“My daughter makes such a mess and NEVER cleans her room! Her ADHD is out of control! How do I help her?” said an exasperated client.
“How long does it take before you finally can’t stand the mess anymore and you just clean the room yourself?” was my response.
“Oh goodness, I yell at her for at least three weeks before I just get the job done myself. Will she ever learn to be responsible? How will she be able to run a home one day?”
You know what I’m thinking? What a brilliant child! She has figured out how to get her mom to clean her room! But seriously, shouldn’t this daughter care about keeping her things in order? Does she like being reprimanded all the time? Is it fun to live in a mess? Is she capable of getting organized or is the mother expecting too much of her?
The biggest question of all is this; if this same child had not been diagnosed with ADHD, would we give up on her and “save” her from herself all the time? As a mom of a bunch of kids diagnosed with ADHD and an author of two books on the topic, I’ve seen it all and have some great news for you! Your child with ADHD symptoms is completely capable of learning to get organized and with some support from you, will grow up to be a very efficient, responsible adult.
Let’s start at the beginning. When a doctor gives your child a diagnosis of ADHD, this means that your child is exhibiting observable symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity or both. The symptoms are very real and extremely challenging. Our kids have a hard time getting up in the morning, hate transitions, take forever to get in the shower and even longer to get out. They are addicted to their screens, and shed their belongings everywhere. These symptoms are SO hard to live with. They cause us to worry about our children.
What’s really going on? ADHD symptoms have many different causes. Examples of these causes are an instant gratification personality, screen addiction, trauma or high stress and gut dysbiosis. Each of these environmental or genetic factors will cause the ADHD symptoms you are seeing in your child. Notice that I did not list “differently wired brain” as one of the causes. This is because in most cases, your child’s brain is fully intact and healthy, and an environmental trigger is colliding with your child’s healthy instant gratification personality.
Understanding the instant gratification personality is key to getting to know your ADHD kid better and helping him develop the skills he needs to succeed. Allow me to introduce instant gratification kid. He is curious about everything, doesn’t miss a detail, wants everything here and now, fun and entertaining and even slightly dangerous. Novelty is his engine! He can participate in an engaging activity for hours but is allergic to monotony. This child wants our attention! S/he will extract our strong responses from us either positively or negatively. If we are yellers, this child will keep us yelling. If we are positive and complimentary, our child will be the first to get that compliment.
I had my ah ha moment when I finally understood my instant gratification kid. He hates transitions because what he is doing now is fun and the next activity is unknown and therefore undesirable. It’s hard to disciple him because my shouting is too rewarding to him. He does not appreciate my anger but the flood of strong attention is what he was asking to begin with. The shower scene (which happens in ALL of our homes!) is because our child does not want to get undressed and cold, that’s not fun! But the minute the shower is running, the hot water is so comforting, we can’t get them out. And by the way, I finally understood why no matter how many days in a row I wake my child in the morning, it is always a shock to him and a huge chore for me, but on a day we are going to Six Flags, this kid turns into super morning man!
What does all of this have to do with cleaning rooms and being responsible? The instant gratification personality is a healthy, valuable personality. Some of my favorite people have that personality. They are artists, inventors, high-tech people, out of the box thinkers, curious and capable. No personality type is perfect. These remarkable, vibrant people have trouble developing habits.
Why is this? In order to develop healthy habits (cleaning, homework, daily routines) we must be able to do the same activity repetitively for at least a month. Think of how hard it was for us to prepare Shabbat as newlyweds and how we can do it in our sleep now. We practiced every week and perfected our craft. If we resisted boring repetitive tasks and found a new way to make Shabbat (or avoid making shabbat) every week, we would still be struggling now. That is exactly what our kids are doing. They are searching for novelty, avoiding boring repetition, and therefore are not becoming proficient at the skills they must develop.
Here is where we come in. We must make a few choices:
- Choose to see our child as healthy and capable oF learning new skills, and therefore decide not to save them from this learning process.
- Choose to link arms with our child and embrace the process of skill development.
Are you ready? Here is what you will need to do. Start by giving your child powerful attention when he or she makes a good choice to put something in its proper place or listens right away when you ask them to clean up. Give a loud, happy compliment, being careful not to add any negative comments such as “I wish you could do that every day” or “Let’s see how long you can keep this up.” Just be happy, grateful, and unworried. We are in a powerful process, your child may be lagging behind now, but will surely catch up.
Next, choose one project to begin the skills training with. It can be keeping the living space tidy, cleaning the bedroom daily, folding laundry or any other routine that is important to your child’s development. Divide the new skill into 4 segments. As an example, divide his bedroom into bed, hanging clothing, toys and folded clothing. Begin the program by spending a week working alongside your child so that you are sure she understands how to organize the room. The routine should take no longer than 45 minutes. In many cases, our child will procrastinate because she has no idea how or where to begin. We set our child up for success when we show them how it’s done and then step back and let them take it on themselves.
Step three is planning a one-month skills-training program. I like to explain to my children and clients why we are doing this. I tell them that they are capable of learning to do anything but since their personality rejects boring tasks, they must work a little harder to develop a habit. I reassure them that every new habit they develop will create a new neurotransmitter in their brain and make them even more capable. They love hearing that! A habit formation chart can be downloaded from my website www.hyperhealing.org.
Write down the 4 tasks you have selected, to be completed every day. Your child will get a point for every task successfully completed every day. I suggest that the routine be done at the same time daily to develop an even stronger habit.
The most important part of the program is the reward of course. Sit down with your child and write a list of rewards he would like. Begin with 5-point prizes (examples: extra story at bedtime, a small chocolate bar, extra private time, a small toy) and move up from there. The points are your child’s money, so he can cash in when he has enough points to get the prize he desires. Be sure to have the prizes you discussed available. I prefer experiential prizes to purchased items because the joy of these prizes last longer. Some examples of experiential prizes are sleeping at the grandparents’ house, having a friend sleep over, going out for ice cream with a parent, playing ball together, gong to a game, choosing dinner for tomorrow night, a movie night with a parent. Ask your child to give you ideas and then you decide how many points he will need to earn them.
It is important to me to mention that part of the parent-child relationship is giving graciously. These prizes are in addition to the natural flow of kindness and generosity we already have towards our kids. We will never hold back gifts we naturally give in order to use it as a prize. That would be turning our skills building program into a punishment.
Hang the chart in a place you and your child will see daily. Remind your child to begin the routine at the designated time and then back away. You are not here to save your child from failure, you are here to cheer your child on as she chooses to succeed. If she is not making the decisions herself, she will not develop a healthy new habit. Be there to give points and very enthusiastic compliments. That’s it! If your child does not complete the task, do not beg or yell. Just put a line through that square and move on lovingly. As long as you are being consistent (reminding your child to get going daily, providing prizes on time), the prize is right for your child, and the tasks are not too difficult, your child will rise to the occasion.
Let’s go back to the original question I asked. If this child did not have an ADHD diagnosis, would we step in to save her? In my opinion, the answer is no. We would expect our child to learn the skills needed to clean up, we would show that child how it was done and not let her off the hook. The only reason we give up on our ADHD child is because we believe she “can’t” develop these skills because she is disordered. In order for this program to work, let us understand together that this amazing child is fully capable of learning to do anything, but since she has a personality type that is more geared towards inspiration, her learning process is different. Have faith in your healthy child and she will amaze you!
For more details on the habit formation program for your healthy, instant gratification child, check out chapter 6 in HyperHealing.