Skills to help children with ADHD thrive

Skills to help children with ADHD thrive

By Meghan Burns 

As an adolescent therapist, parents are often seeking my services to help their children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder – more commonly known as ADHD – or executive functioning difficulties, including decision making, problem solving, planning and/or regulation of emotions and impulses. 

Children with ADHD experience life differently than others and often require more understanding, structure and guidance to help them to be successful and to feel confident. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, children and adolescents are collectively experiencing more delays in academic, executive functioning, emotional and social skills. 

The period between fifth and eighth grade is a developmental period of significant change: puberty, socialization and increased academic demands. Albeit a vulnerable period, it is also an excellent opportunity for adolescents to learn and practice the skills that will help them be successful then and in the long-term. Environmental factors, such as parenting support, can play a pivotal role in helping children improve these adaptive life skills. 

Here are my top three tips for parents to help their children and adolescents. 

Use a reward system 

Reward systems are extremely effective at helping promote desired behavior. Because ADHD brains are typically understimulated, they need excitement and rewards to engage with behaviors or everyday tasks that may be difficult or boring for them. 

While reward systems are often associated with younger children, e.g. a sticker system, they are an incredibly useful tool when implemented the correct way. The most effective systems are those built around rewards that are identified by the children, not the parents. Parents frequently make this mistake and are quick to dismiss the system as being ineffective. 

To better assess what rewards are motivating to your child, consider asking: What would you do on a day off from school with no homework? If you could make a list of three things that make you happy, what would they be? 

The overall goal of a reward system is to motivate rather than punish. Adolescents are still developing self-regulation skills, and systems like this help increase motivation and effectiveness on their own. 

Break goals into small steps 

When children with ADHD have difficulty with motivation, planning and organizing large tasks, they often experience frustration and are overwhelmed. I find one of the most effective tools is to break big tasks into smaller, action-oriented steps. 

Planning and following through on a task are often the biggest hurdles, so setting reasonable and manageable goals allows children to achieve success more easily, which leads to a positive feeling of well-being. One simple technique is called the three step planning method: name the goal, name three steps to reach this goal and break down those three steps again into smaller steps, until all steps are written out. 

Be a good role model 

Adolescents and teens have been referencing parents and guardians consciously and unconsciously over their childhood on how to regulate emotions, to make decisions and how to deal with adversity or difficult moments in life. When appropriate, it can be incredibly powerful to let your children authentically see how you manage life’s stressors. Observing you sets the stage for them to learn how to do it themselves, with your guidance. 

Adolescents with ADHD often need more coaching to manage strong emotions such as frustration. One helpful technique is the stop light technique, which uses a color system to help both children and parents become aware of their emotions and to identify what they need in the moment for self-regulation. 

When experiencing strong emotions, ask yourself or your child, what color are you? Yellow may signal rising emotions and the need to pause and move forward cautiously. Red might mean the conversation needs to stop for now and an active coping skill is needed to help regulate emotion. Both you and your child should develop the color system together and practice it, so it can be easily accessed when strong emotion emerges. 

The more experienced parents are at regulating their own emotions, the better teachers they can be for their children. It is also normal for both parties to be refining their skills simultaneously. 

All in all, while children may be experiencing more executive functioning difficulties, the good news is that with the right support, structure and skill building, parents can help their children learn to navigate their changing world with more confidence. 

Helpful websites for parenting techniques include, and If you find that you need more support, consider reaching out for individualized parent coaching for ADHD or executive functioning skills group at Del Ray Psych & Wellness or one of the other local practices in Alexandria. 

The writer is a child and adolescent therapist at Del Ray Psych & Wellness.