ADHD and Motivation: How stress reduces productivity and what you can do about it

In October, the American Psychological Association released the results of its latest Stress in America survey. The report concluded that stress about COVID-19, the economy, racism and politics are threatening the mental health of our country, especially young people. In fact, the survey found that Generation Z students ages 13-17(81%) reported a negative impact on their lives from pandemic-related school changes and 51% said that planning for their future felt impossible. If we add to these results the daily stress that Neurodiverse students already face with remote/hybrid learning, it’s easy to understand why these kids are overwhelmed, discouraged and fed up. 

When kids with ADHD are stressed, it’s even harder to concentrate. Flooded by emotions that they can’t process or break down, their brains resort to fight, flight or freeze mode. Distractibility increases and cooperation goes down. Procrastination rules the day. You’ll see more angry outbursts from your child or teen, bouts of irrational anxiety and flashes of hopelessness and helplessness. As a parent, it’s tough to know what to do that’s helpful in these moments.  Threats and punishment may get the job done temporarily but they fail in the long run. They simply don’t teach the lasting skills about motivation that your student really needs. What can you do instead?

Nothing positive can occur when kids are in the middle of a stress reaction. Yes, they need to start their math worksheet, study for the science test or write that history paper. But, in those moments, no clear thinking occurs. Slow things down and do something different. STOP the action. What’s most important is that your son or daughter feels listened to and cared for. Feeling heard reduces their stress reaction and the isolation that they feel. Once they are calmer, then you can brainstorm how to approach the task at hand. This is how we motivate kids when they are stuck. We honor their struggle and gently shift their direction.

 

Focus on stress reduction and increase motivation by using the 3 R’s: reflect, reassess and recalculate. 

  1. REFLECTION: Listen to what your son or daughter is showing you with their behavior and their words. Rather than interpreting or solving problems, just reflect back what you hear and ask if there’s anything more they want to say. Empathize with their struggle. Believe me, they would rather not procrastinate. Many kids tell me that they hate this cycle and feel defeated but don’t know how to break out of it. 

2. REASSESS: Talk through what’s going on and what realistic options look like. Anxiety and depression related to stress distort our thinking and exaggerate negativity. Concentrate on what is really happening here? The calmer you can be, the easier it will be for your child or teen to collect themselves. There are three types of procrastination: perfectionism (“If I can’t get do it just right, why bother?”); avoidance (“I hate doing this, it seems like I’ll never finish so I’m not going to try.”); productive (“I’ll do other stuff that needs to get done but not the main thing because it seems overwhelming or impossible.”) Which one is your child engaging in and why?  

3. RECALCULATE: Like your GPS, your student needs to pivot and go another way. How can you assist them in breaking down the task into smaller, more manageable parts? The key to getting started is feeling like you can do something and there is an end in sight. What is the bare minimum that your child or teen can do right now? Perhaps you need to reset the threshold today, email the teacher and strategize new options tomorrow. 

Use meaningful incentives to teach your son or daughter that effort leads to satisfying accomplishment. Incentives change the conversation from “I can’t” to “Let’s try a small step and earn a desired reward.” This extrinsic motivator helps kids get going until the intrinsic motivation system kicks in–by the late teens or early twenties in neurotypical kids with, as much as a three year delay in young people with ADHD. 

Over time, your child will learn to put the have-to’s in front of the want-to’s but this lesson takes patience, practice, scaffolding and collaboration. Work together to determine incentives and then stick with whatever you agreed to. When you are faced with that inevitable pushback from your son or daughter, remember that kids freak out when they feel overwhelmed because they lack appropriate coping skills to deal with challenges they are facing. Take a deep breath and meet them where they are, offering love and support for the scary place they are in.

(Citation: Stress in America 2020 survey signals a growing national mental health crisis. (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/10/stress-mental-health-crisis.)