Strengths, Supports and Strategies: Parenting ADHD

By Mackenzie Sapacz, Wood’s Homes Family Support Counsellor.

“What’s the typical mental health and behaviour of a teenager?” is a question I often hear in my role as a Family Support Counsellor with Community Psychiatric Unit. Understanding when behavior deviates outside of a ‘normal’ range becomes a hot topic when parents are trying to better support their children after leaving the program. This question seems to be all the more complex and has a notable sense of urgency when Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a primary diagnosis. 

As one of the key features of ADHD entails impulsivity, safety is not often a priority when children and adolescents with ADHD are making decisions. This symptom alone often causes parents to feel more anxious and overwhelmed when trying to keep their child safe and healthy; however, one parent has shared with me that learning how he is responsible for his child and being able to differentiate this from how he is responsible to his child has provided significant relief. This is a concept that can help parents understand where their control lies. 

Hearing this parent say, “I have learned that I cannot make her decisions for her”, while paired with a noticeable decrease in stress, was definitely deemed a successful moment. This parent had shared with me that although it took a while, once he understood that he was not responsible for his child’s pattern of impulsive decisions, he was able to see where he could be supportive. He elaborated that instead of focusing on trying to change her behaviors (e.g. decreasing impulsivity, increasing listening and following direction, increasing motivation – behaviors often associated with ADHD), he began to focus on ways he could help support her. The stress focused on punishing the behavior – in fear it could happen again – was replaced with an acceptance that these the behaviors will likely continue to happen, as building skills to change disruptive behaviors will be a process. Part of the nature of ADHD entails developmental delays of the front part of the brain, the area that controls many of the expected tasks children and youth are expected to carry out each day. The biology of the brain is not at fault of the child (or anyone, for that matter). When children are understood as having a hard time, as opposed to giving a hard time, the response they receive from adults around them usually changes to more patient and less punitive. 

Another parent I worked with has offered to share her experience of raising four boys who have all received the diagnosis of ADHD. She began by laughing at the shock factor she usually receives from other parents when she shares this with them, as most parents raising a child with ADHD can relate to how overwhelming it may feel. She continued by acknowledging that the feeling of being overwhelmed is often a helpful place to start in working on being a supportive parent. Feeling overwhelmed, she adds, often brings you farther from your goal and is a feeling that should be addressed by seeking support, professionally and personally. Talking to other parents and being able to find other caregivers that can relate to the experience is very important in addressing stressful feelings. 

Noticing the strengths of an ADHD mind is also a valuable lesson this mother has emphasized: “The academic side can be challenging, but the creative side is amazing. Often the high energy and innovative ideas lead to your child being a really fun person to be around, which helps them make friends.” 

Lastly, there are a series of strategies that are easy to learn from books, professionals or other parents raising children with ADHD. Taking the time to implement some of them in the home can also help with organization and decrease the chaos. Some common strategies include using visuals to help provide your child with reminders and relying on alarm clocks for transition warnings (e.g. five more minutes on technology), which can provide some ease when you feel tired of constantly providing these reminders yourself. It is important to remember that it is okay to feel exhausted and it is understandable that feelings of hopelessness may arise some days; however, it may be more important to remember that some of these challenges will fade with age, you are not alone in these struggles and there is always support available.