What is it like to be a kid with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? Children with ADHD often struggle academically, socially and emotionally. They can find it difficult to develop strengths and may be disorganized, forgetful, easily distracted, and impulsive. And like all kids, they want to feel normal. Informed empathy for ADHD children and what they experience on a daily basis can inspire parents and teachers to work with these children in ways that will help them grow into responsible, happy adults.
This is where Dr. Saline’s Five C’s method comes in. Dr. Sharon Saline, author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew and a psychotherapist who works with ADHD children and their families, advocates for self-Control, Compassion, Collaboration, Consistency, and Celebration when working with children with ADHD. It can serve as a roadmap for reducing family stress and helping children with ADHD to develop their strengths.
Self-control isn’t just a skill for children, says Saline. Raising a child with ADHD can test parents’ patience, so she advocates “learning to manage your own feelings first so you can teach your child to do the same.” Saline says that it’s distressing for kids when parents absorb and reflect their distress. Children in her practice want their parents to know, “If I’m upset and then you get upset, there’s nobody to help me rein it in and get back to center. If you lose it in response to my losing it, it’s kindling on the fire.” Kids with ADHD need adults to model how to manage emotions in the face distress. Remember that self-regulation is a skill — something that children and adults can strengthen with strategic practices such as mindfulness training.
Saline likens ADHD to a constant barrage of “small ‘t’ traumas.” These children experience “the accumulation of a thousand paper cuts that wear down their positive self-concept.” If we want children with ADHD to develop compassion for themselves, they have to first experience it from others. When parents and adults constantly point out deficits, children run the risk of viewing themselves as inherently deficient. Saline says kids want to tell adults, “I need to you understand and accept me even if I don’t understand and accept myself.” Saline describes compassion as “meeting your child where they are, not where you expect them to be. When you accept the brain that your child has and who your child is, it makes all the difference for them.”
If parents and teachers can project self-control and compassion, it becomes easier to collaborate with children on practical strategies that will help them grow. Saline advocates working together with children to find solutions rather than imposing top-down rules. “What kids tell me is that they want to have a say in the plans that are made that are supposed to help them,” says Saline. “They get feedback from people all the time on what they could be doing differently. When there’s buy-in from the child, there’s more participation, more collaboration and more value.” Here’s a strategy Saline recommends to families and educators: sit down and jointly identify a list of things you want to work on — things that will make daily life at home or school a little easier. “You may have 15 items on your list, and your child may have two. But those two things will also be on your list, so go with those two.”
Children with ADHD respond well to predictable routines that help them organize their day. This includes consistent rules and consequences. When possible, says Saline, “do what you say you will do” while recognizing that you are aiming for steady, not perfection. Saline says that the kids she works with “can’t stand it when parents say they are going to do something and then they don’t do it.” For example, a parent might say, “I’m not going to pick up your stuff anymore,” and then clean up their child’s piles when they are at school. “For concrete thinkers, this is very confusing,” says Saline. “They will continue to push you because they don’t know where the limit is. The limit keeps changing.”
Saline estimates that the ratio of positive to negative feedback ADHD children receive is 1:15. Kids often feel like adults only notice when they “mess up,” not when they try, but we can counter that by celebrating their achievements, no matter how small. Saline says that children and teens with ADHD can grow wary of feedback because it so rarely focuses on their strengths. “We have to pay attention to kids trying, even if they are not succeeding,” says Saline. “Practice makes progress; we are looking for progress, not perfection. We have to focus on the process more than the product. It’s the process that will help the kids build the executive functioning skills they need for productive adulthood. When we notice that they are actually turning in homework four-fifths of the time when it used to be two-fifths? Well, that’s progress.” Look for ways to celebrate your child’s strengths as they develop, says Saline. “They get up in the morning, they go to school, and they do it over and over and over again. That is a strength. Build on that desire to try. We often look at what the shortfall is. We have to tap into these strengths.” Pay attention to children’s interests and skills — from technology to doodling to drama — and explore ways children can use these interests to strengthen other areas of their life.
If your child has just been diagnosed with ADHD or if you are struggling to help your child manage their life, Saline offers these words of support. First, development is in your child’s favor. “The brain is developing and will continue to develop. Where your child is now is not where they will be in a year. Focus on the now, not on your worries about the five years from now.” Second, your efforts matter. “What kids tell me over and over again is that they wouldn’t get through without their parents. You matter more than you think you do.” Finally, she has seen countless children with ADHD develop into flourishing adults. “When kids are treated properly and given opportunities to learn the skills they need, their life with ADHD can be wonderful.”
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