Summer and ADHD: A Survival Guide
School's out, but children still need support and structure to thrive during the coronavirus crisis
There’s never been a summer vacation like this one. With school finally ending, there’s uncertainty around everything from vacations (Is it safe to go?) to camp (Is it happening?) to just going to the park (Don’t forget your mask!).
After the stress and exhaustion of the past few months it’s tempting to imagine the coming summer stretching out, plan-less, letting kids go unscheduled, unmanaged, running on Fortnite and ice cream.
But for kids with ADHD — and their parents — the combination of long summer days and lack of structure can turn would-be relaxation into chaos and frustration. Here are some suggestions to help kids with ADHD have a fun, safe, relaxing break.
Don’t ditch the schedule, but be reasonable
Of course summer is a time for everyone to chill, but kids, especially kids with ADHD, benefit hugely from keeping some form of schedule — something that’s even more important now that many organized activities like sports or camps are on hiatus.
A summer schedule will make it easier for kids with ADHD to stay organized, help them manage transitions without melting down and make it less difficult to get back into the school routine (no matter what that might look like) when fall comes. Some things to try include:
- Choose a bedtime — and a wake-up time — and be consistent. A regular sleep schedule will help kids wind down at the end of the day and make mornings calmer.
- Eat meals at regular times — even if you’re having a picnic. Consistent mealtimes (and healthy snacking) will prevent hunger meltdowns and help even the laziest of days feel more structured.
- Come up with a “lite” schedule of safe activities your family can do at regular times during the week. For example: On Monday everyone goes for a bike ride, Tuesdays are movie nights, etc. Kids with ADHD thrive when they know what to expect, and often fall apart when they don’t. Even the simplest schedule can help everyone stay on track and feel less stressed.
- Give kids clear, straightforward jobs to do at regular times. For example, setting the table before dinner, taking out the trash and recycling once a week or walking the dog in the morning and evening.
Set summer goals
Setting achievable goals will encourage kids to stay motivated, and it can help them feel a sense of accomplishment — something many are missing after a fractured, frustrating end to school.
Working towards a goal will also give your child a chance to work on their executive functioning skills and practice self-regulation, two things that children with ADHD often struggle with.
Some ideas for great summer goals could be:
- Working on skills they don’t have time for during the school year, like cooking new recipes, learning to play a whole song on the guitar or reading all the Wimpy Kid books
- Keeping a daily diary or a scrapbook to help remember this wild time in our history
- Planting and tending to seeds in the garden or a window box
- Making progress on behavioral issues they’ve been working on: following directions the first time they’re asked, not interrupting people when they’re talking or putting their shoes in the same place every day.
Remember, goals aren’t just about the end result. Give frequent praise and offer lots of positive reinforcement, especially when kids work through setbacks without giving up.
Kids with ADHD often have a hard time with delayed gratification, so a big reward at the end of summer might not be the best incentive. Instead, offer small incentives for short-term progress, like getting to pick their favorite takeout for dinner at the end of the week or an extra hour of screen time. Then you can plan a big end-of-summer treat, like a new bike, as a reward for sticking with it.
Set them up for success
Summer is a great time for kids with ADHD to try new things — learning how to swim, how to ride a bike without training wheels, how to read music — you name it. But new experiences mean new stimuli and new rules without a lot of time to adapt. No matter what’s on the agenda, preparing your child beforehand will help them have a better, safer time.
- Help kids prepare for new activities by sitting down together and going over what’s going to happen beforehand. For example, if you’re planning to teach your child to swim you could say: “Tomorrow morning we’re going to put on our bathing suits, get in the car and go to the lake. When we get there, we’ll start by practicing floating, then we’ll try the doggie paddle!” Helping them visualize the day will ease transitions, reduce anxiety and give them a chance to ask questions they might have.
- Pay special attention to potentially difficult transitions especially now that they may require donning masks, or abruptly ending an activity your child was enjoying if, for example, the park gets too full— and make a plan for how they’ll handle them: “I know we’re both really excited about the beach. I just want to make sure you understand that when we get out of the car we’ll have to put our masks on and there’s a chance we might have to leave early if it gets crowded.”
- Go over the rules — especially new rules about safety precautions kids might not be used to hearing. Making sure kids know what’s expected beforehand and giving them a chance to talk over any questions they may have will help new rules sink in. For example: “During your playdate in Tom’s yard today remember you both have to keep your masks on the whole time.”
- Kids with ADHD are forgetful and impulsive. When your child does begin to visit friends again, let the adults in charge know what areas your child might need a little extra help in to stay on track— like being reminded to keep their distance or remembering to wash their hands.
Doubles and reminders
Kids with ADHD are prone to losing things, especially items they’re not used to carrying like masks and hand sanitizer, or summer essentials like sunblock.
Avert disaster by packing back-ups of important items. For example, if your child is planning a socially distant trip to the beach, put two tubes of sunblock, an extra mask (in case one blows away!) and a hat in their beach bag.
Unfortunately, when kids are on their own it won’t matter how many back-ups they have if they forget to use them. Some ways to help them remember:
- Talk it through before they go and tie action to experience: “Okay, so let’s agree that every time you get out of the water you’ll put sunblock on.”
- Discuss safety precautions and make sure your child understands why they’re important. For example, “I know wearing a mask doesn’t feel great but it means that you and your friend can play.”
- Pre-set phone reminders. Make sure they repeat in case your child misses the first (or second, or third) one — and that the volume is loud enough to be heard over outside noises.
Take a break
Finally, remember that for kids with ADHD, school can be a major source of stress and pressure. This past school year was challenging for everyone, but kids with ADHD, many of whom lost vital school supports when classes went remote, may have had an especially troubling and often demoralizing time.
Summer vacation should be active, but it should also be a time when your child can take a real break, and participate in activities that make them feel competent and happy. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s okay for kids to sit on the couch playing video games 24/7 — but it does mean they should have dedicated time to just play and have fun and process what’s happened over the past few months.
Giving your child chances to succeed — and relax — will build self-esteem and help everyone in the family have a better, calmer break.