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5 Expert Strategies For Breaking Bad Habits In Kids With ADHD

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elementary age boy smiles at his mom

The start of each school year involves a variety of changes and adjustments. New teachers, new activities, and a whole lot of new experiences.

This means your child may need to develop new habits to set themselves up for success in and out of school. They may also need to unlearn old habit patterns no longer serve them well.

Change is hard, especially for kids with ADHD, who typically find unfamiliar terrain unsettling. So how can you help create new habits that grow in kids with ADHD? 

Why bad habits can be so challenging for kids with ADHD

Habits usually help us lower stress or meet an emotional need. They may serve us when we start them and then cease to be helpful. Part of parenting is helping our children develop good habits and breaking bad ones (or those which have stopped being helpful).

Old habits are tough to break because they are familiar, are easy to do, feel safe, and are connected to beliefs about ourselves. 

Replacing old habits with newer, more useful ones will take patience and time, but it is well worth the effort.

It involves setting a goal, doing it daily (no matter how small), and setting up effective incentives to encourage your child to keep it.

Shifting to and maintaining, healthy habits will help your child keep up with schoolwork, fulfill family responsibilities, and manage their overall health. For example, if your ADHD child fell into a summer pattern of late-night gaming, it’s time to switch to a more constructive routine.

Replace the old gaming habit with a new one that involves earlier bedtime and less screen time to ensure your child gets plenty of rest and can better focus on schoolwork.

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The change process relies on both you and your child having a growth mindset.

A growth mindset establishes that being human means living and learning: you will make mistakes, and instead of criticizing yourself or your kids for their fumbles, you pause, regroup and tweak what you are doing.

It’s this capacity to pivot that encourages us to keep going and keep growing. Use strength-based thinking, incentives, and routines instead of punishment and ‘because I said so reasoning. 

Habits take time and practice, especially if we try to undo something familiar — even if it’s not working. And forming new habits is a team effort — you and your child need to do the work.

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5 strategies for breaking old habits when you child had ADHD (and forming new, healthy ones)

The goal of forming a new habit is to teach your child lifelong skills while being more efficient and effective in the tasks of daily living.

Most people can only change one thing at a time. If you could brainstorm two habits your child wants to change, what would they be? Sit and brainstorm two habits that your child wants to change and two that you want. Then pick the overlapping one to work on first.

1. Manage yourself first.

Before you can help your child, you need to set yourself up for success. That means finding ways to manage your stress, staying focused, and, most importantly, treating yourself with compassion.

Use the 5 C’s of ADHD parenting to keep yourself grounded throughout the process. 

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2. Set goals with your child.

When you take a collaborative approach to problem-solving, you increase your child’s cooperation. Explain to your child why building healthy habits and routines is important to THEM, and ask them for their thoughts and suggestions.

Use “We” instead of “You” when discussing habits to emphasize that you and your child are on the same team and working toward the same goal.

Find a way to frame the need for habit-building to benefit your child. “Preparing your backpack and clothes the night before means you are less likely to forget something or waste time looking for it when it’s time to leave the house.

3. Create simple, specific routines.

To create new habits, you’ll need to set up specific, age-appropriate routines that your child is capable of managing. Habits are built from cues, behaviors, and the repetition of these behaviors until the routine becomes second nature.

For example, you can use a specific song as a cue for a young child who needs to get in the habit of brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, and tidying up before bed.

Older kids could use reminders, lists, or alarms to signal the start of homework time. Make things as specific as possible, so there are no assumptions or surprises. And don’t overcomplicate things. Start small and simple, and build on it.

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4. Use incentives instead of punishments.

The carrot is more effective than the stick, especially for ADHD kids and teens. Punishments will only create bad feelings and drive a wedge between you and your child.

Effective and meaningful incentives offer motivation and encouragement for your child to make good choices. They can earn extra screen time by completing homework first.

Or they can hang out with their friends during the weekend once chores have been completed. Avoid lecturing your child – kids have a talent for tuning out their parents. Have frank conversations and ask your kids to problem-solve.

Give them a chance to take responsibility, and support them as they learn.

5. Plan for pushback and adjustments.

Your child may be willing to take on a new routine at first but may not stick with it. Or, it may just not work in practice.

Plan for habit-building success by anticipating some amount of pushback and having alternative options at the ready. Chances are it’ll take some trial and error before you and your child find a routine that works. But even incremental successes are worth celebrating. Be generous with your praise and celebrate what’s working.

Remember, helping your ADHD child create new habits will take time. There will be pushback. It will try your patience.

Even when frustration mounts, remind yourself that instilling good habits in your child will help them grow and guide them for many years.

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Dr. Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is an international lecturer and workshop facilitator and has focused her work on ADHD, anxiety, learning differences and mental health challenges and their impact on school and family dynamics for more than 30 years. 

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This article was originally published at Dr. Sharon Saline's website. Reprinted with permission from the author.