How to Raise a Child with ADHD without Losing Your Mind

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Good advice from Dr. Meeker

I’ve been a pediatrician for 30 years. In that time, I’ve seen countless patients with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). I’ve also seen countless parents walk into my office, exhausted and looking for answers on how to raise their son or daughter with ADHD.

ADHD is essentially a wiring problem in the brain that causes attention or hyperactivity issues, or both. It is often over-diagnosed and misunderstood. Even when it’s not, and a child is correctly diagnosed with ADHD, parents are left with more questions than answers as far as how to raise that child successfully, without completely losing their minds.

My Parenting Great Kids podcast this week was inspired by a letter I received from a parent in the middle of this struggle, and is dedicated to all parents of children with ADHD. I want to give you hope, and I want to give you real answers.

Something I try to explain to parents is that the brain of a child with ADHD is like a Porsche engine stuck inside a Volkswagen bug. His body is going at one pace but internally he has a motor that’s running a million miles an hour.

Your job, as his engine continues to revs, is to calm his outer world. How do you do that? I have a few suggestions:

  1. Make sure you have the correct diagnosis.

If you are going to learn how to raise a child with ADHD, you must first be sure that you are indeed raising a child with ADHD.

I get so frustrated with kids who come into my practice on ADHD medication when they don’t actually need it. Many times a learning disability or dyslexia can be confused with ADHD. You’re not going to be able to read like everyone else and concentrate like other students if you have a learning disability.

Many children with depression and anxiety have attention issues, too. These cause attention problems in school because the child is preoccupied with what’s making her depressed or anxious.

Go to your doctor and ask specifically about ADHD—not just a well-child check. In my practice, I recommend kids go to an education specialist or a place where people can run tests to rule out things like dyslexia, depression and anxiety.

Many times kids are young when a diagnosis is made. If you label a child with ADHD in the first grade, that label sticks. You need to make sure it’s right.

  1. Order their day.

Make sure your child has a rhythm to her day: mealtime, bedtime, playtime, etc. Her mind is chaos; don’t let her outer world be chaos too. As her surroundings settle and calm, this will help her inner world calm as well. Make sure to include downtime as a part of that rhythm—a time when she doesn’t have to actively do anything. Her mind is already racing, so she doesn’t need her day to be jam-packed with activities.

  1. Minimize overstimulation.

Kids have auditory and visual messages coming at them 24/7. Social media, TV, movies—technology makes this impossible to escape. When you have a brain that’s on overdrive, that stimulation makes the hyperactivity even worse.

Wean down TV, movies, loud music and particularly video games for your child. Try listening to an audio book or something that is soothing and calming. Your child doesn’t need any more distractions than he already has.

  1. Exercise.

One of the worst things that can happen for a boy in school with ADHD is having to stay in from recess as a punishment for acting up too much in class. He’s got to get outside and play because his engine is saying Go! Go! Go! The worst thing you could tell a child with ADHD is to sit down and color in the lines.

Make sure your child has playtime outside where he can run out all of that extra energy, even if that means altering your normal routines to make sure your child has adequate time to run and play.

  1. Think carefully about medication.

I know some parents are not huge fans of medicating for ADHD. I am certainly not going to advocate for medication unless I think it will be helpful. Sometimes, giving your child something that will make her feel more functional as a human being is the best thing you can do for her. Because ADHD is a wiring issue and not a personality issue, so many kids end up doing very well on medication.

Of course, you can’t only medicate. You must do everything else I’ve talked about here. Medication is merely a supplement.

I go into all of these points in much greater detail in this episode of my Parenting Great Kids podcast, so be sure to check it out on the player above.

Parenting a child with a Porsche engine in a Volkswagen body is exhausting and defeating, but I bet you are doing a much better job than you think you are. Keep at it. Do what you can to create outer calm for your child and trust that eventually his inner world will catch up.

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