Want a summer of sanity? Here are five tips for living better with your ADHD kids today!

With some schools already closed and others finishing up for the summer, parents of kids with ADHD are all asking the same question: What do we do now? Most in-person camps and activity programs have been cancelled and many families have lost necessary childcare, much-anticipated vacations and fun social gatherings. Instead, you are facing weeks of more time spent sheltering-in-place, supervising your children and teens while trying to work from home or scrambling to find safe alternatives so you can go to your job. You’re tired, they are bored and everyone is frustrated. What are your options for salvaging your summer?

Before doing anything else, offer empathy to your kids for their disappointment. They’ve lost a lot and kids with ADHD, who tend to have a low frustration tolerance anyway, are particularly  worn down. They can be more reactive, less cooperative and increasingly discouraged about their isolation from friends and family. Children and teens are fed up and you are the likely target. The more you try to enforce safe guidelines for preventing exposure to COVID-19, the angrier they can get. They just want it to be over. Other kids are very anxious about re-connecting with the outside world in spite of taking adequate safety precautions. Listen to their concerns and opinions, validate their experiences and acknowledge their positions. When kids feel seen and heard, they are much more willing to work with you rather than against you. 

Collaboration and consistency are the keys to a successful summer for all of you. When you work together on brainstorming ideas, try out possible solutions and aim for steadiness rather than perfection, you can make this challenging situation work. Set up a time for a weekly family check-in. It doesn’t have to be long but everybody needs to participate. Motivate reluctant teens to join you by offering this as a solution to unwanted conflict and ‘nagging.’ These discussion will give you a space to review what’s been happening and tweak plans instead of dealing with spontaneous arguments where nothing can be reasonably discussed. 

Now that you’ve got that piece in place here are five tips for your transition to summer: 

  1. Create a daily routine: Divide the day into chunks of time and allocate these periods to various activities including exercise, projects, screen time and rest. Include meals and snacks. This doesn’t have to be rigid but it needs to be consistent. Think like a camp counselor. For example, maybe there’s wake up by 9, breakfast, getting dressed, activity period #1, snack, activity period #2, lunch, quiet time for reading or listening to music–something that promotes calm, activity period #3, screen time, dinner, family game or television show, bath or shower, pajamas and lights out by 10.
  2. Use guided free choice: Give the choice between 2 options during the activity periods that you come up with together. When kids with ADHD can make decisions about what they do, they feel more empowered and have more buy-in. Generate a list of possibilities and then assign two to each activity period. Ideas can include: projects they can do with their hands including crafts, building models or constructing a fort, riding bikes, gardening or just playing in the yard, making a movie, recording a song, playing music, any sports, drawing, painting something including a piece of furniture for fun, cooking, taking action to help others, interactive screen time like visiting a museum, zoo or aquarium, doing puzzles, playing with building blocks or Lego, online games like Fortnite or Dungeons and Dragons, etc. Stick with what engages them and schedule their screen time for the afternoon as much as possible. This is when kids tend to flail around the most, especially as their medications wear off.
  3. Worry less about the ‘summer slide’: Your son or daughter needs a break from school for the next few weeks. They’ve been slogging through with online learning that’s probably been unpleasant and difficult for them. Take a month off. While reading texts and writing messages may seem fruitless, kids are still reading  and writing. You can put free reading into the daily schedule and let them pick the materials including the sports page in the newspaper, graphic novels or any text of interest. Maybe they like to play Soduku or do word searches. These are all ways that they are using academic skills. After they’ve had enough time to recover, if you want to add some studying time to the summer schedule you can but keep it limited to a few times per week for no more than two hours.  
  4. Foster family technology and/or social media breaks: If you don’t put your phones or computers down, your kids won’t either. They will call out your “hypocrisy” and get angry that you can answer your phone or be online and they can’t. If you must leave your device on for work emergencies, then make that very clear and keep it on vibrate in your pocket. Figure out a time each day or each week when everyone goes screen free. Meals are a good place to start. The goal is to create a family ritual that encourages engagement away from texting and social media. 
  5. Arrange and discuss safe social interactions: Kids with ADHD need very explicit guidelines for practicing social distance with peers and family members. Take a tape measure and show them what six feet looks like. Explain the basic science of why and how COVID-19 is so contagious and the risks that exist not only for them but for others too. Talk about how and where children and teens can safely hang out with friends–a park, a driveway or a backyard. Help younger kids set up get-togethers and offer assistance to teens if they are struggling. Work with them to find safe and fun outlets and activities to connect with peers. The other day I saw four teen boys playing frisbee in the park with masks and gloves. I was very impressed! 

This summer is uncharted territory for all of us. Make sure that you get some time for self-care too. Take a rest period for grounding yourself when your kids are taking theirs–even if it’s just five minutes for a cup of tea, some yoga stretches or a catnap. You need to regenerate this summer too!