Feeling overwhelmed by something? Break it down!

Frustrated high school studentOne 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?

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.

Asian Teen Playing or Working on a Laptop ComputerOf 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.

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 you 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.