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How to support a child with ADHD (and look after yourself too)

It’s estimated that ADHD impacts 5% of Australian children. Understanding ADHD – and the treatment of ADHD – is essential to support your child.

While there’s still uncertainty around the exact cause of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), what we do know is that there’s a strong genetic link. Which means that children are more likely to show symptoms if someone in their family has also been diagnosed with the disorder.

ADHD impacts around 1 million people across Australia – in fact, the latest statistics show that 1 in 20 children have ADHD, the disorder being more common in boys than girls.

What is ADHD?

Associate Professor Melanie Porter, from the School of Psychological Sciences at Macquarie University, has spent her career researching learning disorders; cognitive, behavioural and mental health disorders; and the relationships between parents and their kids, among other topics.

“ADHD is a medical condition. A person with ADHD has differences in brain development and brain activity that affects attention, the ability to sit still and self-control,” Assoc Prof Porter says. “All kids daydream and have trouble paying attention from time to time. But for children with ADHD, the struggles are harder, and happen more often.”

ADHD can begin in childhood, and last through to adulthood, Assoc Prof Porter says.

Treatment of ADHD and how to support your child

“There are a lot of scientific studies looking at the various types of interventions available for children diagnosed with ADHD,” says Assoc Prof Porter. “The main 2 are behavioural intervention, and pharmacological intervention.

“Behavioural intervention means looking at how you can manage certain behaviours that children with ADHD display, through lifestyle changes, exercise and diet, among other things. Pharmacological intervention relates to finding suitable medication for your child.”

Assoc Prof Porter says it’s essential for parents to understand the symptoms of ADHD, so they’re better prepared to manage them with their child at home. “For example, many children with ADHD have an impaired reward system in the brain – they need big rewards to motivate them to do things. They also tend to think in the ‘here and now’, and don’t consider how their actions will impact them or others in the future.

“If you understand what ADHD is as a parent, and how it impacts your child, then you’re in the best position to change your own behaviour, to help them regulate theirs. This is behavioural intervention; reinforcing and strengthening positive actions and eliminating unwanted ones.”

Assoc Prof Porter suggests parents of children with ADHD set up a model for home life.

  • Set structured and informed routines. “Children with ADHD don’t tend to like uncertainty or chaos,” she says, which means managing distractions. “Some research shows that using phone alarms is a good way to set structures around homework, mealtimes and downtime. Using visual cues to help children get ready in the morning and avoid distraction, which they are prone to, can also help immensely. That might be a flowchart or a checklist – simple, yet highly effective.”
  • Allow for quiet time, space and rest. “School and just being a kid takes a lot out of children with ADHD. They tend to need more downtime as a result, to refuel. They need simple things like having a rest before homework – they can’t do as much as other children.” This also includes ensuring children with ADHD get the recommended amount of sleep a night, based on age.
  • Have rewards around goals that are realistic.
  • Develop healthy eating habits.
  • Participate in daily physical activity.
  • Limit screen time. Assoc Prof Porter says, “perhaps include screen time as that big reward, and link it to a task. So for every hour of homework completed, there’s an hour of TV allowed.”
  • Limit choices, so your child doesn’t feel overwhelmed or overstimulated.
  • Create positive opportunities. Identify the areas where your child excels (and the areas they have a passion for) and encourage them to focus on developing skills in this area, whether it's music, maths or something else.

Working with ADHD professionals

Children with ADHD not only behave, but also learn, in different ways to other kids. “They tend to be much more hands on, and need lots of rest,” says Assoc Prof Porter. So it’s important for parents of children with ADHD to form close relationships with support professionals, like teachers and psychologists.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even when things are going well you should be seeking psychological intervention. Anxiety and depression are often hallmarks of ADHD, and this can impact the whole family – including children who don’t have ADHD, who might feel like they’re being left out. Just 10 minutes of one-on-one time with other family members or a support person a day can do wonders and make everyone feel like they’re included and appreciated,” says Assoc Prof Porter.

She notes that working with psychologists is not just for the benefit of children with ADHD. “Mental health can become a major issue among parents caring for a child with a developmental disorder, particularly ADHD as it’s often a lifelong issue. It’s essential for parents to maintain their mental clarity and energy.”

Supporting yourself

Being a parent to a child with ADHD can be exhausting, says Assoc Prof Porter. “ADHD is like a hidden disability – parents often cop the blame from a society that says, ‘You’re not disciplining your child enough.’ It’s important for parents to take time out and practise self-care.

“This is different for everyone. It might be a coffee with friends, a manicure, or date night with your partner. The latter is particularly important, as looking after a child with ADHD can put a strain on relationships. Parents often report feeling guilty about doing things for themselves or with other children in the family that don’t have ADHD. But it’s important to really nurture those relationships as well.

“If you’re not looking after yourself, you can’t properly look after your child,” she adds.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

AUTHOR: Natasha Dragun
First published May 2022

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