To a typically developing kid, 31 flavors of ice cream is a dream come true. So many yummy choices! Which to pick — bubblegum, mint chocolate chip, or rocky road? More flavors = more fun!
But to my child, growing up with ADHD, 31 flavors to choose from is a problem. Too many options can cause “analysis paralysis” in some kids with ADHD (though certainly not all), turning a relatively simple decision — for example, what toy to choose from a treasure box of prizes — into something agonizingly hard and slow.
1. So many choices, so little time …
When it came time for my son to start first grade, I realized that he was never going to be able to buy the school lunch because of choices. Hot lunch? Cheese sandwich? Turkey sandwich? Or yogurt and string cheese?
Moreover, he would have to decide first thing in the morning, so his teacher could notify the kitchen how many meals of each kind to prepare. In my mind, I pictured him hemming and hawing forever, while the teacher waited for him to make up his mind, and then possibly having a meltdown at lunch because he wanted to change his mind but couldn’t.
Right then and there, I decided he would take a packed lunch to school every day to spare his teachers the dilemma of waiting for his lunch decision. Instead, I would offer him a very limited number of choices: Apple or grapes? Fish crackers or granola bar? Frustrated child and teacher disaster prevented.
While research indicates that many children with ADHD make decisions more quickly — and without sufficiently weighing the options, which results in lower-quality outcomes — my son has great difficulty with the actual decision process. Forget 31 flavors. We are much better off with 3!
2. Out of sight, out of mind. And in sight, out of mind too.
Psychologists talk about the great cognitive advance that a baby who develops “object permanence” achieves — the understanding that when an object leaves the baby’s view, the object still exists. Some children with ADHD like my son exhibit an interesting kind of object permanence.
They know that things still exist when they don’t see them. They just have no idea where those things might be. Or they don’t think about having an object when it might be needed. This leads to endless conversations around lost belongings (“Where is your planner?” “I have no idea.” “Did you look for it?” “No.”) and lots of time spent looking for missing things.
In the fifth grade, after five years of bringing his lunch to school every day (see #1), my son would forget his lunchbox in the classroom about three days a week. Any parent of a grade schooler knows that plenty of things get left behind by all children (just take a glance at any school’s overflowing lost and found). But for some kids with ADHD, what isn’t seen isn’t remembered.
And even when something is in plain sight, it may not “register” in the conscious thoughts of a child with ADHD. My son has a habit of dropping his sweatshirt jacket on the floor near his desk, then stepping over, on, and around it for days without being in the least aware that it is his sweatshirt jacket on the floor and in the way. Then there are the wrappers from granola bars, empty juice boxes, pieces of paper, etc., that he seems completely oblivious to once they leave his hand.
As his parent, I know he has object permanence, so it can be confusing to see the forgotten scraps pile up around his living space, seemingly without his awareness. I am beginning to think that this way of viewing the world is related to #3 because it involves low interest, some importance, and some effort.
3. Low interest + importance + effort = it’s not happening
Everyone does some kind of mental calculation when faced with a task that needs to be done: They weigh the interest and importance of the task with the effort required to do the task, and then respond accordingly. When a task is important but requires some effort (for example, showering regularly), most people will recognize the importance outweighs the effort required and thus complete the task.
But things calculate a bit differently for my son.
If the task is low interest, (somewhat) important, and requires some effort (for example, putting clean clothes away and not throwing them on the floor), I can just about guarantee that the task won’t be completed. No matter how many times I point out how much more difficult my son is making his life by not putting things where they belong (clean clothes in drawers, dirty clothes in hamper), he doesn’t quite seem to grasp the point.
The equation of
[low interest + some importance + some effort = easier life]
doesn’t seem to compute for him. Instead, what I see most often is
[low interest + some importance + very grudging effort = task sort of or mostly completed]
I’ve learned over the years that using a high-interest activity as an incentive to complete a low-interest activity is often a successful way to get the low-interest things done.
4. Time is all relative
Some youngsters with ADHD have significant struggles with the concept of time. When I ask my son to do something that he perceives to require a lot of effort, such as vacuum the carpet, his reaction is, “That’s going to take FOREVER!!”
However, when he is engaged in an enjoyable activity, such as playing a video game, and is told it’s time to stop, he will exclaim, “But I’ve hardly played at all!!”
In reality, the amount of time spent vacuuming might only have been 10 minutes vs. 60 minutes for the video game, but his perception is skewed. As a result, I’ve become a huge fan of timers and clocks to help my son appraise time more realistically. It’s an important life skill for those with ADHD to develop … and all of us, for that matter. We all have the ability to lose track of the minutes when we’re doing something we enjoy!
The bottom line
Raising kids with ADHD can be challenging because of their different way of processing the world, but learning about the way they think and are wired has helped me become a better parent. It’s always a joy to see my son’s creativity and energy. Now, if only he could find a creative way to keep track of his lunchbox …