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A parent's guide to helping a child with ADHD
Has your child been diagnosed with ADHD? Here are some tips for helping them thrive.
Finding out your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be tough to hear. You may have a swirl of emotions. You might be glad to finally have some answers. You might be worried, too. Will they need medicine? Will they be successful? Will they be happy?
ADHD is a brain condition that affects a child’s behavior. It may make it harder for them to sit still, focus and pay attention.1 You may want to do everything you can to help. After all, ADHD can affect every part of your child’s life. This can include their physical and emotional health. It also can include schoolwork and friendships.
First, take a deep breath. “ADHD is very common,” says William Horgan, DO. He’s a pediatrician with Reliant Medical Group, part of Optum Care, in Milford, Massachusetts. “It doesn’t mean a child will be on medicines for life. Their lack of focus can make life difficult for parents. But they can be very creative, too. Mostly, they’re just like other kids.”
Your doctor will help you come up with a care plan to support your child’s needs. Here are four simple steps you can take that may help your child with ADHD.
Step 1: Learn about ADHD
There are about 6 million children with ADHD. That’s about 3 out of every 10 kids in the United States.2 When a child has ADHD, their brain works a little bit differently. They might have trouble paying attention. (That’s the “attention deficit” part of ADHD.) Or they might have a hard time sitting still (that’s the “hyperactivity” part). Or they might have both.
It’s normal for kids to have trouble focusing. Or sometimes they have too much energy. Common behavior problems for kids with ADHD include:3
- Talking too much
- Having a hard time taking turns
- Doing things that are dangerous, such as jumping from the top of a jungle gym
- Fidgeting or squirming
- Having a hard time getting along with other kids
- Forgetting things or losing things
Doctors aren’t sure exactly why kids get ADHD. Current research shows there might be a genetic component. That means it seems to run in families. It’s also connected to chemicals in the brain, says Dr. Horgan.
It’s important to find out all you can about ADHD. That can help you take positive steps to support your child. Ask your child’s pediatrician for resources, and read more from other medically reviewed resources online. A few good places to start:
Step 2: Put together a care team
Taking a team approach can help a child with ADHD do their best. Schools, families and health care professionals working together is key.4
Your child can benefit from a group of caring adults who look out for them. According to the CDC, more than 6 out of 10 kids with ADHD struggle with mental, emotional or behavioral concerns like anxiety or behavior problems. With a team in place, you can spot problems early since symptoms may show up in different areas of their life. Your child's care team may include:
- You. As a parent or guardian, you’re the one who knows your child better than anyone else.
- Your child. Even young children can be part of their own care team, says Dr. Horgan. They can let you know if a medicine is bothering them. And they can tell you how they’re feeling at school or during sports or other activities. When you talk to your child about ADHD, help them focus on the positives rather than the negatives.
- Your child’s doctor. That could be either a family doctor or your child’s pediatrician. They may have been the one who figured out your child has it. They’re in charge of your child’s medicines and overall health.
- School personnel. Stay in touch with everyone your child works with at school. This includes teachers, guidance counselors, and principals. They’ll see how your child is getting along all day. Plus, they can find ways to meet your child’s needs at school. And they can teach them useful skills, like how to get organized. Don’t forget the school nurse, who may help oversee your child’s medicines during the school day.
- Coaches. If your child plays sports, they may have trouble following instructions or getting along with teammates. It’s important to work with coaches. And don’t forget to keep music, dance and gymnastics teachers in the loop, too.
- Your child’s therapist. Even if your child doesn’t have issues such as anxiety or depression, a mental health professional may help. This might include a child psychologist, child psychiatrist or developmental pediatrician, according to the CDC.3 Try to find someone who works with children who have ADHD. They can teach your child how to improve their social skills and manage their emotions.
These caring team members can support your child and help them understand that ADHD isn’t a disability. It’s another way of being a kid. Together, you and your team can let your child focus on their unique and beautiful strengths.
Step 3. Help your child form new habits or routines
Creating structure in their day can help with your child’s behavior. Knowing what to expect and when can help. You can make lists of what they need to do each morning, afternoon and evening. Keep them short and post them on the fridge. Younger kids may enjoy helping you make the list.
Healthy eating habits are important, too. Feeding your child lots of fruits and vegetables can help them eat healthier. And so can plenty of exercise. Make sure they have lots of time to play and release their energy.
One of the best habits is a better sleep schedule, says Dr. Horgan. “Make sure your child is getting enough sleep,” he advises. School-age kids should get nine to ten hours a night. “And limit their screen time, especially before bed.” Better sleep can mean fewer problems with ADHD.
Step 4. Think about medicines
Taking medicines won’t cure ADHD, Dr. Horgan explains. But if therapy or lifestyle changes aren’t working, your doctor may discuss medicine as an option. It can help your child better handle their ADHD. The medication works by boosting levels of a brain chemical that helps them pay attention.5
There are two different types of ADHD medicines:
Stimulants. These medications act fast. As many as eight out of ten children do better with this kind of medicine. Some examples of stimulant ADHD medicines are:
Nonstimulants. These take a little longer to kick in. But they can keep working for up to 24 hours. That can make them a good choice for kids who don’t want to visit the school nurse during class. Some examples of nonstimulants include:
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If your child’s doctor thinks ADHD medicines are right for your child, they may try different ones until they find what works best. Your doctor will look out for side effects like sleep problems or tummy troubles. They may also talk with you about how long your child may need to take medication. For some kids, it may be temporary. For others, it may be longer-term. Every child is different.
That’s why it’s important to go to all the follow-up visits. And remember: Medicines can work well, but they’re just one piece of the puzzle.
Most important, be sure to let your child know that you love and support them. After all, millions of adults had ADHD when they were young, too. As your child grows, you might find that little by little their behaviors are improving. The strategies they learn now may help them have a childhood that’s even happier. Plus, you’ll enjoy watching them grow into adults who are confident, creative and healthy.
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- American Academy of Pediatrics. Understanding ADHD: Information for parents. Last updated September 25, 2019. Accessed February 24, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data and statistics about ADHD. Last reviewed August 9, 2022. Accessed February 17, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is ADHD? Last reviewed August 9, 2022. Accessed February 28, 2023.
- Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. A team-based collaborative care model for youth with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in education and health care settings. Published August 27, 2020.
- National Institute of Mental Health. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Last reviewed September 2022. Accessed March 24, 2023.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Common ADHD medications and treatments for children. Last updated October 20, 2022. Accessed March 24, 2023.
- MedlinePlus. Viloxazine. Last revised May 15, 2021. Accessed March 24, 2023.
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