Melissa Shepard, MD
9 Tips for Parenting with ADHD
There is a lot of advice out there for parenting a child with ADHD. But what do you do when you, the parent, have ADHD?
Parenting is hard enough. When you add ADHD to the mix, everything gets more challenging. Organization, scheduling, time management, stress management, and more are all aspects of parenting that can be made much more difficult by ADHD. And for many of us, ADHD flies under the radar until we have kids. We can make up for our symptoms by sheer force of will. It’s not until we start balancing a busy work schedule and chaotic home life that our symptoms become unmanageable. Thankfully, you can do a lot to manage your symptoms and make parenting with ADHD a little less complicated. Here are some of my favorite tips:
1. Write it down.
And by “it,” I mean ALL of it. Those of us with ADHD need to get used to having a “second brain” that takes the form of a journal, planner, or even just a sticky note or app-based to-do list. It may not seem natural at first but keep trying, and eventually, your second brain will make you more effective. Many great apps exist for this, but some of my favorites are Motion, To-Doist, Asana, and Evernote. And there is nothing wrong with using your notes app or just a good old-fashioned paper and pen or an easy-to-visualize whiteboard (I have a massive whiteboard, and it’s a lifesaver because if I can’t see it, it’s not happening!).
2. Make important things visible.
The need to keep stuff visible doesn’t just stop at scheduling: for many people with ADHD, it’s “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” for even the most critical items.
Parents with ADHD are more likely to forget to actually send the lunchbox to school with their kid, fill out that permission slip or mail that important letter. Consider putting essential objects (or things you know you will need the next day) within your line of sight. Many people with ADHD find it helpful to have a “landing pad” at the front door to keep the important stuff they need the next day. Hall trees can be useful for this, and they can range from simple and inexpensive to larger and more decorative, but something as simple as a well-placed chair or a dedicated spot on the kitchen counter could do the trick.
We all know that exercise is good for us. But if you have ADHD, exercise can be a powerful tool in your toolbox. Exercise can include anything that increases your heart rate (walking, gardening, running, swimming, weightlifting, rock-climbing, the list is infinite!).
Start by adding a small amount of exercise (even just 5 minutes!) to your day and build from there. Many parents deal with a lot of guilt when they engage in self-care activities like exercise. But try to remind yourself that dedicating some time to exercise will make you a better parent and ultimately save you time (by improving your focus and impulsivity) in the long run.
4. Set boundaries.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. They are important for everyone, but even more so for the busy adult with ADHD. For the ADHD brain, it seems like everything is always important. Fortunately, everything is not equally important and we can start reclaiming our lives by taking a hard look at what matters most and building up the boldness to say “no” to what doesn’t. For many of us, the first boundary to go is self-care. But, as noted above, we need to prioritize things like exercise to make parenting with ADHD less painful.
People with ADHD tend to feel emotions deeply and empathize with others. Our sensitivity to emotion can make setting boundaries even more difficult, as we worry excessively about how others may view our boundaries. In reality, boundaries are essential to healthy relationships, and they are often better received than anticipated.
5. Build habits.
When you have ADHD, it can be easy to miss steps, lose track of what you are doing, and get distracted. But this is less likely if you are using a deeply ingrained habit. Decide how to tackle important tasks and stick with your method until it becomes a habit (even if it doesn’t feel natural at first).
For example, if you often lose your keys, decide on a place to keep them and stick with what you choose. Practice putting them in that spot over and over. If you forget, go back and do it as soon as you remember. Soon it will become a habit, and you won’t have to think twice. Check out this post for another tip on how to build effective habits.
6. Learn from others.
If you have a problem with something, chances are someone else has had that same problem and has figured out a way around it. A quick search on Google, Reddit, or the Additude Magazine blog will likely yield more solutions than you know what to do with. At the very least, seeing that other parents struggle with the same thing can make you feel less alone. Some of my favorite creative solutions are things like:
Little Bluetooth trackers (like Tile, or Cube) that attach to your kid’s backpack, your keys, or even slip into your wallet or purse so you can find them easily when they disappear
Light switches and outlets (like WeMo) that you can operate from your phone (so you can make sure you actually turned off your hair straightener before you left)
Purse/backpack organizers (like this one or this one)
A support group for adults with ADHD may also help you find tailored solutions to your problems. CHADD and other similar organizations provide online communities and lists of local support groups. Try connecting with others parents in those groups and asking them what they have done to manage their parenting woes.
7. Outsource (and accept help) whenever you can.
We talked about boundaries already, but an important (and often overlooked) component of boundary setting is knowing when to ask for help. Many parents want to “do it all,” but it can be next to impossible. If you are fortunate enough to have them, having a team of helpers behind you can make a world of difference. This may mean taking people up on their offers to babysit or bring you dinner. Doing so will relieve some pressure and will probably also make the other person feel good. And don’t worry about whether you are inconveniencing people by taking them up on their offers. Remind yourself that others are competent enough to decide what they can and cannot do for you.
If you can afford it, stop white-knuckling chores you hate and hire someone to help you. Outsourcing things like cleaning, grocery shopping, or mowing the lawn may evoke feelings of guilt initially. But hiring someone else to do those chores will free up your time and the mental energy you would typically spend dreading those tasks.
Accepting professional help is also super important. You need to manage your own ADHD in order to manage your life. I know I’m biased, but psychiatrists, therapists, and other mental health providers can be incredibly helpful. There are even specialized coaches for ADHD and executive dysfunction that can point you in the direction of other tools and give you lots of strategies to help with your most common parenting woes.
8. Practice mindfulness.
ADHD is kind of a misnomer. We don’t really have a deficit of attention. We actually pay too much attention (to things that we shouldn’t be attending to at the moment). Mindfulness meditation allows us to practice noticing when our mind has drifted off and repeatedly returning our focus to the present moment. This works a lot like training your physical muscles in the gym: it doesn’t make you stronger right away, but over time your mindfulness muscle will grow, and your ADHD symptoms will improve as a result.
9. Be kind to yourself.
This stuff is really hard. And those of us with ADHD tend to struggle with our self-esteem even when things are going well. We tend to blame and criticize ourselves relentlessly, feeling full of guilt anytime we can’t keep up with this idealized notion of perfect parenting.
It’s understandable. The other moms in the pick-up line look put together (they are thinking the same about you, trust me). Your coworkers seem to be doing a great job (they are overwhelmed too, they just don’t advertise it). We see TV shows, magazines, and social media feeds filled with perfectly coiffed children in meticulously decorated homes and think, “Damn, and I can barely dress myself. I put my underwear on inside out yesterday.” But behind the scenes of these picture-perfect families are often teams of people making it happen, or chaos that’s happening just off-camera, so cut yourself a break. And in your defense, it was probably pretty dark in your bathroom when you put your underwear on inside-out.
But in all seriousness, self-criticism doesn’t help. In fact, it typically makes things worse as we lose even more confidence and spiral into shame. Don’t make things even harder on yourself. Just the fact that you are reading this article tells me that you care, and that is the most important part of being a good parent.
Additional reading and resources:
Articles: When Parent and Child Both Have ADHD by Caroline Miller, Child Mind Institute
Hey, ADHD Parents: Shoot for Progress, not Perfection by Candace Sahm, M.A., Ed/HD
Podcast Episode: “Tips for ADHD Moms,” Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW
Thriving with Adult ADHD: Skills to Strengthen Executive Functioning by Phil Boissiere
Moms With ADD: A Self-Help Manual by Christine Adamec
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