Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), one of the most frequently occurring neurodevelopmental conditions, is particularly common among kids. Children and adults with ADHD usually have a tough time managing their impulses and emotions. In turn, that can make regulating behavior, building relationships, and planning ahead more difficult.
If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, you might notice they struggle with their behavior, find it harder to keep up academically, and maybe have a tough time keeping up friendships without a little extra help and support. And while there might be times when supporting your child seems overwhelming, there are many options to help them find success.
One option to treat those with ADHD is stimulant medication. While many families find it helpful, every child reacts differently, and some children might also experience side effects. Beyond the use of medication, engaging in different types of therapy with a professional can also be helpful. In addition to exploring some of these options with your child’s healthcare provider, try the following holistic tips based on the Total Force Fitness model.
Adjust your thinking about ADHD: Focus on the positives as much (or more) than the shortcomings.
It’s normal to find yourself focusing on the negative and devoting mental energy to what’s going wrong vs. what’s going right. This “negativity bias” is your brain’s way of protecting you from the bad, the ugly, and the dangerous. It also means you might miss those things that are going well and right. When it comes to a child who struggles with ADHD, you might not realize how much time and energy you, other adults, and teachers at school spend focusing on their deficits. While the intention might be to help them navigate obstacles, they might also start to develop a story about themselves that isn’t so great. Over time, they might develop lower self-esteem and even play into those negative roles and behaviors more because they feel it's what others expect from them. Try some strategies to battle the negative bias and help your kids develop a story about themselves that they can be proud of.
- Tell a story of strengths. Some research has shown that kids diagnosed with ADHD are strong logical thinkers, have high levels of empathy and emotional intelligence, and are quite creative too. Your child might have many other unique skills, talents, and strengths that you can emphasize with a little exploration. Consider using HPRC’s signature strengths worksheet or other tools to help them discover their strengths and help you notice what they’re great at as well. Focusing on strengths can help improve empathy, self-awareness, and responsible decision-making.
- Watch your language. Words matter. And the way you talk about your child and their ADHD diagnosis can impact how they think and feel about themselves. When actively focusing on your child’s strengths and successes, use effective praise by naming the process, strategy, or behavior that led to the good outcome. This shows you’re really watching and helps them develop a growth mindset. Also, make sure that the words you use in regular conversation back up that strengths-based approach and remind them that ADHD doesn’t define them. For example, try to think of ADHD as an external issue that your child has to manage, rather than something that they “are” or that they “have.” For example, ask them questions about how ADHD affects their behavior in class vs. saying, “You act this way because you have ADHD.”
- Practice gratitude. Another way to fight the negativity bias is to help your child (and yourself) notice and savor the good that happens each day. Try using HPRC’s Gratitude Calendar with them at dinnertime or bedtime. Over time, this routine will help you start to notice and appreciate the good that you and your child have received.
Make changes to your family and child’s diet to help manage ADHD symptoms.
Proper nutrition can improve your child’s success in school and at home too. However, kids who have been diagnosed with ADHD often crave and consume foods that contain white flour and sugar. In addition, these foods are missing valuable nutrients needed for muscle growth and brain development. Inadequate fuel can impact your child’s behavior, mood, and sleep while nutrient-dense foods boost their overall health. Your child can grow and perform well when they eat a variety of foods—such as whole grains, protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats—and drink water.
- Reduce sugar. Limit the amount of “added sugars” in your child’s diet—such as sweetened drinks, sugary cereals, and candy—and only serve these as “special occasion” foods. Add sweetness to your child’s diet with dairy and fruit, which contain naturally occurring sugars.
- Limit certain foods. Some children behave better when added colors, flavors, and preservatives are removed from their diets. If you’re considering a restricted elimination diet—by removing specific foods from your child’s diet to help diagnose and treat any food intolerances or allergies—plan this during a time when your family has the most control. Work with an experienced dietitian to completely monitor all food and drink consumption, environmental factors, and behavior to identify foods that trigger ADHD symptoms.
- Consider fatty acids. Some research suggests that essential omega-3 fatty-acid supplements can be beneficial, so check with your child’s doctor. Salmon, tuna, sardines, tilapia, halibut, eggs (omega-3 enriched), walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds are all good sources. Aim to include 2–3 servings each week in your family meal plan.
- Use caution with dietary supplements. Herbs and other dietary supplements aren’t recommended because they could interfere with medications and their safety can be questionable. While current research doesn’t justify megavitamin supplementation, ask your child’s doctor if they would benefit from a multivitamin supplement.
- Be aware of medication side effects. Medications can cause poor or decreased appetites, so make sure your child takes their medicine during or after meals (or otherwise as directed by the prescribing doctor). When your child is at home and has a good appetite, provide small meals and snacks often to help them “fuel” appropriately.
Adjust your parenting style to support your child as they learn to manage their ADHD.
The symptoms associated with ADHD can mean that a little (or a lot!) of extra attention needs to be paid to everyday activities for children. That extra energy can affect the whole family. Families of children who struggle with ADHD can experience higher levels of stress. You might experience more conflict too. And all of that can actually heighten the symptoms of ADHD or make behavior problems worse. Still, adjusting your parenting style is one of the most significant things you can do to support your child and help them manage the symptoms they experience.
- Use positive parenting. Like focusing on their strengths, it’s important to praise your kids enough too. Let them know when you see them doing something well and when you’re proud. Do your best to reward them for behavior you’d like to see more of rather than only using punishments when things get out of hand. Be sure and set boundaries, and make sure they’re situationally and age-appropriate.
- Boost your confidence. Parents who feel more confident in their parenting tend to respond to their child’s needs with more warmth and compassion. In turn, using the “warm leader” parenting style can help your child manage their ADHD on their own. Focus on being responsive and listening to your kids when they express their needs. Look for opportunities to learn more about adjusting your parenting style and understanding ADHD too.
- Get involved. Parental involvement is an important factor to help protect kids who have been diagnosed with ADHD from developing depression or other types of mental or emotional disorders. Taking the time to know what’s going on at school and with their friends or really getting into your child’s interests and hobbies can make a big difference in the long run.
Support your child’s social fitness to help them build connections.
Many children with ADHD have a hard time making close friends and keeping up relationships. There are many possible reasons that this is the case, but it might have to do with the difficulty kids have with dealing with big feelings and how they react in social situations. Still, social connections are an important part of your child’s well-being, and positive, connected relationships with peers can prevent other types of mental or emotional disorders down the line.
- Focus on emotional regulation skills. One of the hallmarks of ADHD is difficulty in managing emotions and emotional responses. It’s normal for children with ADHD to be irritable, moody, and even aggressive at times. This is all related to their challenges around impulse control. Effective emotional regulation means slowing down before responding, which can be tough for any child, especially one with ADHD. Do your best to coach your kids' emotions and help them manage anger and other feelings, so they can build healthy relationships with others.
- Take time to support peer relationships. One reason that children with ADHD might have a harder time maintaining friendships is because they do require a little extra supervision and guidance to make good choices when it comes to behavior. So, relationships might dwindle because a parent doesn’t have time or resources to supervise play dates, for example. But making time for those social interactions is very important to your child’s well-being, so try asking other parents about ways they can support their children’s friendships with your child.
Use physical activity to improve thinking skills and create opportunities to build relationships.
Aerobic exercise can help improve your child’s behavior, focus, and ability to process information too. In general, physical activity can affect cognitive performance planning and those thinking skills that typically fall under the parts of the brain that deal with executive functioning and cognition. Some research also suggests that physical activity can even help growth and development in the parts of the brain that impact impulses, which can be particularly helpful for children with ADHD. In addition, many children with ADHD don’t get enough physical activity during the daytime. The more physically active children are, the greater the improvement in ADHD symptoms. For kids ages 6–17, aim to get 60 minutes of physical activity into your child’s daily schedule. It doesn’t need to be all at once and can be spread throughout the day.
- Get outside more. While there are many benefits to getting active wherever you can, there are some particular benefits to kids spending time outdoors. Many of these benefits include improvements to thinking skills and attention too. So when you’re thinking of where to go to get active with your child, start with your backyard. And remember there are lots of fun (and free) outdoor activities, especially for military families.
- Make it social. Children who are struggling with symptoms of ADHD might have a hard time making or maintaining friendships. Finding opportunities for your child to engage in group physical-fitness activities can be a win-win: helping them get active while also decreasing social isolation. Group and team sports can also help build character and self-esteem, which are particularly important to help kids manage ADHD. So talk with your child about different team sports they might like to explore, and keep your eyes out for opportunities for group fitness.
- Consider “individual” sports or activities. Martial arts, tennis, golf, swimming, and wrestling are other ways to be active if your kids aren’t interested in traditional team sports. They still have a team atmosphere and leverage the social aspects of group sports while allowing kids to be independent.
Make small changes to help your kids succeed at school.
Regular routines are important for all kids, especially those with ADHD because they’re more likely to get distracted. And some might have a harder time completing their tasks, particularly at school. A consistent routine at home and ongoing discussions with teachers at school can help everyone stay on track.
- Adapt with reminders. Hang a “daily routine” chart on your refrigerator. Make sure it includes tasks your child must complete in the morning—such as brushing teeth and hair, washing their face, and changing clothes—before heading out the door. Add bedtime tasks such as packing their lunch and backpack to the chart too. Using the chart as a guide to repeat the same behaviors every day can help your child stick to successful morning and evening routines.
- Share your approach with teachers and educators. In addition to making small changes at home, take some time to talk with your kid’s educators about how they can support your child too. Make sure the teachers at your child’s school understand the strengths you’d like to highlight so they can adapt assignments to support your child’s unique skills. Also, encourage them to give your child responsibilities in the classroom or remotely (at home).
- Manage screen time. Children and teens with ADHD tend to spend more time in front of screens than other kids. Develop healthy habits around screen time (outside of learning or other school-related activities). And set up a “screen-free zone” in your house—where everyone agrees to avoid TVs, cell phones, tablets, game consoles, and laptops. Make sure to talk about online safety as well.
Make sleep a priority. A bedtime routine can help kids improve their sleeping patterns too, particularly since sleeping issues are common amongst those with ADHD. Be sure to establish and maintain a set bedtime, and consider removing all media and screens from your child’s bedroom. Also, review HPRC’s sleep tips to make sure you’re setting your child up for success to fall asleep, so they wake up refreshed and ready to roll.