Feeling overwhelmed by something? Break it down!

Overwhelmed teen with ADHD looking at a large stack of books and a notebook while holding his hands to his head in distress

One of the most common problems for many kids with ADHD is feeling 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 or teen minimize their procrastination and get down to business?

Why do certain tasks leave kids with ADHD feeling overwhelmed?

Frustrated high school student

The size of the task is one of the main issues behind most procrastination behaviors. 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?” Then, they often freeze and unwittingly become masters of avoidance.

Some progress is better than no progress

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 listening to worry and negative self-talk, they will be moving along towards the goal at hand. It’s this movement that builds confidence and further action.

Teen with ADHD looking confused as he plays on the computerCollaborate with your child to make a plan

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 key 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.

Here are the steps to take an overwhelming task and break it down:

1. Consider how long your child can attend to a task.

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

2. Decide together how many work periods they can handle in one day.

Schedule a time when things are calm to talk about this issue and how they’re feeling. Are they feeling overwhelmed? Ask your child or teen how long they think that they can concentrate before they need a break. They might not be able to assess this very well, so then you can offer your insights.

Whatever they suggest, go with the smallest amount of time that comes up. If it’s 15 minutes, great; if it’s 45 minutes, great too.

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. Discuss the length and range of acceptable activities of the break they will need after the work period.

Breaks of about 5-10 minutes are usually adequate for school-age kids. The activities should be something from which they 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.

4. Check-in, assess and adjust if needed.

Try it out! If it’s still hard for your child to accomplish something or they are still feeling overwhelmed, 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 get less help initially with raking the leaves, or only one page of math problems gets completed. However frustrating this may be for you (and understandably it could be), remain patient as completion improves.

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, every successful step benefits from recognition.

Praise what you see being accomplished so that your child will eventually learn to do this for himself. This process of breaking things down when they are feeling overwhelmed 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 them.


Read more blog posts:

Homework Strategies That Really Work (Handout)

Motivation: 5 Tips to Get Stuff DONE! (Handout)