Updated: Oct 3
Shifting expectations, switching tasks, revising plans, and adjusting to new people comes with added difficulty for children and teens with ADHD. Here's how to handle it like a pro.
"You're making no sense. You promised me I could take the car, and now you're saying I'm not allowed to drive it just because I came home a HALF HOUR late!"
Shifting tasks, here's why it's hard
This scenario can play out with any teen, but with ADHD teens, it's more common due to
difficulties with “shifting.” Shifting is a hot executive function. It’s the ability to think flexibly, see things in different ways and revise plans when needed.
Hot executive functions take place at the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and in teens and children with ADHD, that part of the brain is often wired differently and slower to develop. The result? Instead of “rolling with the punches,” your child may have above-average difficulty with:
Change of plans without warning or preparation
Accepting solutions that others offer, they prefer their own way of solving problems
Adapting to new people, places, and situations
Let's reduce the berserk:
To introduce greater flexibility, we recommend increasing situational predictability. Here's how:
Increase situational predictability.
Create a situation where your child feels comfortable with the rules and knows what to expect. This will increase your child's feeling of predictability and reduce their need to shift. With teens, this may involve advanced mapping out their freedoms and reducing guesswork. For example, "You can stay out till 9 pm during the week unless you have a test the next day." Or "You can borrow the car while I'm at work, but only for school-related errands. If you’d like to use the car to go out with friends, you need to check in with me first”.
Laying out a very clear framework of the rules, and their exceptions, will help your teen make their own decisions within the system you've provided. You’ll also gently teach them the principles of responsible decision-making.
Sometimes a change in pattern can’t be avoided. And then the question becomes, how can you gently help your child “shift”? We recommend staging a dress rehearsal of the anxiety-provoking event. Here's what it looks like.
Design dress rehearsals.
Your six-year-old daughter is used to a set schedule of 3 pm pickup from school, followed by an afternoon activity, dinner, bath, and bed. But this week, there's a party and it's making her anxious!
To ease emotional stress, we recommend gently going over what to expect. Start by prepping her for the change in schedule “Remember, this Thursday, Daddy is going to pick you up and take you to Lara’s house for her birthday party.” Then prep your child on what to expect “There will be a clown there. There’s yummy pizza for dinner and probably ice cream cake for dessert”. Discuss together how to manage possible hurdles “If you're thirsty, you can always ask Lara’s mom for a glass of water or juice. If you need the bathroom, don't be embarrassed to ask where it is.”
Shifting, like any of the executive functions, can be taught. As time goes on and your child gains mastery of new skills, the old issues should fizzle out. But as a parent, it's important to remember that your child needs support in that area. The trick to overcoming it is patience, wisdom, guidance, and love.
Shifting plans or adjusting to situational changes is hard for children and teens with ADHD.
Creating situational predictability by establishing set rules and routines can help reduce the need for shifting and ease frustrations.
‘Dress rehearsing’ changes in schedule that cause anxiety can help reduce your child's tension.
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