1. Before you sit down with your son or daughter, ask yourself “How long can he really focus on a chore or homework before he gets distracted or bored?” You know your child quite well and, whatever the answer is, keep that in mind when you create the plan.

2. Schedule a time when things are calm to talk about this issue. Ask her how long she thinks that she can concentrate before she needs a break. She might not be able to assess this very well so then you can offer your insights. Whatever she suggests, go with the smallest amount of time that comes up. If it’s 15 minutes, great; if it’s 45 minutes, great too. Decide together how many work periods she can handle in one day. For example, ADHD kids from 8-11 years old can usually do about 20-30 minutes of homework per day; ADHD middle schoolers can handle about 30-60 minutes ; ADHD high schoolers manage 1-2 hours. Talk about starting with the most difficult components of the task first when concentration is the strongest.

3. Then discuss the length and range of acceptable activities of the break he will need after the work period. The activities should be something from which he can easily disengage without an argument. Activities to consider are having a snack or a drink, playing a brief game (e.g. TicTacToe), taking a brief walk around the room or the house and using the bathroom. Avoid technology during breaks because stopping their usage is typically quite difficult. Breaks of about 5-10 minutes are usually adequate for school-age kids.

4. Try it out! If it’s still hard for your son or daughter to accomplish something, then the task remains too big. To make it smaller, reduce the length of the work period. I have seen parents start with 5 minute work periods and eventually move up until 30 minutes, going slowly and steadily. This may mean you may get less help initially with raking the leaves or only one page of math problems is completed. However, frustrating this may be for you (and understandably it could be), remain patient. No matter what, the breaks do not change in length. Longer breaks seem to be harder for kids to recover from and then you are back at the beginning of procrastination problems.

Remember, that every successful step benefits from recognition. Praise what images-4you see being accomplished so that your child will eventually learn to do this for himself. This process of breaking things down can also be helpful in school where you, your child and his teachers can all be involved in determining the size and scope of what work periods and breaks look like for him.

 

Making the most out of 2014

Happy new year! As we welcome 2014, many of us are thinking about how to make this year as good as or better than the last. What changes do we want to see for ourselves and for our children? Usually, people with ADHD/ADD can quickly create a list of several things about themselves that they don’t like and would like to improve. But several is too many. This year, 2014, let’s pick just ONE thing to focus on and do it really well!Making the most out of 2014

First, look around your life–your house, your job, your relationships, your habits and start of list of things you want to change, brainstorming up to 5 items. You can do this with your child or teen too but keep the limit to 3 items because we don’t want to overwhelm them with negativity or what’s wrong with them. It’s important to emphasize changing behaviors not personal flaws. This can be a useful family exercise too as you model for your child or teen that everyone has aspects of his or her life that can benefit from some tinkering.

Secondly, examine your list closely. Rule out items that are just pure fantasy. Look at the ones that are general or vague and make them more specific. For example, being more organized is a great goal but it isn’t precise enough to lead you or your child to do anything differently. Being more organized with my homework; being more organized about my bills; being more organized with my clothes: these are all more exact and will likely result in more success. You can create a program for something specific and actually accomplish it.

Thirdly, pick ONE thing from your list and have your son or daughter do the same. This could be the item that is screaming “Arrggh, don’t pick me” or “I hate this so I am not going to pick it” or “Yes, I have been putting this off for months (or years) so now is the time to go for it.” Examine this item closely. Is it do-able? Do you need help or support to accomplish it? Who could assist you? If your teen wants to be more organized about his notebook, how could you or someone he knows help him with making a plan for this? What does ONGOING support look like? If you want to clean up your basement, do you need a friend to aide you in deciding what to keep and what to give or throw away? Can you make an accurate schedule to tackle one area at a time?

Finally, the key to being successful with your ONE new year’s resolution is to STICK WITH IT. Create a time frame for yourself or your child and rely on it. Use technology for reminders such as making a repeating calendar item to check up on that notebook or spend 2 hours in the basement. Don’t give up when it becomes hard or you forget to do it. Recalibrate and start again. You have the whole year.

Talking About the Teenage Brain at Versan Conference in Montego Bay and Kingston, Jamaica

Versan Seminar-Dr Sharon SalineLast month, I had the great privilege to travel to Jamaica to present my talk, “What were you thinking? Understanding the Teen Brain,”at the “Recession-Proofing Your Education” Conferences in Kingston and Montego Bay sponsored by Versan Educational Services. Versan is an international educational organization that advises, places and trains students for boarding schools and colleges around the world. Ms. Sandra Bramwell, the founder and director, is one of the most energetic, eloquent and kind-hearted women whom I have ever met. She is also a visionary. The conferences were attended by over 175 parents, teens and guidance counselors as well as radio stations. 

Versan Seminar-Mrs Bramwell
Dr. Saline with Ms. Sandra Bramwell, founder and director of Versan Educational Services.

Each time I give this talk, I am always curious what the audience members will find most interesting and relevant to their lives. Sometimes people are curious about the recent findings in brain research that the pre-frontal cortex continues to develop until the mid-twenties. Sometimes people are interested in learning more about teens and sleep. And sometimes, people would just like to what is ‘normal’ teen behavior and what is not.

Versan Seminar-Dr Sharon Saline Lecture

 

 

 

 

 

 

At both of my talks in Jamaica, the attendees were especially interested by two issues that are related to executive functioning skills.

1. A 2011 NIMH-funded study about emotional recognition found that adolescents showed a 50% accuracy of correctly naming emotions versus the adults in the study who showed 100% accuracy. This finding means that adolescents misinterpreted the facial expressions that they were shown in half the cases. When I emphasized that this result implies that teens are reading situations incorrectly about half of the time and then responding to that misreading, people were amused but also concerned. We talked about how understanding facial expressions correctly relies on executive functioning skills which are still developing. Teens wondered if they could speed up the course of development. “Miss,” on young man asked, “Is there any way to speed up the development process if I work really hard? I would like it to be finished by the time I am 20, not 25.” “Well,” I said, “You can work hard on strengthening your executive functioning skills like planning, organizing, judgment and self-awareness but your brain will grow at its own rate and you can’t really make that go any faster.”  He was visibly disappointed.

2.Time management: I talked about backwards design, which seemed to be a new concept. We looked at how challenging it can be to get ready and out of the house on time for school in the morning. With the eager participation of one mother and daughter, we traced their morning routine as it unfolds now with all of its bumps and then rearranged it by going backwards from the time of arrival at school. The audience found this technique very useful.

Versan Seminar StudentsI really appreciated the frank feedback that the Jamaicans gave right after my talk—“I liked the part about learning how to make better decisions but not so much about the brain cells”—and their warmth and humor. It was refreshing (and a bit comforting) to see that parents and teens in the Caribbean have many of the same questions and concerns that we have here in the USA.

Effective Communication – The Rule of Three

Parents and teachers often complain to me that kids with ADHD don’t remember things they are told. This forgetfulness happens for a number of reasons—poor working memory, internal or external distractions, limited ability to sequence information into steps, anxiety about forgetting—and changing how you talk to a child or teen with ADHD can improve memory. When you are asking someone with ADHD to do something, that request should only have one component. The chances of him or her remembering more than one thing at a time are very slim, even with the aide of medication. So, keep your task SIMPLE.Mother and daughter smiling at each other

The rule of three is critical to successfully making these changes. 1. Say the youngster’s name. 2. Look directly at him/her AT EYE LEVEL, making sure your gaze is returned and held. 3. State your task clearly and calmly. Ask the child or teen to repeat your request EXACTLY and then, ask for a second repetition. These three steps have to be followed in this sequence in order for them to work most effectively. They activate several ways for connecting—sight, sound, repetition–that trigger different and simultaneous neural pathways.

When the single task is completed, then you can give another one in exactly the same manner. Communicating in this easy, direct manner improves the likelihood that the task is remembered and completed. Everyone will be less frustrated and feel more confident that things actually get done!

Using Technology as Friend Not Foe

Everybody needs reminders sometimes. Children and teens with ADHD seem to need more reminders than other youngsters and often feel like they are being nagged. Technology, although a frequent source of distraction, can be extremely helpful in providing kids with ADHD the cues they need and reduce the “nagging” factor. Parents and educators can use cell phones, iPods to help kids improve their organization, reduce forgetfulness and learn to be more independent.Boy in headphones looking tablet computer on the nature

If someone has a phone or an iPod, then s/he has an aide that they carry around constantly. I rarely come across a teen who doesn’t know where the phone is at all times. A child with an iPod is equally attached to his/her electronic device. Use the phone or iPod as the reminder machine so you don’t have to do this. Set alarms for chores, homework times, work breaks, appointments and even turning in assignments. Pick ONE and only one task that your teen or child forgets to do and set the alarm for that event. Watch him/her set it up so that the alarm has a label related to the task. Make sure all adults who interact with the youngster throughout the day understand the reminder program that you are starting. This alarm will then cue the teen to do the expected task.

When you have success with this one thing, then you can add in another, but NO MORE than three per day. By having the technology do the cuing, then you are teaching self-reliance and building self-esteem simultaneously. You will support changes in behaviors without running them.

Spring Cleaning: Moving Stuff OUT

As the trees and flowers begin to bloom, many parents take a look around their homes and long to clean out the family nest. Sometimes, the task seems just too overwhelming and you don’t get any further than a big sigh. Garage Sale BoxAt other times, you start with the best intentions but can’t get past the battles about what to keep and what to get rid of. Here are some simple steps that you can use to organize the belongings of your children or teens this spring (and maybe even your own)!

The path to organizing success involves the 3 P’s: patience, perseverance and practice. It requires a sense of humor and the ability to keep focused on your goal. Improve collaboration with your son or daughter and avoid power struggles by using the following steps:

1. Choose your target carefully. Make it manageable and give it a specific period of time. For example, go for cleaning out JUST the closet and give yourself a limit of around an hour. Or, concentrate on picking things off the floor and do the closet on a different day. Keep track of the time so you don’t run out!

2. Engage your child or teen in the process, using incentives. This means offering your child or teen something s/he may want to do as a reward for working with you on this project. Examples may include extra screen time (tv or computer or gaming systems), fun activity (biking, board games, playing sports), time with friends or a special food treat.

3. Get 4 bags and label each one: “keep”, “trash”, “give away”, “unsure”. Divide the STUFF into these bags. If your child or teen has trouble with letting go of belongings, help him or her make choices by talking about what is really being used and how someone else might want what your son or daughter does not.Cleaning my room

When you have your 4 bags, go through the “unsure” bag carefully one more time, putting its contents in the other 3 bags. Then put away the “keep” items immediately and deal with the “trash” and “give away” bags. Remember it is critical to value what you have done together. Look at your accomplishment and congratulate yourselves on the success of your efforts!!